In 2019, Trinetra Tiwari donned a bright sari with a golden border and walked on stage. With lips painted a deep shade of red, a prominent bindi on his forehead and heavy golden earrings dangling from his ears, he transformed into Rangoli, a transgender woman whose dreams and fantasies revolve around getting married.
Pehli Shaadi, a piece Tiwari wrote and enacted as part of ‘InQueerable Happenings’ Short + Salty’ festival, highlights the marginalisation of transgender experiences. Recently, the play was presented in an audio avatar by News9, a digital news platform, as part of Pride Month 2022. In the audio presentation, which is a little over nine minutes long, the cis-actor takes the listener into his imaginary world.
The seeds of Pehli Shaadi were sown when theatre practitioner Vikram Phukan invited Tiwari to write a piece for ‘InQueerable Happenings’ after watching him play a trans character in Akvarious’ production One Night Only in 2018. The Amey Mehta-directed play was a movement-and-dance-based drama that told the mythological tale of Arjuna’s son Iravan, who is revered as a deity by transgender persons.
Tiwari played one of the transgender characters on the show. “Vikram saw me in it and approached me to write and perform a short piece, and thus Pehli Shaadi was born. I first performed it in 2019,” says the Drama School Mumbai graduate, who has staged it five or six times since then. This year, he was once again approached by Phukan, to convert the play into an audio version. “Initially we thought of recording the performance itself but we felt recording it in a proper audio format would work better. The art sketches add to the impact,” he says. The text has remained the same, but Tiwari has added little nuances to enhance the audio presentation.
Writing the script took him just a day or two. The narration by the protagonist Rangoli—voiced by Tiwari— is set against the beats of a dholki. The director speaks the lines in Hindi, even as the English translation appears on screen. Rangoli yearns for someone to get married to. In her imagination, her partner is like a warm blanket in the winters and like a sliver of truth in a world full of betrayals. She then proceeds to take the listener through the harsh realities of her life ending with a ditty.
Tiwari is aware that subjects such as these need to be handled sensitively and he was mindful of the same when writing Pehli Shaadi. “We had done extensive research for three months before One Night Only and that experience came in handy while writing this short piece,” he says.
He and his writing team tried not only to understand the daily practical challenges but also the inner psychology of transgender persons. “There is also a big difference in what we see and what really happens in their life,” he adds.
To ensure that Rangoli does not come across as a caricature, Tiwari approached the character from a neutral position. “The character is human like everyone else. For me, it was these internal workings that were important,” he says. The bigger risk was coming across as loud or garish. “I am from a boys’ school and since there were no girls around, I would essay female characters on stage. When I was thinking of this character, I tried to tap into my feminine side, making my movements slightly more elegant. But there was no intention of going overboard,” he says.
Validation has come in the form of appreciation from the LGBTQIA+ community. “Till now, I have performed three shows for the Gaysi Family and two for Gay Bombay, and everyone has liked it,” he says. Perhaps the only person to express some discontent is playwright Mahesh Dattani, who believes it should have been a trans actor in the role of Rangoli and not a cis-gender person.
Whether it is the physical performance or its audio avatar, Tiwari hopes the audiences are able to understand that on an emotional level, there is nothing that differentiates transgenders from cisgenders. “They have the same dreams and desires but society judges them even before knowing them,” he says. “Like everyone else, they are just human beings looking for acceptance.”
Deepali Singh is a Mumbai-based culture writer