Sunday 2 March 2014

Interview with Living Smile Vidya

Monika: Today’s interview will be with Living Smile Vidya known as Smiley, an inspirational woman from India, actress, film director, the author of the biography titled "I am Saravanan Vidya" (2008), a transgender activist and blogger, recipient of the British Council-Charles Wallace India Trust fellowship to study theater in UK. Hello Smiley! 
Smiley: Hi, it’s my honour to be in your list.
Monika: So, You pursue your career in theatre and cinema. You worked as an assistant director in Kollywood and acted in Tamil theater. Could you say a few words about your movie and theater career?
Smiley: Well, Theatre is always my first love. When I was 19 years old, I decided to be an actress and while doing my post-graduation at university I spent most of the time in the Theater Department rather than my Linguistics Department. So I was able to do a couple of plays. But at that time I was known to my colleagues and classmates as a boy.
After my post-graduation, I went to Pune for my castration and I had to stay there. Once I came back I was challenged to find a mainstream job, and after a long struggle I found a job in a rural bank. And only then I realized that I was the first Transwoman in India who worked in a mainstream job rather than working for NGOs.
Beyond this I wanted to work in theater but I realized that all my friends in theater were not sure how to handle a transwoman as an actress. That was when my autobiography was released and I became quite famous, so some film directors heard about me.
The autobiography.
First I worked with Mr. Siva Kumar but due to some financial problems that movie was dropped. In the meantime, I had a chance to meet Mr. Mysskin (who is one of the few directors who showed Transwomen in a decent way in his movies).
I just wished/thanked him for showing us in a good manner and he also read my blog and articles about movies. We had a good chat and I asked him whether I can work with him, and he said Yes…!! I was learning a lot; it was a great experience, fun and etc. But I was not feeling satisfied because theater was my first love.
In the meantime, I became comfortable with me and I started to do theater and so here I am …
Monika: Which film directors or movies are your inspirations?
Smiley: Of course, my director Mr. Mysskin, Pedro Almodóvor, Quentin Tarantino; there are many special movies that deal with human relationship, humanity, gender crisis, and politics.
Monika: Some critics say that the contemporary film industry does not provide many opportunities for women to showcase their talents and stories to a wider audience. Would you agree?
Smiley: Of course, in Tamil Cinema, there were some female directors from the beginning. But contemporary cinema is quite tricky. There are some really good films. Some are rubbish but when it comes to female directors, the industry is not willing to accept a female director, and the only scope for female directors to survive is that you need to be a producer as well. That’s also another reason why I quit the film industry.
Because of being a transwoman you need to put 10x hard work and at the end of the day you are not sure you’ll be recognized. In my case, I already spent my 25 years miserably. I just want to live happily for myself, no more proving talent for zero result. And also it’s not my favourite place.

Courtesy of Living Smile Vidya.

Monika: What is your view on transgender stories which have been featured in films, newspapers, books so far?
Smiley: In the very beginning in print media we were portrayed as criminals, kidnapers, sexual perverts. In early 2000, things were a little different and we were portrayed somewhat like in discovery channel stories. Like hmmm… “They are also human, we should accept them, we should love them and blah blah…”
In films they were all about men in awkward women dresses with awkward voices and longing for sex. So annoying! But it reached the audience and prejudiced people against transwomen, though we did not deserve to be treated like shit… But now things are staring to change, though I don’t like that feeling of sorry for us, you know..?!
Monika: Your biography is regarded as one of the most brilliant transgender memoirs. It was translated into seven Indian languages. What inspired you to write that book? 
Smiley: I can say that it was all due to my lovely brother Mr. S. Bala Bharathi. He was the one who asked me to write a blog and continuously encouraged me, and the blog was a huge success then. One day Kilakku publishers came up asking me to write my autobiography and I just accepted it with half a mind. When I started writing ohhhh, trust me it’s worse than my life to recollect all the memories ahh...

Courtesy of Living Smile Vidya.

Monika: You call your gender reassignment surgery as your nirvana. Quite an interesting comparison…
Smiley: Well, I won’t say that… yeah, in a way it makes sense but also it’s Hinduism. I mean I never liked to link gender with religion. You know, gender is purely gender; religion, culture, geography has nothing to do with it.
Monika: Is “hijra” an Indian equivalent for a transgender woman? What is the role of hijra in the Indian culture?
Smiley: It’s just a Hindi word to mean transwoman and I feel nothing than that.
Monika: What is your general view on the present situation of transgender women in the Indian society?
Smiley: Just before a couple of years people wanted to have a sex work and NGO work. However, this generation of transwomen is looking for more. There are new thoughts emerging from youngsters that they want to work in government sector, in media, in politics and want to get rid of begging and sex work.
Monika: Would you regard yourself as a feminist?
Smiley: Undoubtedly yes!
Monika: The life of Indian women seems to be very difficult. Are there any ways for the improvement of their social status?
Smiley: Yeah.. this needs to start with our school syllabus. Not only women, also Dalits, religious minorities, transwomen and transmen. They all need to be treated as equals. And in all cases education and job opportunities need to be broadly open to all of us.

Courtesy of Living Smile Vidya.

Monika: At what age did you transition into woman? Was it a difficult process? Did you have any support from your family or friends?
Smiley: I think for any trans man/woman, your real gender realization starts in your teenage years, so far it’s socially constructed, isn’t it? And so in my teen years I realised that I’m not a regular boy but I was forced to perform like a boy, and of course I failed.
When I was 18 I realised that I’m a trans woman and I was not happy. I was scared what will be my future and I never told about my gender crisis to anyone in my family or in my class. I thought I can keep my femininity within me and cheat the whole world that I am a boy but it didn’t work. And so I decided to commit suicide.
But, then I thought anyway I’m gonna die. Let’s just give it a try, just live for a while as the way I wanted and then die. So I came to Chennai and from where I moved to Pune. I begged, I had horrible time and also happy time with my dressing up and my womanhood. Yeah, my family didn’t accept me when I told them the truth but after all these years now they’re okay.
Monika: At that time of your transition did you have any transgender role models that you could follow?
Smiley: Not exactly, I thought of few but when I had the chance to meet them I realised that they’re not like me and I just followed my own instincts only.
Monika: What was the hardest thing about your coming out?
Smiley: Begging... I felt like I lost my self respect… I was at university, first in my Linguistics post-graduation. Well, only 6 students, by the way… And I would’ve been a well settled professor or something if I were a boy or as an actor I would’ve been in cinema as a well paid actor. But this gender crisis let me be a beggar, so that’s the hardest part of it.
Courtesy of Living Smile Vidya.
Monika: Are you active in politics? Do you participate in any lobbying campaigns? Do you think transgender women can make a difference in politics?
Smiley: Yes, I strongly believe we need to be in mainstream politics, so we can bring job and education opportunities and that’s how we can change hetronormative policies.
Monika: Do you like fashion? What kind of outfits do you usually wear? Any special fashion designs, colours or trends?
Smiley: I love to look good. Sometimes I really like to look so girly, sometimes I like a tomboy look.
Monika: What do you think about transgender beauty pageants?
Smiley: I like them but in India, they just stop beauty pageants; there are many further things we need to do, don’t we?
Monika: Do you intend to get married and have a family? Could you tell me about the importance of love in your life?
Smiley: Legal marriage acceptance is one of my major policy in terms of human rights. Personally, I want to have a relationship but I don’t want to end up as a wife to someone. I want to have a baby of my own like 9 months in womb. The process of a baby delivering from my own body and stuff… I am just dying for it. And I know it’s not practical, you know. And beyond my gender, my life is more like a theater, more travel and much more poverty, so I can’t afford a baby practically, even if I want to adopt a baby.
Monika: What would you recommend to transgender women that are afraid of transition, discrimination and hatred?
Smiley: Practically even, if you don't accept the transition, anyway the discrimination and hatred will be there, waiting for you at one point. On the other hand, if you are too scared of transition, it's up to you. It’s your life, so you have to decide, you know….

Courtesy of Living Smile Vidya.

Monika: You have your own blog livingsmile. What information do you cover there?
Smiley: Gender, Film, Theater, Feminisim; sometimes my poems and my general experience or opinions.
Monika: Where do you see yourself within the next 5-7 years?
Smiley: As a more professional actress and founder of my own trans theater group; there are many things I don’t want to tell now.
Monika: Could you say that you are a happy woman now?
Smiley: Here and there yes but on the whole hmm; No!
Monika: Dear Smiley, it was a pleasure to interview you. Thanks a lot!
Smiley: The pleasure is mine, honey… What you are doing is a great work and I’m very happy that I’m a tiny part of it… One Love; One Heart!

All the photos: courtesy of Living Smile Vidya.
© 2014 - Monika Kowalska

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