‘Life Is Not Over For Trans Persons Over 50, I Want To Use Theatre To Say This’

Theatre can be a powerful, joyful medium for the trans gender community to make its voice heard

Transgender women of my age fought for years for change but now that change is here nobody thinks of us. We are over 50, and no one asks us what we want, we have no benefits, no families, no platforms and our dreams remain unfulfilled.  

I want to do a play featuring eight trans women over the age of 50 and their dreams. Two years ago, I was part of a photo project in Bengaluru called Truth Dream: On Ageing, Beauty and Fantasy. Hosted by Payana, an organisation that works on the rights and dignity of the sexuality minorities community of Karnataka, it featured 12 friends who identify as transgender persons from Karnataka and Tamil Nadu. All of us are over 50 and we posed as characters we admire — Sridevi, Khushboo, Kanchana, Ardha Nari, Shakuntala and so on. I posed as Andal, because I saw the film Thirumal Perumai (1968) when I was young and always wanted to be that woman who would only marry the one she loved.

I am working on a script for the play with the Chennai-based director Shrijith Sundaram and we are tentatively calling it, Nijamana Kanavu (true dreams). The play will address the question — what is it like to be an aged trans person? Our community has a cultural life that remains unrepresented – we have vibrant traditions of food, culture, language, clothes. I want to include all these in my play and at the end, there will be rejoicing — dinner, dance and songs for the audiences.

The truth is also that transgender persons are not allowed to age. Mostly we don’t make it to old age because our lives tend to be cut short by violence – crime, death by suicide. We brought this up in the play Nooramma Biriyani, in which I featured as the central character. In it, my guru and mentor, becomes a successful restaurateur and is murdered. This is based on a real incident and I know of many such cases.

Nooramma was a big production but it was not my first stage experience. I had earlier done a play in Tamil, Vellai Mozhi, based on my autobiography which goes by the same name. But I was initially not a part of the play. Some excerpts from my book were performed by other actors and directed by a Shimoga-based Kannada theatre group led by M. Ganesh in 2014.  It was so moving watching my life unfurl on the stage. I later requested the director to let me join the play and he agreed. Another actor continued to play my role. After I returned to my hometown Namakkal, Ganesh asked me to do a solo show at the Vishwamanava International Theatre Festival at Shimoga.

Vellai Mozhi performed on Zoom

I asked the theatre activist A Mangai of Marappachi Theatre to help. I picked the parts of the book for the play. We performed the play in Tamil and Kannada and it elicited huge response in Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and Kerala. I then did a role in Srijith’s ensemble Malayalam play Parayan Maranna Kadhakal produced by a trans theatre group Mazhavil Dhwani.

In my play, I address the allegations commonly thrown at us. Yes, begging is bad, yes prostitution is bad but I am also asking you — why don’t you let me live with dignity? Why don’t you allow me an education? Jobs? This is a country where intellectuals are killed, so where is the space for us? What are we to do? We need money, more money than others. If a rented room in Chennai costs others Rs 500, trans persons are asked for Rs 1500. We pay double the auto fare. So if we are out there begging and soliciting it is out of desperation.

I realised with Vellai Mozhi that theatre is a very powerful medium to raise your voice and be heard. I have written a book, been part of activist groups, given talks, none of these mediums are as potent as theatre. If you are hosting a lecture, audiences walk out but if you are doing a play, laughing, crying, telling your story you can hold people’s attention. It is even better than doing a PhD because what a student learns from talking to people on the field is already my life. I don’t need to research.

Two years ago, Shrijith came to me with the idea of Nooramma, a pioneer trans woman from Coimbatore who ran a successful biryani business. I knew of her story. But I had only a month to get ready with the play, a long monologue of 60 pages. What helped was that the stories in the play were all familiar to me – the violence, stigma, humiliation, struggle. It was the story of my community. It was my story.

But it was still really challenging. I would wake up at 5am to rehearse my lines at my home in Nammakkal. I would divide the scenes, rehearse and record myself on the phone.

As a play about a biryani entrepreneur, I had to cook on stage. The first show was a huge success though cooking 3 kg of biryani on stage was really scary. You had to deliver the lines and also make sure that the rice did not burn without letting the anxiety show on your face.

The play needed me to change clothes on stage, but that did not worry me. I didn’t feel any inhibitions. In my mind’s eye I was doing all this in my room, at my home. We all repress our bodies so much, even when we are fully clothed women fear the male gaze. Even if you wear a sari, there is the midriff to be conscious of. I have even dealt with jail, so this was nothing for me.

I am now at a different point in my journey as a trans woman. All my childhood I had yearned to be a woman, dress like a woman. I would yearn to wear a sari, blouse, bindi, Jhumki, flowers in my hair. But now, I find all of it so restrictive, the yards of cloth, the fitted blouse. I now dress often in pants and shirt, sometimes at home in shorts. I have cut my hair short. Ironically, I used to get beaten up at home as a child for not wanting to get into the male attire. Now my family sees me in trousers and they say ‘Ha, see you actually always wanted to be a man’. But I say I am comfortable in this.

Another fact strikes me. I struggled to be a woman but this is not a perfect world either — now too I struggle as a woman, against discrimination. I have observed the inequalities, the anxieties, the harassment women face in public places. Becoming a woman has not meant an end to my struggles.

But theatre has shown me a way to take my views to a larger audience. I have decided that this is what I want to do now, how I earn a livelihood, how I will spread awareness about the issues facing trans persons. Coming up next is the 82nd show of Vellai Mozhi, I am looking forward to taking it to a 100.

[As told to Malini Nair]

  • A Revathi is a trans gender actor who featured as the central character in the acclaimed recent play ‘Noorama Biriyani’.

Malini Nair (Editor)

Malini Nair is a consulting editor with Behanbox. She is a culture writer with a keen interest in gender.

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