There’s a screen grab being circulated on social media sites these days, of Jackie Shroff in drag – in a little purple dress to be exact – and gyrating on a dance floor with Salman Khan. The said screen grab is from Radhe: Your Most Wanted Bhai, which is currently streaming on ZeePLEX. Now, I haven’t watched the film so I don’t want to make any conjecture on what actually transpires in the scene. However, it gives me the perfect opportunity to talk about another film that shines a light on men in drag without any hint of caricature. The film, called Dance of the 41/El baile de los 41, is a Mexican production streaming on Netflix since May 12th.
It is based on a headline grabbing high-society scandal in early 20th-century Mexico that shook the nation’s moral fabric and left an indelible mark on it. The infamous incident involved big names like Ignacio de la Torre, the son-in-law of the then Mexican President Porfirio Diaz, and his queer circle of friends. 42 men were caught red-handed, celebrating in a secret gathering on the outskirts of the city, indulging themselves in a ceremonial orgy of cross-dressing and male-male couple dancing, thus creating an environment that can be best described as a sort of queer fantasy dreamland. Sadly, it was all an illusion. For in a dreamland, what those men did behind closed doors in a private party shouldn’t have bothered anybody.
But the film tells the story of an era in Mexico when the concept of homosexuality or the state of being different from the majority was not even whispered without an air of caution in social spaces. However, all that was going to change, for better or for worse. When the news first broke of the ‘anti-social’ rendezvous, it paved the way for the concept and vocabulary of queer identity/homosexuality to seep into the daily parlance of the Mexican society. Since the exact details of the events were censored by powerful government officials to control the narrative in their favour – to keep the President’s son-in-law’s name out of the papers – the makers of the film have taken their own liberties to make the story more cinematically appealing, albeit without compromising on the essence of it.
The protagonist Ignacio, a congressman, has a secret male lover who is employed as a lawyer in his office. It was a classic case of attraction at first sight for them. The sharp and pointed moustaches of the two leading men act as charades of ‘manhood’, as society expects them to be. The film, by the dint of being based on a real incident, is set in an era when not only did men dressed in women’s clothes have no claim on civil rights, but also women dressed in women’s clothes suffered from a lack of freedom of choice, moral or otherwise. So the wife suffers from suspicion (and confirmation of that suspicion) but she cannot resort to compassion and magnanimity towards her husband and his lifestyle choice as she is afraid of society too. Being the daughter of the President and a war hero, she is well trained to handle a gun but she doesn’t have the choice of stepping away from a marriage of inconvenience. Instead she embarks on failed attempts to seduce her husband and resorts to mild threats of exposing his sexuality to the world. She gets confined in a jail of her own emotion. Left with no other option, she chooses to be cold-hearted and vindictive; exploiting her father’s powers to get back at her husband. The 41 ill-fated men, however, never had any options – good, bad or ugly – to pick and choose from. Once they were outed in front the society, the only way forward was condemnation and a loss of position in society forever.
The film is predictable as far as the narrative is concerned. Its strength lies in presenting the three lead protagonists – husband, wife and the other man – as fearless and flawed individuals, even in the face of an imminent disaster. Ignacio (Alfonso Herrera) is politically shrewd and ambitious, constantly urging and manipulating his competitors and seniors to bend the rules in his favour, just like he does in the matters of his heart and physical needs. His lover, Evaristo Rivas (Emiliano Zurita), proudly declares ‘Soy maricón/I am queer’ during the initiation ceremony to join the club of 41, he being the 42nd new member. The wife Amanda (Mabel Cadena), bitter on being sexually neglected by her husband, rats him out to her father, an act which leads to the arrest of the 41 men and a heart-wrenching personal loss towards the end. It is when the characters face the reality of their situations head on that the film punches you in the gut. After the arrest, one middle-aged member of the group, dressed in drag, mutters, ‘My son will find out and I am going to die’, knowing very well that his predicament has no deliverance. The novelty of the film lies in retelling a story that was once termed as infamous and turning it into a revelatory tale of injustice done by society to a group of individuals. It celebrates their sexual fluidity as a means of honouring them for who they were. It is reminiscent of how activists and academicians in the second half of the 20th century reclaimed the word queer and turned it into a badge of honour that LGBTQ+ people can now proudly wear on their sleeves.
In an era where gay men and queer protagonists are unabashedly being celebrated in Hollywood, just across the border, Mexican filmmakers and show runners have also started digging into their past. Dance of the 41 is preceded by Someone Has to Die (also on Netflix), which tell tales of same-sex desires, among others, in the Mexico of the 1950s. Something tells me that Mexico has more to offer in terms of queer content in the days to come.
Disclaimer: This article has not been written by Film Companion’s editorial team.