In February 2016, a 22-year-old model showed up for a fashion event in Kozhikode, her hometown in Kerala, shortly after undergoing male-to-female sex reassignment surgery. V.S. Ranjith, a correspondent with the regional news channel Manorama News, who was looking for information on malpractices associated with sex reassignment surgeries, happened to be covering the fashion show where Anjali Ameer was making an appearance. They spoke and Ameer disclosed that she was living practically in exile in Coimbatore. She agreed to an interview with Ranjith.

The two met in the last week of February. Ameer, in a white top and pink skirt, had left her hair loose. Ranjith thought she looked beautiful. But she spoke of how difficult it had been for her, a transperson, to enter shows like the one in Kozhikode. Often, she told Ranjith, this would prompt her to conceal her identity.

Ranjith decided to do a separate story on Ameer for one of the morning bulletins. Ameer, looking directly into the camera, says in Malayalam, “My biggest dream is to act in at least one movie in this lifetime."

Hours after the story ran on 1 March, Tamil movie director Ram’s cellphone started ringing in a studio in Chennai. At the other end was actor Mammootty, the superstar of Malayalam cinema and hero in Ram’s new project, Peranbu. The team was still looking for the final cast, primarily for the lead female character. In the script, this character is described as someone who looks outwardly like a “normal" woman, but is, in reality, a transwoman.

Ameer while shooting for ‘Suvarna Purushan’ in Thrissur. Rohith Prakash
Ameer while shooting for ‘Suvarna Purushan’ in Thrissur. Rohith Prakash

“The lead female character in the movie is a transwoman. Mammookka (“elder brother Mammootty", as the actor is fondly called) asked me to watch the news channel and suggested (Ameer) could be perfect for the role," says Ram, over the phone from Chennai.

Ram’s team contacted the news channel and tracked Ameer down to Coimbatore. They asked her to come to Chennai for a screen test. She soon got a call from Ram saying, “We are signing you up."

Ameer’s entry into movies is momentous—this is the first time a mainstream movie has cast a transwoman in a lead female role alongside a south Indian superstar. It represents a seismic shift in the regional film industry where transpersons, if they feature at all, usually serve as peripheral characters, generally in comic roles. And it would not have been possible without one transwoman’s relentless solitary struggle.

It is also a story of how things have changed for people like her in her home state. Or not.

Role play

“It was a dream come true," says Ameer, when we meet at her house in Coimbatore. The overhead shelves are crowded with plaques and citations that she has received after being signed on for Peranbu.

She still lives in a single-room apartment that barely allows a person to move around comfortably. On the outskirts of Coimbatore, it has just the bare necessities. A large double cot, piled with three-four teddy bears, takes up most of the space. There’s neither a television, nor a dressing table.

To Ameer, however, her home holds great significance. “This is the place which sheltered me when I had nothing, and I feel a certain sense of security and nostalgia here," she says.

Ostracized by her family early on, Ameer’s life has been defined by relentless struggle. The LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, questioning) communities in Coimbatore and Chennai took her under their wing and functioned as her adopted family. In keeping with the community’s tradition of providing emotional support, Ameer has also adopted four transgender girls, thereby strengthening the “family" network.

Yet, Ameer finds it exhausting to talk about her identity, and the “coming out" experience. She wants to start afresh, without straddling the transgender label or with LGBTQ associations. She wants to be recognized solely as a woman and as an actor. “Will anyone call you a man journalist?" she asks.

Whether Ameer likes it or not, she has earned the identity of an icon, of a role model within the community. She has also been hounded persistently by the media, being asked questions like, “How does it feel being a successful transgender person?"

It’s attention she needs for her career—except that it comes with the transperson label.

She is currently working on two other low-budget movies—one in Malayalam and another in Telugu, in lead roles—where her characters largely epitomize the ideal woman.

Ameer and Mammootty in a scene from ‘Peranbu’. Courtesy Ram
Ameer and Mammootty in a scene from ‘Peranbu’. Courtesy Ram

In search of her roots

To piece together Ameer’s past, I went in search of her family and friends in her hometown Thamarassery, 30km from Kozhikode.

Thamarassery is a picturesque town, grounded in religion and tradition. The Indian Union Muslim League is strong in the area.

Many of the locals seem unaware of the name “Anjali Ameer", but are quick to respond when I mention “Jamsheer"—her birth name. Enthusiastically, they sit down and chalk out a life story that is perhaps as compelling as a movie script.

Ameer was born into a Muslim family. Her mother died in an accident when she was eight months old. Her father remarried, and she was sent to her mother’s home, a deeply conservative joint family. It was a house full of women—she grew up among cousins, most of them girls.

Sugatha Kumari, who was the headmistress of the school where Ameer studied, remembers a young boy with long hair, who would walk into her class with kohl-lined eyes and, sometimes, even high heels. He would participate regularly, Kumari recalls, in inter-school competitions, performing the oppana dance. The headmistress didn’t take it all too seriously. “Kids, they do all these things and change when they grow up."

“But I didn’t want to change," Ameer said when we met in October. “I was ridiculed. Many called me ‘Chanthupottu’ (after a 2005 movie which portrayed a transwoman as a caricature). But I had my set of friends, who were girls, and we got along really well."

At 15, Ameer got into a relationship with a neighbourhood boy, which rattled the household peace in both families. “I don’t blame them," Ameer says. “They were brought up in a certain manner with a certain kind of thinking. However, I was convinced by then of my identity as a woman. I had begun reading several articles on the internet and secretly attended transgender community events." At one such event, Ameer managed to get a contact in the LGBTQ community in Chennai.

One night, Ameer took a train to Chennai, where she planned to stay at a shelter for transpersons. Given its strong transgender networks, the city, along with Bengaluru and Coimbatore, has long functioned as a refuge for young runaways. At home, she left behind a note: “I am going to become a woman." Ameer’s boyfriend dropped her to the railway station. From there on, her journey would be a lonely one, marked by devastating isolation.

In Chennai, Ameer found it tough to make ends meet. She hadn’t imagined she would be forced to beg on the streets. Five months later, when her father died, she set off for home.

But her family refused to accept her unless she cut her hair and behaved like a man. Ameer, however, had already begun the preliminary treatment for sex-reassignment surgery in Chennai, with the help of her community and some money she had earned through odd jobs.

Her boyfriend called off their relationship. And two months later, Ameer packed her bags once again and left for Coimbatore, vowing never to return.

She took up countless jobs—from working at a beauty parlour to bar dancing—and resumed her studies, graduating in social work from the Madurai Kamaraj University in Tamil Nadu. “Meanwhile, I began getting modelling offers and support from stage programmes. So the money somehow kept coming in," she says.

Today, Ameer is a lead actor, but her relationship with her biological family is still bitter. “Even after her big break and her becoming an inspirational icon, her relatives are unwilling to accept her," says a family friend, who didn’t want to be named. “They still think she discredited the family name."

I tried to meet some of her relatives, but they weren’t willing to be interviewed for this story. “We have nothing to do with that person," said one of them.

Transcending boundaries

Ameer’s film will release in December. During its making over the last year, Ameer’s casting has received a great deal of publicity in the state.

She was featured on the cover of two of the three best-selling women’s magazines in Kerala: Grihalakshmi and Manorama Weekly. Albeit as a transwoman. And this is one of the many dilemmas that she and her community find themselves in.

Public perception has shifted dramatically, from stereotyping transpersons as sex workers, to accepting them as regular individuals. This is reflected in a growing incidence of first-time-in-history events. In April, for instance, the Kerala government organized a sports meet exclusively for transpersons. It later announced scholarships for them to continue their higher studies. The state government is also looking at opening exclusive clinics for transpersons in state-run medical colleges. All government buildings in Kerala are now even required to have separate washrooms for transpersons. In June, the social organization Dhwayah organized a beauty contest for them.

The Kochi Metro, when it started operations in June, hired 23 transpersons, the first Indian government organization to do so. The move was recognized internationally and applauded. The train service later announced that in the long term, it plans to increase the number to 60.

The larger picture, though, is not promising. Transpersons are still discriminated against in housing and employment offices. They still hold street protests against the police.

In June, Lounge reported the struggles of the transpersons who had been hired by the Kochi Metro. They were forced to stay on the terraces of buildings and pay steep rents, and some of them continued to face discrimination when they tried to find homes to rent. Financially, too, they were at a disadvantage. Some of them stated that they were offered the jobs as mere tokenism, without taking their skills into account.

The dichotomy, therefore, is startling. “Visibility is growing, opportunities are growing, but so many young-generation transpersons are still unwilling to come out, fearing alienation from society," says J. Devika, writer and associate professor of gender at the Centre for Development Studies, a Thiruvananthapuram-based research institute, over the phone. “I know of many who are thrown out of their houses after revealing their identity even now. The pressure on them is huge and they end up in terrible circumstances. This is besides trans-phobic police officers and government machinery moving at a slow pace, causing much trouble to the community," she adds.

Ameer continues to live alone. I asked her what she did for Onam, a festival when Malayali families come together to celebrate. “If you don’t have a lot of friends and relatives, what’s the point of celebrating? I don’t have anyone," says Ameer. But she is quick to reconsider, adding with a smile: “However, this Onam, I was invited to celebrate with children who were suffering from cancer. They gave me gifts and all! I was touched by their love."

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