A Transgender TV Debut
Sunday, December 9, 2007
CHENNAI, India -- In a congested neighborhood full of trash heaps, cows and auto-rickshaws lives a budding star named Rose.
Her photographs are splashed across newspaper pages and magazine centerfolds. She speaks at upscale women's clubs and poses for fashion shoots in her diva-like designer chiffon sari. She gets free makeovers at the mall from admiring cosmetics saleswomen.
In a few weeks, Rose will become India's first transgender host of a late-night TV chat show, to be broadcast to millions of homes in the southern state of Tamil Nadu.
But her neighbors know none of this. They know Rose as Ramesh Venkatesan, just another young man living with his parents and trying to eke out a living.
Rose, who is 28 and uses only her first name, said that she has kept her identity secret from her neighbors for three years. She fears they would jeer at her parents if they knew.
She has reason to be concerned. The transgender community in this country has long been discriminated against, a people to be lampooned in movies. Transgender Indians are so oppressed that many earn a living only by making themselves a nuisance; they show up at weddings or shops, clapping their hands and demanding money from people who are all too eager to shoo them away.
Rose wants to change that. Her forthcoming show, called "Yours, Rose," will be a venue to debate all kinds of socially taboo topics. It will be aired by Star Vijay, a Tamil-language channel owned by Rupert Murdoch's News Corp.
"I want to break social stereotypes about transgender people through my TV show," said Rose, tall and bejeweled with blond streaks in her hair.
"People will be curious about me. I know curiosity is not acceptance, but it is a start," she said. She talks openly about the fact that she regularly gets hormone shots, and about the fact that she has not yet decided whether to undergo sex reassignment surgery.
A decade ago, such public discussion of sexual identity or sexual orientation would have been unthinkable. India's first major motion picture about lesbians, "Fire," was attacked by extremist groups. Movie posters were burned and theaters barred from screening the film. Gay men and lesbians paraded through the streets by the tens of thousands to assert their rights; it was a demonstration like none this country had ever seen.
Rose's show reflects shifts in a society that has learned to acknowledge the presence of sexual minorities. It's also a testament to the growing willingness of private television channels to address sensitive issues. In Muslim-majority Pakistan, Begum Nawazish Ali became the first transgender South Asian television host only two years ago.
"We were looking for a movie star to host our late-night chat show. And Rose just walked in and impressed us with her personality and education," said Pradeep Milroy Peter, head of programming for Star Vijay, which attracts more than 56 million viewers. "We said, let's profile you as the Oprah of this market."