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.

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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.