on the actor's trail

Transgender and proud: Sheethal Shyam on her remarkable journey from activism to acting

She is known across Kerala for her advocacy. Will the movie ‘Aabhaasam’ open up a new front for Sheethal Shyam?

Nearly 20 years ago, Sheethal Shyam was sexually assaulted by seven of her classmates. They were curious to see whether she was male or female. It was so upsetting that Shyam dropped out of school, never to go back again.

“I didn’t know myself at that point what was happening to me,” said the transgender actress, who is part of the ensemble cast of the Malayalam film Aabhaasam. “It was a very traumatising time for me. I thought about killing myself.”

As she sits in the lobby of Mercy Hotel in Kochi, dressed in a black sari with a deep-cut blouse, her hair loose and make-up immaculate, people look at her twice, some raising their eyebrows. But Sheethal Shyam is unfazed.

“I am transgender,” the 33-year-old actress said.

The dictionary definition of transgender is a person whose gender identity or gender expression differs from the assigned sex. In 2014, India recognised transgenders as the third sex. “There’s still a lack of transgender awareness in India – in different parts of the country, they’re known differently,” she pointed out. “For example, hijra or aravani, jagappa or kinnar,” she said. “But the most offensive and upsetting word is chakka and that’s what people use when they see us”.

Sheethal Shyam is a familiar face in Kerala. She champions LGBTQ causes and writes a column in the prestigious Mathrubhumi weekly.

“I consider myself an activist, not an actress, and that’s what I told Jubith Namradath, the film’s director, when he approached me for the role,” she said. “But he insisted that I should play myself and it’s an important role, so I agreed. I was really unsure about how the crew would be with me. I asked Jubith if they had transgender awareness. But they were all great,” she said.

Play
Aabhaasam.

Aabhaasam is short for “Arsha Bharatham Samskaram” or India, the land of great Vedic culture. The May 4 release is a satire on contemporary Indian society, told through the device of a busload of passengers making their way from Bengaluru to Kerala. Shyam plays a transgender activist who is a toy seller by profession and is travelling to Kerala to attend a trans festival at a temple.

This isn’t Shyam’s first role in a film. In 2016, she made a blink-and-miss appearance in Jayan Cherian’s Ka Bodyscapes, a film about gay rights and activism. “But that film was never released in India and shown at many international film festivals, so Aabhaasam is important to me because it’s a big-budget film that will give me visibility as an actress,” Shyam pointed out. She has signed up for another feature film titled Moral Nights, for which she will begin shooting in June.

The visibility has made Shyam aware of herself. “I have had my face lasered, you know, got rid of the facial hair or it gets seen on camera,” she revealed. “And I’m taking hormones so I can grow breasts and my voice can be softer. But I’m not thinking about going all the way to become transsexual”.

Sheethal Shyam was born Shyam CS on September 3, 1982, in Thrissur in Kerala. Her father was an auto driver and her mother, a housewife, and she also has a brother.

She was always unsure about her gender. “I always had masculine in me, but also feminine,” she said. “I would dress up in my amma’s clothes, wear a bit of make-up”.

When she was around 12, she dressed up for a Bharatanatyam performance. “I wore girls’ clothes for that performance,” she recalled. “Lots of people came and praised me. That’s when I realised I wanted to be female”.

Shyam told her mother, who was supportive. “But my dad was an alcoholic – he would beat my mum up saying it was her fault I was the way I was.”

Sheethal Shyam.
Sheethal Shyam.

After leaving school, Shyam wandered from one job to the next. “I worked in a gold jewellery factory, aluminium manufacturing, construction, but never stuck to anything,” she said. In the small town of Thrissur, where everyone knows everyone else, one incident followed another. “I was always harassed because I wore jeans and women’s tops, wore make-up and carried a handbag, yet I was a man,” she said. “I was beaten up all the time mostly by curious young men.”

After moving to Bengaluru in 2001, Shyam worked as a prostitute to survive. “I sold my body and begged just to make ends meet, but I was often beaten up because men are curious about other men dressing up as women,” she said. It was in Bangalore that she came in contact with Sangama, an LGBT rights groups. “I found people like myself and finally I wasn’t alone anymore,” she said.

But there were a lot of questions too. “When women sell their bodies, there are all these NGOs and human rights people asking us to be rehabilitated,” Shyam observed. “Sunny Leone is a porn star. Nobody tells her to go into rehab and turn her life around. Instead she is considered a celebrity.”

Now back in Kerala, Sheethal lives with her partner of 12 years, Smintoj. “A lot of men are attracted to me – I have worked on myself over the years, the way I carry myself,” she said. “But I always tell other men, sorry, I have a partner.”

Smintoj’s family don’t talk to Sheethal Shyam. “They never have accepted me because I’m transgender, but we’re strong,” she said.

They need to be since there has been no let-up in the discrimination. “We’ve been wanting to buy a house,” Shyam said. “When Smintoj goes to view a house, they say yes. But then I go along for a second viewing and people say no because they’re not comfortable with me.”

This despite the fact that Kerala is one of the most transgender friendly states in India. There are government policies to give the third gender jobs, healthcare, housing and pension facilities. “I think pro-transgender policies are working – there are many of us working for Kochi Metro, there are transgender RJs, models etc,” Shyam observed. In a government survey in 2014, 4,000 people identified themselves as transgender; today, that number stands at 35,000. “More needs to be done to raise awareness – all we want is respect, dignity and equality,” she said.

Sheethal Shyam.
Sheethal Shyam.
Support our journalism by subscribing to Scroll+ here. We welcome your comments at letters@scroll.in.
Sponsored Content BY 

Tracing the formation of Al Qaeda and its path to 9/11

A new show looks at some of the crucial moments leading up to the attack.

“The end of the world war had bought America victory but not security” - this quote from Lawrence Wright’s Pulitzer-Prize winning book, ‘The Looming Tower’, gives a sense of the growing threat to America from Al Qaeda and the series of events that led to 9/11. Based on extensive interviews, including with Bin Laden’s best friend in college and the former White House counterterrorism chief, ‘The Looming Tower’ provides an intimate perspective of the 9/11 attack.

Lawrence Wright chronicles the formative years of Al Qaeda, giving an insight in to Bin Laden’s war against America. The book covers in detail, the radicalisation of Osama Bin Laden and his association with Ayman Al Zawahri, an Egyptian doctor who preached that only violence could change history. In an interview with Amazon, Wright shared, “I talked to 600-something people, but many of those people I talked to again and again for a period of five years, some of them dozens of times.” Wright’s book was selected by TIME as one of the all-time 100 best nonfiction books for its “thoroughly researched and incisively written” account of the road to 9/11 and is considered an essential read for understanding Islam’s war on the West as it developed in the Middle East.

‘The Looming Tower’ also dwells on the response of key US officials to the rising Al Qaeda threat, particularly exploring the turf wars between the FBI and the CIA. This has now been dramatized in a 10-part mini-series of the same name. Adapted by Dan Futterman (of Foxcatcher fame), the series mainly focuses on the hostilities between the FBI and the CIA. Some major characters are based on real people - such as John O’ Neill (FBI’s foul-mouthed counterterrorism chief played by Jeff Daniels) and Ali Soufan (O’ Neill’s Arabic-speaking mentee who successfully interrogated captured Islamic terrorists after 9/11, played by Tahar Rahim). Some are composite characters, such as Martin Schmidt (O’Neill’s CIA counterpart, played by Peter Sarsgaard).

The series, most crucially, captures just how close US intelligence agencies had come to foiling Al Qaeda’s plans, just to come up short due to internal turf wars. It follows the FBI and the CIA as they independently follow intelligence leads in the crises leading up to 9/11 – the US Embassy bombings in East Africa and the attack on US warship USS Cole in Yemen – but fail to update each other. The most glaring example is of how the CIA withheld critical information – Al Qaeda operatives being hunted by the FBI had entered the United States - under the misguided notion that the CIA was the only government agency authorised to deal with terrorism threats.

The depth of information in the book has translated into a realistic recreation of the pre-9/11 years on screen. The drama is even interspersed with actual footage from the 9/11 conspiracy, attack and the 2004 Commission Hearing, linking together the myriad developments leading up to 9/11 with chilling hindsight. Watch the trailer of this gripping show below.

Play

The Looming Tower is available for streaming on Amazon Prime Video, along with a host of Amazon originals and popular movies and TV shows. To enjoy unlimited ad free streaming anytime, anywhere, subscribe to Amazon Prime Video.

This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of Amazon Prime Video and not by the Scroll editorial team.