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March 11, 2019

We Attended An Acting Workshop Aimed At Helping Trans People Find Jobs In The Film Industry

Text by Shubham Ladha

In an empowering effort, TRANSAction with Faraz Arif Ansari and the Keshav Suri Foundation could help open casting opportunities for the trans community

Since 2015, when the Indian government decided to officially recognise the transgender community as the third gender and grant them rights and entitlement, the community — which has been marginalised, stigmatised, ostracised and been subject to violence — has attained a new sense of empowerment. And while this legal move opened up some occupational opportunities for the community, there are many professional spheres which can incorporate inclusivity and diversity, such as that of film and entertainment.

It all started with a tweet on October 27, 2018, in which the Mumbai-based independent filmmaker, Faraz Arif Ansari, asking for help from his “Twitter Fam” to help him “cast the leading lady of my first feature film Sabr”. He wasn’t just looking for any candidate, though. He wanted a transwoman actor. Although some trans models auditioned, they didn’t meet the requirements of the character. It’s this lack of transgender actors in the Indian film industry which prompted Ansari to hold TRANSAction, a free acting workshop, especially for the members of the LGBTQIA+ in association with the Keshav Suri Foundation, an organisation whose mission is to “embrace, empower and mainstream the LGBTQIA+ community.” I attended the first of the three-day long course to experience the initiative and observe the impact it would leave the participants with.

Since the workshop was open for anyone to attend, it was a mixed gathering of about 20 folks — half of whom were trans women — all mingling together, breaking the ice. In a lemon yellow short dress and a fringed collar, Naaz Joshi — who was chirpily greeting everyone — had flown in that morning from Delhi, specially for the workshop. What stood out was the gold sash around her, which read, “Ms. Diversity 2018”. She’s the first trans woman from India to have won the title, twice in a row, amongst also having been the first trans woman on the cover of an Indian magazine; an incredible feat to attain after she ran away from home at young age due to discrimination. On the other end of the social spectrum were shy women, Harshini Mekala and Blessing D’Souza, both taking their time to get to know the others, in familiar company, nonetheless. Quite like Joshi, everyone was dressed in their boldest ensembles, Mekala in an asymmetrical gown, Mahi Gupta — a finalist from Miss TranQueen India 2018 — in a leopard print cocktail dress, Shivali Chhetri — a trained dancer — in high-heel brogues… there was no sense of inhibition there, just pride.

I realised that most of the trans women were quite familiar with each other, with a common thread being the Miss TransQueen India pageant; they were either former winner/contestants or were loyal viewers of the show. Though they’ve only been able to come through to such platforms and beyond from turbulent backgrounds. Both Gupta and trans actor Navya Singh ran away from their respective villages in Bihar to Mumbai. They hunted down opportunities and took their chances. Even Bonita Rajpurohit — who I casually called ‘Bo’ — the youngest of the lot, is already working as a model in Delhi. I’m not sure if all of them wanted to pursue acting as a full-fledged career choice, but they did have a knack for it and enjoyed the craft.

We started off with warming up exercises in a circle, as Ansari got us to aurally project our names and introduce ourselves to each other. We had to run around the room but keep eye contact as we passed one another, take a random line from a song and deliver it in different emotions and spontaneously act with a partner. From Meena, who was decked up in a yellow salwar kameez and could feign crying when requested to newcomer Mekala, who still needed a push now and then to speak louder, we were all gradually unravelling ourselves. It was heartening to see how everyone put their effort into getting touch with their emotions and delivered the line as Ansari instructed and encouraged them along.

Actor Kalki Koechlin answered some pertinent questions, such as how she picks the projects she wants to work on, how actors are the vessels for the director’s vision, how she balances her artistry with the commercial aspect of marketing and PR amongst many more. Singh asked a more relevant question, perhaps, which was that even though cis actors are given the opportunities to play trans roles, why don’t trans actors get the same opportunities of playing cis roles? Giving an example of how even after bagging a role, the director had refused the work to her on the basis of her identity and that the depiction of trans people in the industry is stereotypically derogatory. Ansari went on to explain that society hadn’t previously given a chance to the trans community to bloom, and that for Sabr, he’s been looking far and wide for a trans actor who fits the role, and like him, many directors do try to scout as much as they can.

Koechlin attested to Ansari’s opinion, telling us how Margarita With A Straw’s director, Shonali Bose was also looking for an actor with cerebral palsy for the film’s titular role, till she didn’t find anyone and then it was played by Koechlin. She added that one can’t blame the film industry wholly, as it too, is a reflection of how society functions. The screenwriters write such parts for trans people because they adopt that very reflection while fleshing these parts, and that it would help to have more inclusive and diverse writers in the business, to start having better roles for trans folks. It was a notable revelation for the trans women about how the creative dynamics within the film industry flow and function, especially since they’d been turned down so often that they needed to delve deeper into why and where the prejudice arose. Soon, everyone started chipping their opinions in how it’s important to value the changes that were still underway, such as acting opportunities and roles for trans folks slowly being created, and workshops such as these helping trans folks enhance or even cultivate their passion.

By the afternoon, theatre director Sheena Khalid and casting director Tess Joseph were taking the sessions. Khalid’s expertise on the stage had given her a range of exercises to loosen ours bodies up, all to help our minds and bodies think visually. Joseph then explained the many dos and don’ts of sending one’s portfolio/audition tapes to talent agencies and what they look for. She helped three trans women, Gupta, Joshi and Singh make their first audition tapes, and each of the three, when asked about which quality an actor should possess, mentioned features such as courage, honesty and strength. These were a reflection of their personal experiences as trans women having struggled to be where they are now, having found similar inspiration in Sonam Kapoor’s character in Neerja (2016) and many other films alike. It was a sign of how they imbued their personalities into their pursuits. The day ended with us performing a script given to us, in pairs and receiving feedback from Ansari, Khalid and Joseph.

Through the day and its activities, what I still remember is how while in the toilet, a trans model was on the phone, looking at herself in the mirror, while talking to perhaps, an agent about auditioning for a role. The perseverance in her voice was notable, probably what the workshop gave her and many like her.

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