Sushmita Sen is now filming the role of trans activist Gauri Sawant
The leading role in a Bollywood film about a transgender activist has been given to the non-trans actress, Sushmita Sen, a former Miss Universe. The decision has divided opinion among India’s trans community with some arguing it should have gone to one of many trans actresses waiting for their big break.
The audition had gone well.
Navya Singh was up for the role of the best friend of the leading lady. She had delivered her lines with a confidence that didn’t tip into arrogance. She had been friendly with just a flash of sexiness, but not enough to steal limelight. She had, most importantly, remembered her lines.
Yet once she finished, the room remained silent for longer than was comfortable.
Finally, one of the casting directors spoke up.
“But what are you?” he asked Navya, “a woman or a man?”
“I felt my heart sink to my feet,” Navya says. “It was the kind of brash comment I had become used to as an actress in Bollywood. But it never got easier.”
At the age of 18, Navya had moved from rural Bihar to Mumbai, the hub of the Hindi film industry, or Bollywood, where she came out as a trans woman.
Once there she started mixing with LGBT dancers and models, designers and actors. Some were recognisable household names involved in the country’s most famous movies and advertising campaigns, but others were struggling, especially the trans members of the community. Several people she knew turned to sex work between film, dancing and modelling roles, in order to survive.
“Work for trans people is scarce in Bollywood,” she says. “You audition for fashion shows or films but rarely hear back. Even gay fashion designers or producers don’t open the door for us.”
Some work did come though. Navya took to the catwalk for fashion shows and modelled for Grazia magazine. She became a finalist and brand ambassador for Miss Trans Queen India, the largest beauty pageant for transgender people in the country.
And seven years after she moved to Mumbai, Navya got a recurring role as a trans woman in a dramatic crime series, Savdhaan India. She quickly attracted more than 100,000 followers on Instagram.
After the first episode aired she got a call from her parents. They hadn’t spoken to her since she left Bihar.
Navya was out of touch with her parents for seven years
“They said, ‘We are so sorry, we just didn’t understand what it meant to be transgender but watching you on TV, we do. You are our child.'”
Navya happily welcomed them back into her life. Things were looking up.
Then in early 2022, the LGBT community in Mumbai was buzzing at the news of a forthcoming TV series. Taali was to be based on the life of Gauri Sawant, a transgender activist from Mumbai who adopted the daughter of a sex worker who had died from Aids. In 2014, Sawant became the first transgender person to petition India’s Supreme Court for the right to adopt a child and gained widespread praise for showing a different type of family.
“We were excited when we first heard about Taali, because it meant there was a leading and heroic role about a transgender person,” says Navya. “It was a great win for the community. And this was a role we all understood – it was about someone in our community.”
Gauri Sawant says being played by Sushmita Sen is a great honor
But In October it was announced that actress Sushmita Sen, one of Navya’s Bollywood heroes and a non-trans woman, would be playing the role of Gauri Sawant.
“I was very sad hearing that the role of Gauri had gone to a cisgender [non-trans] actress,” says Navya, “and I wasn’t the only one.”
Several people took to social media to criticise the choice.
“Why is a cis straight woman playing a trans character?” read one tweet. “What year is it? 1995? Get trans actors for trans roles!”
Another Twitter user commented: “I can literally offer a long list of transgender actors who have done exemplary work. But well, what can one expect from Bollywood?”
“The issue is that there aren’t enough diverse, complex roles for trangender people as it is,” transgender actress Kalki Subramaniam tells the BBC.
“The roles we are offered are stereotyped: the sex worker, the background character blessing a wedding, the loud person who curses.
“It is changing in some parts of Indian cinema, like the South Indian film industry. But not Bollywood.”
One of India’s best-known transgender actress is Anjali Ameer, who starred in the critically acclaimed Tamil-language film, Peranbu, where she played the (trans) love interest of star actor, Mammooty. Anjali is the first transgender woman to play a leading lady in Indian cinema.
Critics praised the role for breaking LGBT cinema stereotypes. Anjali’s character essentially “saves” the leading man and his disabled daughter from an isolated life and the three of them form a loving family.
But Anjali Ameer fully supports the casting of Sushmita Sen as Gauri Sawant.
“This casting of someone as famous as Sushmita Sen is a good thing for the transgender community,” Anjali tells the BBC. “It means our stories are becoming mainstream. When our stories enter more houses and people can see us as human beings, more roles will follow for us.”
Anjali says she is now even being offered roles in South Indian films playing non-trans women.
Anjali Ameer – Indian cinema’s first trans leading lady
“There’s no doubt that more roles are written for trans people where they are a victim or sex worker. I’m trying to stay away from that. I just want to play good characters,” she says. “And I think so does Sushmita Sen. That’s what actors do.”
It is a view backed by Gauri Sawant herself, the subject of the new TV series, who posted online that it was a “great honour for my community” that Bollywood legend Sushmita Sen had chosen to play her.
Sushmita responded, “Let’s do this!”
Recently Navya was invited to play a minor part in Taali. But after a day of waiting on set, she was told to go home and that she would no longer be needed. She says the decision devastated her.
“It’s quite common in film sets for production schedules to change and people to no longer be needed,” she says, “But when you’re a trans woman in Bollywood, it seems to happen more often. Your time isn’t valued and your face isn’t needed. You are a background character that is there to serve a mainstream audience.”
Navya dances in night clubs to make money for rent, while auditioning for modelling and film roles. She dreams of characters that are complex and strong, beautiful and desired but knows that those parts, in the Hindi-film industry of Bollywood at least, are few and far between for trans actresses. Which is why so many hopes had been pinned on Taali and the role of Gauri Sawant.
“Gauri means so much to us and our community,” she says. “Imagine what a powerful statement it would have been if a trans actress could have played her. It would have changed her career. She would have been mainstream.”