Written by Alaka Sahani | Published: February 5, 2018 12:00 am Nary Singh with Saif Ali Khan in still from the recently released film, Kaalakaandi
For the role of Sheela in Kaalakaandi (which released last month), I had to look beautiful. So, I selected my costume — the dress and jewellery. It was a major role and I’m very happy that my scenes were not snipped,” says Nary Singh, who is basking in the compliments that her track in Kaalakaandi with Saif Ali Khan has fetched her. She is most thrilled about the fact that though Sheela is a sex-worker, Khan’s character treats her as an equal. “I felt good that before parting, I give my yellow jacket to Saif since I’m happy with him and don’t even take any money from him,” the actor recalls.
This track in Kaalakaandi, directed by Akshat Verma, is a relatively “new concept” in mainstream Indian cinema where a transgender character shares warm camaraderie with an A-list actor. The film is a dark comedy about life, death and karma.
According to Singh, transgender characters are rarely featured in Indian cinema. “In most cases, transgender actors are used in comic roles or shown as caricatures. Worse, they are shown clapping and begging on the streets. Using them in the manner Kaalakaandi did, is even rarer. Maybe this film would inspire others to think and develop transgender characters sensitively. That would be an achievement for Bollywood,” says the actor, who is all praises for the movie team for making her part of the posters and promotions. She promptly makes it clear that she is “not talking about gay actors and characters but about she-males”. Though people in the industry are mostly well aware of the difference, she needs to explain the term “she-male” to people, occasionally.
In the past, Paresh Rawal and Arif Zakaria have played the role of transgenders, while women have essayed such characters in television shows such as a new production of the Mahabharata and Shakti. “I had auditioned for the role of Shrikandi which eventually a woman did. A real-life transgender should be cast in such roles to give a touch of authenticity,” says Singh, who is in talks of a web-series. “After Kaalakaandi, I don’t want to be cast for a bit role or a comic track that degrades transgenders. I wish to be cast as a heroine,” she adds.
Born and brought up in a conservative Rajput family in Madhya Pradesh’s Panna, Singh was the youngest of seven siblings. Hence, the most spoilt one. Her three elder sisters would treat her like a girl. They were good at singing and dancing though they never took it up professionally. While Singh did not pay much attention to studies, she was crazy about dancing. “This craze started after watching movies, especially Sridevi’s. Before moving to Mumbai, I used to dance to her songs during shows,” she says. Singh was cast as a transgender social worker in Sridevi’s movie Mom, which released last year. She kept calling the veteran actress gurumata (teacher) on the sets.
Before Singh moved to Mumbai in 1997 at the age of 17, she had already made a career as a dancer. “I’m a gifted dancer. However, boys were not allowed to learn dancing in Panna. Though I used to perform with orchestra parties and at other shows there, I was aware of its limitations,” she says. The decision to shift to Mumbai was met with stiff resistance at home. Singh stopped eating and, finally, her mother relented. With Rs 1,000 in her pocket, she reached Mumbai. She got some jobs as a back dancer and assistant choreographer in Bhojpuri and other low-budget movies. Many projects, featuring her, were proposed and shelved. She moved to Dubai and dance ensured her a steady income.
Once Singh had enough money to be comfortable, she moved back to Mumbai. This time, she had better luck at getting assignments. She bagged an item song in Dunno Y… Na Jaane Kyon, but it was removed at the editing table. She had a meatier role in its sequel, made a brief appearance in Madhur Bhandarkar’s Calendar Girls (2015), and appeared in reality shows such as Entertainment Ke Liye Kuch Bhi Karega and India’s Got Talent. She featured in a key sequence with Ranbir Kapoor in Tamasha (2015).
Three months before Mom’s shooting, Singh underwent the surgical procedure to physically become a woman. “Increasingly, I had the urge to be more true to myself and stop living a dohri zindagi (double life). That apart, I always got better response from the audience when I performed as a woman, did a mujra or a Helen number,” she says. Though she has not met her family members after the procedure, she believes that they might find out about it after watching Kaalakaandi.