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Actor, director discuss the growing trend of including transgenders in plays.
Transgenders in plays: Do you enjoy theatre with a little bit of Sheila?

in PAKISTAN, 29/06/2012

Over the last few years, including a eunuch has become a common practice in Pakistani theatre. The reasons behind this trend vary; while some say the person who plays the character of a eunuch always adds comic relief, Sharabeel says it may be linked to Bollywood.

“We don’t have eunuchs in all our plays. This character is included in the play just to add more humour to it and we have never received any complaints,” says Sharabeel, adding that only five of the 50 plays he has directed have had transgender characters.

Flora O, the writer of musical “Avanti: The Grand Musical”, maintains that the decision to select a eunuch as the best friend of the lead character was to balance the solemn and funny sides of the play.

“People have always asked why I used a eunuch,” says Flora. “The purpose was to show that the best friend of the lead character is a eunuch and also to add a humourous element to the play as well. But many people misinterpreted that,” she adds. 

“I think that it was important to show that eunuchs, too, have friends and have a right to live in this society.”

Eunuchs don’t agree

A group of eunuchs that we spoke to, however, did not see the lighter side like some audiences did. One said that portraying eunuchs theatrically can be detrimental for their community.

“People generally treat us badly,” says Sonia Rana, a eunuch who says she has seen a slightly positive change in attitudes after eunuchs were awarded the privilege of acquiring National Identification Cards. “Directors may use such characters for any reason, for fun or entertainment, but I believe people make fun of us,” she says. “This is just another battle to maintain our honour.”

Rana feels that people involved in the entertainment industry should consider their feelings before portraying them on a stage. “Regardless, the issue has to do with the country as a whole, which on a societal level has failed to provide equal rights to eunuchs.”

Mike Laco, a eunuch and activist who hopes to raise awareness about her community’s rights, agrees. “When people watch films or plays that exhibit this type of comedy, they start taking advantage of us,” she says. For Laco, her real battle is facing people and their reservations with her community on a daily basis.

The man who played Sheila

With fake breasts, a midriff-baring sari blouse and a lustrous wig, Rana Majid transformed into Sheila, a eunuch in “Avanti: The Grand Musical” that recently played in Karachi.

Rana talked about how he reacted when the role was offered to him by Javed Ahmed Saeedi, the director of the play. He was initially asked to play Sheila in another city but declined because he “wasn’t at all comfortable”. Initially, his family reprimanded him and said, “Why are you doing this role? Hum khandani log hain (We come from respectable families).” But Majid said he finally gathered the courage to accept the role, and did it with the support of his parents.

As Sheila, Majid often had to interact with members of the audience during the performance. In one scene, he has to dance with members of the audience, going as far as sitting in the laps of strangers — mostly men. “Men in the audience enjoyed it!” said Majid confidently. “Their wives/girlfriends just laugh it off. They watched every step I took and enjoyed it thoroughly.”

“One man in the audience, on whose lap I was gently seated, tried to hug me. But I managed to get away from him in time,” he laughed.

For Majid, playing Sheila was quite a challenge. He said adapting to a woman’s routine, the hair, make-up and nail polish was “strange”.

After 25 performances that rocked Karachi, will he play a role of this nature again? “No,” said Majid. “Chaap lag jati hai (you get labeled).”

Published in The Express Tribune, 25th, 2012.

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