(Globe and Mail) The neighbourhood is choked with rickshaws, bullock carts, spice stands, saree shops and bangle stalls. It’s India from central casting.
The TV star, not so much. With a long stride and a curvy sashay that sends her chiffon dupatta fluttering around her, Rose Venkatesan emerges from the dust and the crowd, more than ready for her close-up – but with a somewhat anxious air that suggests she is a bit worried about just what that close-up may bring.
Rose is, as she mentions at least once in every conversation, India’s first transgender television star. Once an engineer named Ramesh, she began to transition to female six years ago, to the horror of her conservative family.
Today she is a star, both in India and in the Tamil diaspora, including the large community in Canada. Her first TV talk show had an audience in the tens of millions. She has helped advance the political agenda of transgendered people, typically reviled but recently afforded a rare degree of accommodation by the government in Tamil Nadu. Her second show – which she is producing and directing and writing herself, as well as hosting – has just hit the air and early signs are that it’s a hit too.
Yet Rose, 30, also lives in a strange world of half-acceptance – sharing a home with a family that still calls her Ramesh and forbids her to wear a saree in front of them; hitting the town with her queer friends to flirt and party but insisting on a dark and empty restaurant when she meets a journalist to tell her story. “Weakness is death, strength is life,” she signs every e-mail – but strength, it would seem, can be exhausting.
Rose comes from a middle-class family here; her father is a property dealer, but their house is small and the bathroom is in the yard. She saved to go to the United States to study, and earned a master’s degree in biomedical engineering in Louisiana. Tormented since adolescence with questions about her gender identity and sexuality, she found little freedom in the United States. But on a visit home, she met her first confidently out transgender woman. “And I realized what I was.”
She came back to Chennai, and got a job teaching American pronunciation and idioms to call- centre workers. She started wearing women’s shirts and trousers to work and growing her hair. Her family was willfully blind. And so it was that, at 24, she found herself in a room full of 40 relatives, gathered to pick a suitable bride for the boy they knew as Ramesh. Rose burst out the news that she was transgendered and could not marry a woman; there was an aghast silence.
The next few years were rough. When she started dressing fully as a woman, the call centre wouldn’t employ her, and her parents threw her out. Somehow, Rose found the strength to keep it together, get her hair done, and try to persuade a major television network that they needed her on air.
At Star Vijay, a channel owned by Richard Murdoch’s News Corp., producers were screen-testing film actresses to host a new late-night talk show when Rose walked in and pitched them on the idea of a transgendered TV host. It was the third station she had tried; the first two laughed and showed her out. But at Vijay, they were struck by Rose’s magnetic presence, and they saw an opportunity to do something new in a saturated media market.
The show, launched two years ago, was called “Ippadikku Rose” (Yours, Rose), and it walked a fine line, dealing with topics such as prostitution, divorce and sexual harassment for a profoundly conservative audience.
“It was a very successful show for us,” said Pradeep Peter Milroy, head of programming for the channel. “People all over this market recognized her.”
All the way through the show, Rose’s mere presence – bracelets glittering, long curly hair decorated with a woman’s traditional string of jasmine flowers – introduced another radical idea. Transgendered people – those born male but who feel female are known here as hijras – have a sacred role in Indian mythology but today are mocked at best and, more often, vilified. They are harassed in the streets, and are frequent victims of police extortion. Many turn to begging or sex work to survive. When they appear in Indian media, they are portrayed, Rose said, as the “worst kind of people.” By chatting on her show, articulate and clearly well-educated, the kind of girl a mother might like her son to marry, she shattered many myths at once.
“When it comes to this community, the image the audience has in mind is not a clean one – there is a stigma,” said Mr. Peter. “But Rose comes with a very good background, well-educated, and in the way she conducts herself – people saw her as any other host.”
In the process, she became something of a hero in her community. “Rose is very good – she really helped,” said Jiva, an activist with the Transgender Rights Association in Chennai. “She got respect for us, from the show. And she told people what we are about.”
The transgendered population in India is estimated at about 1 million people, some 30,000 of them in Tamil Nadu. The comparatively progressive state government created a welfare arm for transgendered people last year, which now offers access to food rations and has introduced free sex reassignment surgery. “Ever since I came into the media there have been so many changes,” Rose said, calmly taking credit for all of it.
She has been the subject of a dozen photo shoots for fashion magazines and has huge name recognition here. “I’m a mainstream celebrity – people run after me for autographs,” she said. And yet she will not walk in the streets; she whispers when she talks about anything personal; in public she is in a constant state of hyper-vigilance, not convinced that celebrity will be enough to shield her from ridicule or worse.
On the new show, “Idha Rose Nerau” (The Rose Hour), she plays a character – that of a U.S.-born and raised Tamil who gets a job as the manager of a software company in Chennai and moves to India. She sets out to “study Indology” and invites people into her “home” for discussions on issues.
The first issue featured obesity – a rapidly growing problem here. Kalaignar, the number-two network in Tamil Nadu, agreed to run 52 episodes on Saturday nights, but won’t front the production money, so Rose is perpetually broke, and stuck living back with her family, and all the whispering neighbours.
“My mother just hates me wearing a saree and makeup, she just hates me going on television in that,” she sighed. Her family’s frequently voiced wish is that she would simply marry some nice girl, and then carry on with whatever depravity she chooses in private.
But Rose is busy making plans for feature films, built around transgendered characters, and is seeking a production partner to make a reality television series about the gender reassignment surgery she hopes to undergo in Thailand. (She has taken hormone shots in the past and had electrolysis for facial hair, but no surgery as yet – while the government program here would be free, she shudders at the thought of having her new female body made by some hack in Chennai with no experience.)
In the meantime, she is trying to carve out a place of her own and her in-between status affords a certain privilege. “If I were a genuine woman, I’d have my family blocking me, but I come home late, I stay out all night. If I were a biological woman by this stage, I’d be married and I’d have children and I’d have to take care of them – that’s what’s expected of a woman here,” she said. “But I can do whatever I want.”