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Can the Real Transgender Actor in Bollywood Please Stand up?

The Indian film industry is notorious for its jarring misrepresentation of the transgender community. With Section 377 read down and rising tensions around Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Bill, 2018, is there any hope for inclusion?
Pallavi Pundir
Jakarta, ID
Can the Real Transgender Actor in Bollywood Please Stand up?
Actor Kubra Sait's portrayal of a transwoman in Netflix's 'Sacred Games' has ruffled some feathers. Credit: Facebook.

On October 27, 2018, Mumbai-based filmmaker Faraz Arif Ansari tweeted one of his most desperate calls for help. “Twitter Fam,” it read, “help me cast the leading lady of my first feature film. I urge you to #RT & SHARE so that it reaches out to the right trans candidates. It is imperative for me to cast a trans actor. Help?” He was looking for a transwoman, around the age of 60, for a role in his upcoming film, Sabr, which already has actors Shweta Tripathi and Shernaz Patel. Among the retweets that he garnered (an underwhelming 121), there was a response from actor Adil Hussain, and a retweet from American actor Ellen Page. Since then, he has reached out to transgender communities and organisations not just in India, but also the US, UK and Australia.


“I don’t have anyone even now,” the 32-year-old tells VICE over the phone. “Most of the trans models in Mumbai are interested in acting. But they are too young to play this part. Which made me realise that the reason this is happening is because we've never allowed the transgender community the space to flourish.”


Faraz Arif Ansari's (centre) upcoming film that involves a transwoman in her 60s has hit a roadblock. Credit: Faraz Arif Ansari.

In the Indian film industry, one of the biggest setbacks (among several) is the true, and subsequently fair, representation of the transgender community, by the community. While observations have been made over their negative portrayal (cue the cringe-worthy material Bollywood spews ever so often that reinforces existing transphobia), there’s also the question of not giving a platform to transmen and women actors in the first place.

Last year, Netflix’s Sacred Games received critical acclaim, but not without the critics pointing out a glaring flaw: That the role of a transwoman was played by a cis female actor, Kubra Sait. “I don’t think this is the right way to go about it, especially for someone like [co-director] Anurag Kashyap who has Netflix backing him. He could have easily made a space for trans individuals to shine and help them make their way into the mainstream,” says Ansari, whose 2017 film Sisak—reportedly the country’s first silent LGBTQ love story—is the first Indian film to win 58 international awards in festivals such as The Boston LGBT Film Festival and Florence Queer Film Festival.


At the 20th Jio MAMI Mumbai Film Festival last year, director Tanuja Chandra premiered her short film, A Monsoon Date, a story of a transwoman who wants to reveal a secret to her lover. The role of the transwoman has been played by actor Konkona Sen Sharma. “It’s shocking because the story has been written by a transgender woman, Gazal Dhaliwal,” says Ansari.

A Revolution Has Begun

While Bollywood is trying hard to catch up by fleshing out positive portrayals of the LGBTQ community (such as the upcoming Dhaliwal-scripted Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga) in their own, little way, regional cinema, especially Tamil and Malayalam, has been cracking through this glass ceiling. Last year, a Tamil film Peranbu—starring the prominent Malayalam actor Mammootty and directed by National Award-winning Tamil director Ram—launched the career of Anjali Ameer, a transwoman who played the lead role in the mainstream film. However, it was the role of a “normal” woman who, in reality, is a transwoman. Ameer’s induction was seen as momentous, even revolutionary. At the same time, it brought the mainstream media into the gut-wrenching world of the struggles of the transsexual community.


“Tamil cinema has been inclusive of the transgender community since the release of Kanchana (2011),” says Namitha Ammu, a 29-year-old transwoman and actor. “Even though it had a cis man play the role of a transwoman, it portrayed the character in a positive light. After that, that ceiling was broken. The mindset has changed and there are lots of opportunities for transgenders.” Chennai-based Ammu, who has been modelling for the last five-odd years, is herself slated to appear in an upcoming Tamil film, Naadodigal 2, directed by Tamil filmmaker Samuthirakani. This year will also see her as the first Indian contestant at the Miss International Trans in Mexico.


For the transgender community—living in the post-Section 377 country, with the perils and concerns of the current Transgender Persons Bill 2018 hovering over them—the tiniest crack is enough to pour in rays of hope into their lives. “I feel like there's more acceptance now of transgender people,” says 25-year-old Veena Sendre, a transwoman model and an aspiring actor who lives in Mandir Hasaud village in Raipur, Chhattisgarh. “There are trans people in reality shows now. LGBTQ conversations are very vibrant across the country. I feel like parents are accepting their children more and more now,” adds Sendre, who won the Miss TransQueen pageant last year, India’s only national-level contest for transwomen.


Chennai-based Namitha Ammu found opportunities in the Tamil film industry, which has been casting transwomen in roles, big and small, in a positive light. Credit: Namitha Ammu.

Modelling is often a stepping stone for opportunities in entertainment industries across the country. And, as conversations with transwomen models and actors unfurled last week, I steadily realised that aspirations for most are heavy with a purpose—to dismantle the stereotypical representation of their community, and replace it with truth. These women, indeed, are agents of change for their community.

“It’s like in beauty pageants for cis women, the biological women contestants are given a task that they have to represent themselves with a purpose, a cause. I want exactly that. My purpose is to change the stereotype of my community,” says Navya Singh, a Mumbai-based transwoman model and actor who, in 2017, became the first transwoman to walk the ramp for the Lakmé Fashion Week. A Punjabi from Katihar, Bihar, the 27-year-old grew up watching movies starring Urmila Matondkar, Madhuri Dixit and Meena Kumari, among others. “Where I come from, nobody wants to discuss transpersons. My struggle was very bad, but look at me now: I’m a model, an actress, a dancer. I am independent. I also work as an activist. If I can work with the right people, I can change people's mentalities.”


But There’s Still A Long Way To Go

Singh’s experience in the mainstream entertainment industry is not an easy story to hear. “I have been discriminated against because of my gender and identity. I have been refused work, even after signing contracts. When I would ask questions, they used to counter that the creative team have decided against going live with my shots,” says Singh, who moved to the city at the age of 20.


Navya Singh from Katihar, Bihar, in a still from 'Sab Theek Hain', a short comedy web-series. Credit: Navya Singh.

“Bollywood has never confronted the fact that they have no trans representation. When Section 377 came down, they all put up the rainbow flag, said there's ekta, unity. But when it comes to giving work, they revert to the whole gender question,” says Singh. Over the years, the casting couch has been a reality too. “I wouldn’t take the name of the casting director but he took my audition alone. He touched my body, my cheeks, arms. Promised that he will give work. Having said that, I can’t say only transwomen are subjected to it. Casting couch is everywhere.”

Yet another agent of change in the industry is Reena Rai, who grew up in the conservative nooks and crannies of Old Delhi and whose TransQueen India pageant is hugely popular among Bollywood aspirants. “When I started the pageantry, people called me mad. They used to say, 'Pata nahi hijro ke saath ghoomti rehti hai (She keeps roaming around with hijras).’ My neighbours used to tell others not to visit my house because ‘ iske ghar me hijre aate rehte hai ( hijras keep coming to her house)’. They even said I am a lesbian. But I don’t care,” says the 40-year-old.


Reena Rai (second from left), the founder of TransQueen India, with the winners last year in Mumbai. "I hosted the pageant in Mumbai to draw the attention of Bollywood," she says. Credit: Reena Rai.

The pageant gave birth to Rai’s campaign called #WhyNotMe, for the inclusion of transpersons in Bollywood. “If [the Bollywood directors] can give a cis woman the role of a transgender, will they give a transwoman the role of a cis woman, if they are capable?” says Rai, who is preparing to launch arguably the first-ever pageant for transmen. “People [in Bollywood] straight up say no to offering roles to my girls. Some say ‘yes, we will get back to you’ but till now, nothing concrete has happened. Ek bhi bacchi aa jata hai Bollywood ke andar, toh ye bohot bada stereotype break hoga. Jitne bhi log ghutan waali zindagi jee rahe hai, they will realise that they also can do something (Even if one child gets into Bollywood, it’ll smash all stereotypes. All those leading a suffocating life will realise they can also do something),” she says.

So when will inclusion become a reality? Ansari admits he may end up casting a cisgender man or a woman for Sabr, for now. There is also the oft-ignored question of the complete invisibility of transmen in this conversation. However, the search for Ansari’s transwoman actor has led him to formulate a workshop for trans people, in association with the Keshav Suri Foundation. “I understand that one's gender doesn’t matter and that merit alone should bring the actors the roles. But for a transperson to find their own merit, you first have to create a platform. For a person who has access and privilege the way I do, it's very easy to talk about these things,” says the director, who is openly gay. “Allies have to get together. Homophobia is one thing, but transphobia is bigger. The dogmas that exist are beyond what you and I can think about because that's not our reality.”


Veena Sendre from Chhattisgarh has been offered item numbers but wants to wait for bigger, better roles. "Hopefully in romance. I love romance stories," she says. Credit: Veena Sendre.

Lastly, a tiny step can also be achieved by keeping the representation of the community positive. “In real life, we get taanas, people use bad selection of words for us. If they show the same in the movies, this attitude just gets reinforced,” says Sendre. “Now, if some character has to be portrayed or a movie to be made on the transgender people, it should be as close or accurate with the real transgender identity and life. Only this will lead to greater acceptance.” Rai concludes, “At the end of it all, Bollywood has the power to reach even the most remote corners of the country. If they create the right image for us, this can change the mindset of the whole country.”

Follow Pallavi Pundir on Twitter.