Bullied and sometimes beaten as a child for not conforming to gender stereotypes, the stairway to stardom has been steep and arduous for Bishesh Huirem, Manipur’s award-winning actor who says firmly that being a transgender is not a choice.
Huirem, who speaks eloquently of coming to terms with being trapped in a man’s body, was recently conferred the Best Actor trophy by the Manipur State Film Awards for her role in Bobby Wahengbam’s “Apaiba Leichil” (Floating Clouds), which portrays the struggles of third gender people in society.
The award for her debut film, in which she plays a trans person, brought with it national headlines and recognition outside her home state, and also the hope that her success will smoothen the way for others like her.
“Being a transgender is not a choice. Everything comes naturally to us. We develop our outlook just like a girl even though trapped in a man’s body,” Huirem told PTI.
“People don’t understand this and think they can change this natural gift through threats and beatings. But it will not work. And not accepting it could lead to depression and the inability to develop confidence,” the 33-year-old Imphal-based artiste added.
The aim, she said, is to use her profile and and position as an actor to promote a healthy and normal life for people of her community.
Though the Manipur film industry has been employing third gender people as make-up artistes and choreographers, Huirem has emerged as a rare transgender mainstream performer.
“My recognition will hopefully pave the way for others from my community to take up lead and prominent roles as often seen in the traditional theatre form Shumang Leela, where transgenders play the lead female role. I am optimistic my recognition will make others, even in different fields, judge us based on our talents and skills without any discrimination,” Huirem said.
The film role came after a series of beauty pageants and acting workshops. She said she realised her love for the performing arts as a young child when she started participating in dance competitions during Durga Puja.
The growing up years were difficult.
“My father and elder brother would sometimes beat me up in an effort to make me change my feminine ways. They gave up on their ideas to change me as I entered my teens and especially after I began to win local and state level beauty pageants for transgenders,” she said.
While the school days were not that hard, Huirem had a tough time during her college days at Bengaluru’s Garden City University when she was made to stay in the boys’ hostel.
“The warden would tell me about my feminine way of dressing and advise me to dress more conservatively for my own safety as I looked more like a woman…”
As somebody who had always identified as a girl, being trapped in a man’s body was difficult. Huirem, however, came to accept it as a “natural gift” that can’t be taken away by threats.
“From my childhood, I have always identified as a girl. I felt more comfortable wearing girls’ outfits. I was uncomfortable and insecure when going to the boys’ toilet in school.”
She believes it is important for people to understand the trauma that trans-people often face, and empathise with them so they get the confidence and space to thrive in whatever field they choose.
Apart from working in films and on stage, Huirem is also attached with a transgender health and wellness centre as a lead community mobiliser. She has recently completed her fourth semester in theatre at the Manipur University of Culture.
Huirem said she has been lucky on both professional and personal fronts in her life, but many people from her community still face “mockery, harassment and discrimination”.
The reason, the artiste said, is the lack of biological and legal knowledge related to transgenders.
“If the government can organise periodic mass awareness campaigns on this topic, I think people would understand more about us,” she added.