“You look fabulous!” I assured Varun as he looked at the mirror for the umpteenth time to fix his hair.
“You mean handsome. Looking fabulous is your job Araadhana” he quipped.
I did look fabulous in the red saree I was wearing, if I do say so myself. But tonight is not about me, tonight is about Varun and his achievement, and he deserved the recognition. In a few minutes we will be attending a press meet. I had something important to tell him but thought I would wait until after the meet. I observed him carefully as he walked to the door. I knew that time was running out but suppressed the urge to check my watch. I took a deep breath and started counting in reverse under my breath. “Ten, nine, eight, seven…” It was Show Time.
We walked out of the dressing room backstage and made our way to the stage. I was attacked by a barrage of flashes from a sea of cameras. After my eyesight adjusted, I sat down. The host grabbed the microphone and went on to introduce the panel. After the brief introduction, the panel opened up for questions.
A balding reporter got up. “Congratulations on winning the National Award for Best Actor Mr. Varun. Why did you choose to portray a transgender? Aren’t you worried about your fans’ expectations after your recently successful string of popcorn flicks?” he asked.
Varun inhaled a bit before he answered “I’ve been making films that my fans would like to watch and thought I get one free pass to show them a film I would like them to watch”.
“Do you think he will see through the sarcasm in that seemingly diplomatic answer?” I asked Varun for which he replied with a smile.
“What did you do to prepare yourself for this role?” asked another reporter with thick glasses.
“I met a lot of aravaanis or hijras as they are commonly known, and listened to their stories. But there was a particular person who was with me through this journey and without whom this portrayal wouldn’t have been complete” answered Varun.
I beamed at this. It was my idea to not mention about me or the fact that I am a transgender in this meet, but I was grateful Varun still mentioned about me.
The panel had a few questions for the director of the film and the co-stars. There were mostly words of praise and I was surprised how well this film was received in spite of the controversial content. Maybe people aren’t as intolerant as they used to be, or so I thought, before the thing I feared happened.
I saw a reporter’s hand go up. He was a man in his mid-thirties. He had a question for Varun.
“In this film you are playing a man dressing up as a woman and yearning to be a teacher. In the climax, you become a teacher. But in reality, don’t you think it is a bad thing for our children to be subjected to the idea of it is okay for a man to dress like a woman, let alone being taught by one? The movie is against the beliefs of our conservative society. Aren’t you responsible as an actor to not propagate such ridiculous concepts to our children?” asked the reporter without taking his eyes off the notepad he was scribbling on.
The whole room fell silent. I swelled with anger. I grabbed the microphone before Varun could and shouted at the reporter “Are you serious? Your so-called conservative society is just what the British left behind. India was forward in recognizing transgender an integral part of the society centuries ago. It was under the British rule that this idea was snubbed out and we were left with contemptuous people like you. We are people too. We deserve to live our life as we wis-” I stopped, realizing the mistake I made by revealing myself.
All eyes were locked on me followed by the sound of a 100 pencils scribbling through pages in notepads.
Varun took over the microphone and with a calm composure started “I apologize for that. After spending months with the transgender society and working closely with them, I can’t see them apart from every other person I know and myself.”
The murmurs subsided as people started listening keenly.
“And to answer your question, as an actor I felt a responsibility to bring forth the idea that these are people too with ambitions and dreams and they should be treated as equals. Children should learn to not see them with prejudice or contempt and when they grow into adults they will learn to accept rather than tolerate people different from them. Isn’t that a good thing to teach our future generation?” answered Varun.
Some of the people nodded their heads in agreement. But the reporter was not to be convinced. He started again “But we see aravaanis in real-life extorting money from passenger in buses and trains, getting into prostitution. Are these the people we would like to expose our children to?”
I clenched my fist but knew better than to talk again. No amount of argument is going to make this guy understand. But Varun was relentless.
“You are right. These are not the examples we want to show our children. But don’t you think the society is also to blame for the situation of these people? If we started treating them as better individuals, their community will rise above this and achieve greater things in various professions. Let us not prevent them from working in our offices as our equals. Let us not portray them as stereotypes in our movies. Let us not shy away from letting our children talk to them as they would with any other person. I know this is all too much to ask for but we can start small by trying to understand them.” he finished.
At this another man in the room stood up. He was very old but had sharp eyes and a straight posture. With a booming voice he started “I am a retired army man. I watch movies very rarely, but was fortunate enough to watch this film with my 10 year old grandson. I appreciated the film for what it was trying to tell us and got here through my daughter who is also a reporter to show my appreciation. I didn’t plan on speaking today but the recent questions raised here is compelling me to share a small story with you. I hope it is okay” he asked looking at Varun for approval.
Varun smiled and looked at the director who motioned the old man to continue.
“In my many years of servitude, I’ve defended our country from enemies. In one particular war, our platoon was stuck in a long drawn-out fight behind trenches with the enemy entrenched about hundred feet away from us. After more than a week, with no orders, and both sides running out of ammo, we started exchanging insults instead of bullets. This went on for a while. We mentioned that we were out of rations and ten minutes later apples rained from the sky. We supplied blankets for our enemies during the night in return for the apples. We were not enemies at that point, just human beings trying to survive together. Safe to say both sides withdrew, still holding a grudge against each other but a little wiser and a little grateful and hoping against meeting again someday in the battlefield. If enemies at war can see each other and treat each other as people, why can’t we treat our fellow Indians as equals?” finished the old man.
The room roared in applause. The nitwit reporter hung his head down. Varun smiled at the old man who held a thumbs up at Varun.
“We have time for one last question” announced the host.
“This question is for Varun. You’ve been known as a method actor. How do you create your character and how long do you stay in character?” a reporter asked.
Varun smiled and looked a bit relieved at the change of mood this question offered.
“My process is simple. The characters are real to me. They have hobbies, dreams, hopes, secrets. They are three-dimensional. They stay with me till the last day of shooting. But there are times I wish they would stay with me forever” he answered.
“That brings us to the end of this press meet. Thank you for coming” said the host as the panel rose from their seats.
I couldn’t wait till we reached the backstage room to apologize to Varun for my outburst.
“I’m really sorry for what happened today Varun” I said as soon as we entered the room.
“You were right for what you did” Varun assured me looking at the mirror again.
“But this almost cost you your reputation. I shouldn’t have spoken instead of you. People might take you for a transgender because of me”
“I’ll be honored as an actor if they do that”
“Don’t even joke about it. You are not me”
Varun looked straight into the mirror and into my eyes and said “Look! you might just be a character I created in my mind for this film. But you are real to me. You will always be a part of me”
Varun was looking at himself in the mirror when he said this but he saw my reflection in the mirror. I was happy I was able to linger in his mind even after the shooting wrapped up but my time was up and I needed to say one important thing before I vanished into his subconscious.
“Congratulations on winning the National Award, Varun” I said looking at him with pride.
He smiled and opened the door ready to leave. As soon as his stepped out of the room he was surrounded by a crowd trying to get his autograph and photo.
“Your portrayal of Araadhana will remain forever in our minds and will be a celebrated character” said one of the fans in the crowd.
I watched with pride and knew it was time for me to leave. I came to be for a reason and I feel I have made a difference for the better. Without a goodbye I left Varun to be adorned by his fans.