Comfortably Numb

Sheila Kumar's Storehouse

Published on: 07/8/20 8:50 AM

Feature: Shailaja Padindala, profiled


Shailaja Padindala, founder of Mustache Under My Nose Ring, speaks on non-binary dressing and her new, dark comedy on queer expression in a heteronormative world.

“The beauty of some women lies in their unacknowledged mustache,” Padindala tells me earneslty.

Sitting across me at a table in the canteen of the Karnataka Chitrakala Parishath in Bengaluru, Padindala  is thrumming with barely suppressed energy. The filmmaker is putting finishing touches to Naanu Ladies (I am Ladies in Kannada) which she has written, is co-producing, directing, and starring in. It is scheduled for release early next year.

Slight of frame, Padindala is dressed in a manner that offsets her nervous energy, in dark jeans and a sombre black jacket. She is in her early thirties but looks years younger, her hair short and sharply layered, her eyes bright and smile infectious.

“What do clothes mean to you?” I ask.

“I wear my clothes, I don’t let them wear me,” she begins, then tells me of a time some years ago, when she was overweight, had adopted a flagrantly butch style and thought she was the cat`s whiskers. That was a time to be angsty, rambunctious and yes, vulnerable. Now caprice seems to have given way to comfort.

Elaborating on the topic, she says, “Being queer, I naturally had a non-binary approach to my fashion expression where my sexuality played a vital part in its representation and through the years, that has underpinned my appearance. My personality, one that is driven by freedom in self- expression, dictates my style choices.”

Padindala continues, “With those style choices, I attempt at normalizing queer expression of fashion, which will create an all-inclusive platform irrespective of gender or class. Fashion to me is a tool to express my sexuality, gender, class and political ideas.

“I am comfortable in my skin, I’m not very keen on ‘dressing up’ all the time, I like my shorts and T-shirt, my lungi and baniyan (vest). However, if I must attend a traditional gathering where fashion follows restricted gender norms that adheres to a patriarchal, heteronormative worldview, then I express myself and my ideas through what I wear and how I wear it. Sexuality is a core ingredient that defines a personality and clothing is definitely a means to represent that core ingredient of self for the other, through fashion,” she concludes.

Filmmaker, actor Shailaja Padindala

“That goes for the binary lot too” I venture and she laughs. “Yes, look how they’ve given Sophia (the robot) breasts! It`s all about conditioning, about heteronormative codes, and that’s hard to bring down, unpack, dismantle. But change is definitely coming, so we`ll just have to accept that, accommodate that.”

I notice that Padindala uses the word `heteronormative’ a lot but entirely without rancour. Almost on cue, she says, “I have never seen myself as a victim of my ‘past’ but my sexuality did outline my fashion, which was way different from the heteronormative world. My past experiences have definitely made life far more interesting to live, dress, work and articulate myself through words and fashion.”

Shailaja Padindala wears many hats, and with ease. She graduated with a Bachelor’s degree in Visual Arts from the Karnataka Chitrakala Parishath and did her post-graduation diploma in cinema at the LV Prasad Film and TV Academy in Chennai. After that, stints as television producer writer, journalist, sculptor, painter, art teacher, professional photographer and film director followed.

Shailaja Padindala, founder, Mustache Under My Nose Ring.

Padindala`s initiative Mustache Under My Nose Ring, funded by Apala Lahiri Chavan, CEO of Human Factors International, is an attempt to create inclusive non-binary fashion, design and beauty, to break stereotypes of how beauty is defined and expand expectations that are set for women and men.

She made a ten-minute short titled Memories of a Machine three years ago, which released to some amount of applause, mainly abroad, and some amount of disapprobation within the country. Despite the sharply binary reaction to the film, it won in the Best Film category at festivals in Italy, Seattle and at the Bengaluru International Film Festival.

It was originally to be a full-length feature film, Padindala tells me, only she couldn’t manage funding and so instead it became a short, where a young newly-married woman, played by Malayalam actor Kani Kusruti, reminisces about her first sexual encounter to  a listening, camera-wielding, out-of-frame husband.

All very well, except that the incident she recalls took place when the character was eight years old, and with the school peon. `Peon uncle,’ the woman in the clip refers to the man, and there you have it: the memory of an early sexual instinct remembered entirely sans guilt, shame, recrimination or anger.

Were you being an agent provocateur, I ask Padindala and she grins. “No,” she assures me. “I was not. It`s just that this particular character looks back on her first introduction to the sexual act with a clear-eyed gaze. For me, sexuality is always about pleasure, only then is it filtered with guilt and morality.”

A still from ‘Naanu Ladies.’

Her upcoming venture, Naanu Ladies, is a dark comedy, a family drama focusing on queer expression amid a heteronormative fashion world and family. It uses the story of a young couple who want to set up house together in Bangalore and the travails they experience, some external, some of their own making.

Before you ask, the couple consists of two women. She then flashes her trademark grin and continues, “I have spent a lot of time confirming to those who had questions about my gender and fashion, that I am a girl. This need to explain oneself, convince others of what I am, can be very irritating. Naanu Ladies is my way of answering that question.”

Given that Padindala favours guerrilla filmmaking and aims to make films that train the klieg lights on strong women characters and sexuality, it comes as no surprise that this film was made by an all-women crew. That was deliberate, avers Padindala. “When there are men about, an element of voyeurism enters the scene,“she says.” Especially given the storyline of Naanu Ladies.

Today, she seems to be living in a space where there is no conscious hat tip to being non-binary. It`s just the way she is. The attire, the attitude, doesn’t shout any longer; it makes a quiet confident statement, instead.

As we wind down our conversation, she shows me clips from Naanu Ladies; my eyes widen at the rolling end credits shot, where she swaggers through a crowded marketplace in banana yellow pants, not quite your average heteronormative, an insouciant smile on her face. People around are standing stock still, goggling.

But Shailaja Padindala doesn’t give a damn. Because this is the person who said, “I believe that the beauty of some women lies in their unacknowledged mustache.“

This appeared in THE VOICE OF FASHION of 13 Dec 2019.

Links to other TVOF stories:

Profile of a Malayali Nurse – Sr. Florrie (Nightingale) Thomas

Humour: The South Indian Sari Blouse

Feature: The Kanjeevaram Sari

Feature: Down with brown!

Feature: The thorth turns haute!

Feature: Is comfortwear all about slouchy elegance?

Feature: If She`s Malayali, She Loves Gold!

Mustache under my noseringNaanu Ladiesnon-binary fashion stylequeer expressionShailaja PadindalaThe Voice of Fashion

Sheila Kumar • July 8, 2020

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