I lived the reality of a transgender person in Mumbai, if only for the duration of a film. (Photo Courtesy: Pallav Patankar)
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A Pain Beyond Celluloid: I Walked the City as a Transgender Person

(November 14-20 is Transgender Awareness Week, an opportune time to share the stories of transgender, non-binary, and other gender-expansive individuals. This story has been written in the context of disseminating much-needed awareness.)

Whilst India lags behind on its rights discourse on LGBT issues (on account of the draconian section 377), it has made huge progress when it comes to recognising the transgender identity. This has happened by way of the NALSA judgment and the recently introduced Transgender Bill. While we all revel in the fact that transgender rights in the country are following their due course, the truth is that we are far away from that reality.

Only recently in Chennai, a transgender woman on her way to charge her mobile phone was arrested by the police on charges of prostitution. When her friends went to bail her out, they were shooed away by the police. News surfaced later that she had been burnt alive. The matter is still under investigation.

As an out gay man who has worked with the transgender community for many years, I have empathised with their plight. The lack of opportunities, livelihood and the discrimination marginalises them to an invisible economic existence but to a visible stigmatised presence.

On set. (Photo Courtesy: Pallav Patankar)
On set. (Photo Courtesy: Pallav Patankar)

I understand the stigma and discrimination that a transgender person faces, not merely through empathy, but through a lived experience...

Between a Shirt and a Flowing Silk Kurta

In 2014, Jehangir Jani, a close friend, an artist and a film maker wanted to make a film on Mumbai with a transgender woman as the protagonist. He approached me to do the role. I wasn’t very sure at first (seeing as I stand 6ft tall) and wondered if I could carry it off. I finally agreed and the shoot was set, with Mumbai as the backdrop.

‘Umesh’ at Marine Drive. (Photo Courtesy: Pallav Patankar)
‘Umesh’ at Marine Drive. (Photo Courtesy: Pallav Patankar)

The film, entitled Urmi, required me to walk the streets of Mumbai as a man. The last part of the film required me to transition from being a man to a woman in the most public space in Mumbai: Marine Drive, aka The Queen's Necklace. The shoot began with getting some make up on my face to slowly changing my attire to feminine clothing. The shirt was replaced by a long flowing, pink, silk kurta, the shoes were replaced with diamond chappals, the wig came on in the next shot. The bag was replaced by a purse.

‘Urmi’ at Marine Drive. (Photo Courtesy: Pallav Patankar)
‘Urmi’ at Marine Drive. (Photo Courtesy: Pallav Patankar)

Voilà , a 6ft-tall super model, all of 82 kgs, walked the Queen's Necklace.

I could have crumbled under that gaze. People suddenly began to turn around and look at me. Children tugged at their parents and pointed at me. College kids started ‘shooting’ the shoot themselves. Tourists were more trigger happy with their cameras. I could hear people screaming “chhakka” , “eunuch” and other pejorative terms at me. I could feel my blood pressure soar. I wanted to tear myself out of those clothes. To make matters worse we were suddenly joined by the police who wanted to know what was happening, and we had to give them a lengthy explanation.


In 2014, Jehangir Jani, a close friend, an artist and a film maker wanted to make a film on Mumbai with a transgender woman as the protagonist. (Photo Courtesy: Pallav Patankar)
In 2014, Jehangir Jani, a close friend, an artist and a film maker wanted to make a film on Mumbai with a transgender woman as the protagonist. (Photo Courtesy: Pallav Patankar)

The shoot on Marine Drive finally ended as I sat down to gather myself. I began to wonder: if this was what happened in the first 30 minutes of a shoot in a relatively progressive part of Mumbai, one could only imagine what my transgender sisters have to go through in other parts of the country. The extent of the stigma, the gaze and the discrimination that any transgender individual goes through is not a perception but a reality that we cannot imagine.

Things did not end there.

I could intellectualise all I wanted to, but I really needed to go to the loo.

I was about to enter the men’s loo, when I suddenly remembered the attire I was in. I could go to neither the men’s loo nor the women’s, dressed the way I was, as I might risk an arrest. I held on to my bladder for the next hour until I could go to the loo. That again is the reality many transgender people go through.
A screenshot from the film Urmi. (Photo Courtesy: Pallav Patankar)
A screenshot from the film Urmi. (Photo Courtesy: Pallav Patankar)

I think of this as my Transgender Day of Remembrance. Not a tokenistic effort but a lived reality.

Giant hugs to my transgender brothers and sisters!

(Pallav is an LGBT rights advocate with fangs, stings, claws and a growl! An Aspen Leadership fellow, a management graduate, a biotechnologist, an avid cyclist, a world traveller, he loves to talk about the unspoken, naughty and taboo issues to make this world a wiser place.)