“Section 377 may be gone but the attitude of the society is still the same”, says Paatal Lok actress Henthoi

The trans-woman from Moirang, Manipur, though, is all praise for people who don’t discriminate on gender lines

By Mayur Lookhar

Henthoi

Produced by Anushka Sharma’s Clean Slate Filmz, the recently released [on Amazon Prime Video] crime thriller Paatal Lok [2020] has been garnering rave reviews for its brilliant story telling and the quality of its cast, led by Jaideep Ahlawat, Abhishek Banerjee. The latter is also the casting director who has credited his associate Nikita Grover for unearthing some fine uncut diamonds. Punjabi boys Ishwak Singh and Jagjeet Sandhu were a standout, but it is first-time actress Henthoi from Manipur who caught our imagination.

Henthoi, earlier named Mairembam Ronaldo Singh, is a trans-woman and she played one in Paatal Lok.  Mary Lyngdoh/Cheeni [Henthoi] underlined the struggles of her community [both gender and race] while being raised in the dark underbelly of Delhi. 

Her casting is a story in itself.  In 2019, associate casting director Nikita Grover and her assistant had travelled to Moirang, Manipur. They had auditioned many transgender actors but were still struggling to find their Cheeni.  Few hours before her examination, Henthoi got a call from a friend informing her about an audition.  Henthoi (19) met Grover at 10.am.  It was a hush affair as she rehearsed for an hour. With no room available, they took her audition in the car, shot through mobile. Later.  Henthoi came to Mumbai, attended a workshop and then writer Sudip Sharma and Banerjee gave the go ahead to cast her.

Extremely shy by nature, Henthoi was comfortable in answering our queries through an e-mail communication. Henthoi shares her Paatal Lok journey, her personal struggles, and how once her father threatened to disown her.

Excerpts.

Mairembam Ronaldo Singh. The middle name arouses my curiosity, So, who is the big Ronaldo fan in the family?  Should I presume that s/he must be a fan of the legendary Brazilian striker.

Actually, I was earlier named Ronaldo.  My parents were inspired by the [Portuguese and Juventus Football Club] great Cristiano Ronaldo and so they named me after him. Well, but I don’t like football.

It is glad to see a talent from the North-East of India play a Delhi-born Mongoloid character and not some Punjabi.  Your thoughts.

Henthoi as Cheeni in Paatal Lok [2020]

The character Cheeni is a girl from North-East India. So, I believe that the character requires certain traits of a person from this part of the country. Since I am a Manipuri with specific ethnic features, it was more comfortable for Nikita ma’am to showcase the character in me. They saw a Cheeni in me.

What is admirable about the show is its horses for courses policy.  In your character, it is not just the region but also the sexual orientation [trans-woman] that has been respected. How pleasing is that for you?

It should not be just confined to a working place. We should be treated with dignity and respect wherever we live. I am glad that people working in this film understand the very fact that I am a human first and then a trans-woman.  It was one of the pleasing aspects of the whole experience.

In the past, transgenders have been projected as objects of desire, but in Paatal Lok [2020] Cheeni, like the other four accused, is shown as a victim of the circumstances that s/he was raised in. Is that what separates a Cheeni from a Kukkoo from Sacred Games?

Kubbra Sait (seated) as Kukkoo in Sacred Games

I have not watched Sacred Games yet. So, I can’t talk about the transgender character in that web series. I heard that it was played by a female artiste. But in our web series, the character is played by a real trans-woman. Cheeni has a dark story and it is far from glamour and underworld.

It was disturbing for us to watch. How emotionally draining was it for you to play the character and experience that traumatic journey?

The experience was great. I got the golden opportunity to work with some of the finest actors. It was a difficult role. I broke down while filming the emotional scenes. After all, it was a mix feeling.  The feeling of joy of facing the camera for the very first time was accompanied by the hardships of playing such a challenging role.

You have to take me through to that brutal scene of Hathi Ram Chaudhary [Jaideep Ahlawat] beating you.  How tough was it?

The brutal beating scene was the most challenging part for me. I got bruises on some parts of the body. It was a tough scene for me as I had to be half naked during the beating scene. But my co actor [Ahlawat] took special care of me. He kept on asking whether I was hurt or not. He was so considerate and helpful during the scene.

Would you be comfortable in talking about your struggle to deal with the society? The rejections, if any.

Henthoi

I have experienced many traumatic experiences in my life just because of my sexuality. I was often mocked. People made derogatory remarks on so many occasions. But as I grew up, I was strong enough to never let these things harm me mentally and emotionally. I was bullied a lot for the choices I made. Rejection, discrimination and oppression – we transgenders face that regularly from the society.

Has your family been supportive of you?

Initially, my parents were not happy with my behaviour. My father used to beat me and even threatened to disown me if I continued doing things which are against their thinking. But eventually, they started accepting me. I made them realise that it was not correct for them to feel ashamed of me since I did not commit any crime or a murder. I promised to myself that one day I would make them happy and be proud of their son.

Section 377 [criminalization of gay sex] may be gone, but is the ground reality any different?

The attitude of the society is still the same regardless of whether the act was replaced or not. Homophobia is still present everywhere but at the same time there are also certain section of people who are more tolerant and sensible to our being.

Can you talk about your early life, your education, how you took to acting?

I grew up in a loving family. My parents and siblings used to pamper me a lot since I am the last child of the family. Acting is in my blood. I preferred playing with boys. Life was simple, rustic and sad also.

I am pursuing a degree in Arts from a Manipur college. I grew up being an extrovert. I participated in school dance competition. I joined one local theatre group during my matriculation. This is where I got to learn something about art and theatre.

The problem with our film industry has often been typecasting.  How do you plan to deal with that?

I want to be a good actress. It will be better for me if I get the opportunity to play different kinds of role. I am extremely against the system of type casting. Actors should be given opportunity to explore their talent. I hope that directors and producers will offer me good roles.

So, any new offers after Paatal Lok?

I haven’t been offered any roles post Paatal Lok. The condition of our Manipuri cinema is very different from Bollywood. We are short on producers and directors who can write a good script for a transgender actress like me. I hope to work with a good team who will appreciate my work.

You told me you don’t like football. But being a North East Indian, do you have any favourite international music band?

I hardly listen to Western music. I like Manipuri and Hindi songs. They are the best in terms of melody and lyrics.  I like Atif Aslam.

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