Bollywood hopeful and model Shree Ghatak, a trans woman who makes her Bollywood debut with a brief role in ‘Season’s Greetings’ that premiered on streaming platform Zee5 on April 15, remembers rejection vividly.
The moment a casting agent for any Bollywood film realises that she’s a trans woman (male at birth, but went through gender re-assignment surgery to become female), their tone and gaze changes. She’s immediately ruled out as a possible hire. Her gender and identity has cost her many acting jobs, claims Ghatak in an exclusive interview over the phone from Kolkota.
“Why is there so much stigma in this society over my gender? My gender is my business. Why are you letting my trans identity dictate if I am suitable for a role in a movie or not? I have lost so many acting jobs over my gender,” said Ghatak over the phone in Hindi.
On April 15, Ghatak — who has modelled for jewellery and women products in Kolkota — made Bollywood history by featuring in her career’s first Bollywood film. Ghatak claims she holds the distinction of being the first trans woman to act in a mainstream Hindi feature film.
“And I have a strong feeling that my small but important role in ‘Season’s Greetings’ will help me in finding acceptance and I have a strong feeling that this film will encourage other filmmakers to include us in their projects,” said Ghatak.
In the movie directed by Ram Kamal Mukherjee and starring Lillete Dubey and Celina Jaitly as a mother-daughter duo, Ghatak plays their transgender house-help Chapala. The movie fleetingly shows how Chapala was a young boy Chapal as a child, but then becomes a sari-clad Chapala as an adult.
“Ram Kamal Mukherjee asked me to play myself and not shy away from being who I am on the big screen… I found love, dignity and acceptance while I was working on ‘Season’s Greetings’.”
Bollywood is notorious for under representation of transgender community and most roles assigned to transgender community are subject to ridicule and mockery.
“There’s this stereotype that we are for comic relief and that stigma needs to go in Bollywood,” said Ghatak.
The model and activist, who underwent a gender re-assignment surgery in 2015, and also holds the distinction of being India’s first trans bride when she got legally married.
Ghatak, who dreams to work with Priyanka Chopra, Deepika Padukone and Sushant Singh Rajput, is also a proud transgender rights advocate.
“It’s a historic day in my life today as Season’s Greetings releases online. I am so excited because it’s my career’s first mainstream Hindi film and it’s a film that will feature a trans woman in a dignified role,” said Ghatak.
Excerpts from our exclusive chat with Ghatak …
Was Bollywood always on your radar?
I am a model by profession, but an activist who invariably fights for our rights to exist. I have always dreamt about getting a role in a good Bollywood film with a solid script. I want to reach out to as many people with this significant role. And I am eternally grateful that I got a director Ram Kamal Mukherjee who told me to be natural on screen and to play myself.
He asked me to be who I am in ‘Season’s Greetings’. There is no pretence. I play Chopala, a housewife and house-help who loves cooking and she has grown up in Romita’s household [Celina Jaitly] and is incredibly close to her mother, whom I call Kakkima [Lillete Dubey]. Kakkima is a single mother and is lonely. I am her help and support.
How did you prepare for your role?
I had a series of workshops with Lillete Dubey and Celina Jaitly and it was a dream come true for an aspiring actress like me. Lilleteji is so talented and she made me feel so included. I was so worried at first about my Hindi accent and whether I will be convincing in my role in ‘Season’s Greetings’. But I had nothing to worry.
Celina and Lilleteji are such good-hearted souls. They are beautiful people inside out. At no point did they make me feel like an outsider. There was a dance sequence where Celina had to dance with me. The moment when a former Miss India held my hand and taught me steps, I knew they accepted me. Every acting job is a lesson for me and these two co-stars demonstrated that you are truly beautiful when you are down-to-earth and sensitive.
Did you face resistance because you are an aspiring trans-woman actress?
I have always faced resistance and a society’s mindsets can never change overnight. Although it isn’t as bad now, discrimination is still prevalent. Their ‘gaze’ towards transgender and particularly trans women are skewed and tainted. There’s not much change even today.
But will your Bollywood debut help matters in normalising your identity?
I am not transgender, I am a trans woman. You have to know the difference. I am someone who underwent multiple surgeries to become a woman and my journey is different. My path was paved with hardships and obstacles. And I am not talking about how painful my surgeries were or the financial costs that come with it, I am talking about the emotional consequences.
The fact remains that transgender actors used to work in Bollywood films before, but they were given stereotypical roles. They were ridiculed and used for being mocked at on the big screen. A transgender is thrust with that ‘hijra’ role. There’s a stigma attached to us with many filmmakers believing that we are only capable of playing such shallow, short-sighted roles. But Ram Kamal Mukherjee, my director, wasn’t one of them.
Through ‘Season’s Greetings’, he has shown us that a trans woman can also lead a life of dignity and have a normal, ordinary existence like everybody else. We want more jobs in mainstream Bollywood films and we should rightfully get what we deserve. We should be given jobs — be it in acting or beyond.
How tough was it for you to get a job in entertainment?
It was incredibly tough. If you see my pictures, I come across as any other beautiful woman or another struggling model. During casting calls, they look through my pictures and they seem satisfied. But the moment I tell that that I am a trans-woman, then their gaze and attitude towards me changes dramatically.
After that, they come up with excuses like: ‘we will get in touch with you in future’ or that the project is now on hold. I have lost many acting gigs over my identity. Even though I fit their physical description — in terms of height, age and role requirement — and I am suitable for a particular role, I was still rejected numerous times.
Why am I being punished relentlessly for being a trans woman? Why is there so much stigma in this society over my gender. My gender is my identity and my business. Why are you letting my identity dictate if I am suitable for a role or not, I have always wondered. But I feel my role in ‘Season’s Greetings’ will help in finding acceptance. I have a strong feeling that this film will encourage other filmmakers to include us in their projects.
Don’t Miss It!
‘Season’s Greetings’ is streaming on Zee5.