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‘People asked me not to play a transgender’

Culture‘People asked me not to play a transgender’

Actor Ashish Sharma has played the lead role in several hit television shows, including Prithvi VallabhGunahon Ka DevtaChandragupta MauryaRangrasiyaSiya Ke Ram etc. The talented actor will now be seen in the film Khejdi, by his own production house. Sharma has portrayed the character of a transgender in the film, which was the only Indian film to open Germany’s prestigious Homochrom film fest last year. He has also recently ventured into the domain of web series. Sharma speaks to Guardian 20 about his career, the film Khejdi and his plans for the web.


Q. When did you decide to pursue a career in acting?

A. Growing up, acting was a consistent part of my life. I was always involved in dramatics and theatre, but I never considered it as a serious career option. Slowly and gradually, everything else faded away and acting became the centre of my life. One fine day, there was a reality show in my college and they were selecting actors from all parts of India. I participated in it from Rajasthan and reached the top three. I couldn’t make the Mumbai round. The day I was ousted from the competition, people walked up to me and said that I did very well and deserved to win. It was a moment of revelation that if I could move them with my performance, I should continue on this path for them. I said to myself: this is what I should be doing for the rest of my life.

Q. You started your career with the film Love Sex Aur Dhokhain 2010, but then shifted to television. What caused that switch?

A. I did not think much about it. The truth is, when you come to Mumbai, you do what you get. I have always been cautious of what I am going to do and how I am going to it. And then television happened, but there was a lot of apprehension—not particularly about the medium, but about the culture and process. Back then, it was very unorganised. But the people I met changed my perception. I was fortunate enough to meet the right kind of people who gave me the kind of liberty a lot of newcomers don’t get. So I just went along with the journey. One thing that I kept in mind is: “Work gets work. Do all kinds of work.” It was said to me by Anupam Kher.

Q. What kind of challenges have you had to overcome to establish yourself in the entertainment industry?

A. The biggest challenge faced by anyone who comes to Mumbai from outside the city is where to go and whom to meet. I didn’t know where to start from. It takes years to figure out whom to approach. You need to meet the right people at the right time. Then everything else comes—how capable, talented and disciplined you are. So that was the struggle, but if you are honest and persistent enough, I think things fall in place. I spent my initial 4-5 years in this industry doing that, which is a very tricky time. It tests your patience as an individual, it tests your mental strength etc. But you just need to keep going. If you get through that phase, it becomes easy later on and you can build on that. That is your foundation.

Q. What was the idea behind your film Khejdi, which has already won accolades globally?

A. People have been calling the film “risky” and “gutsy”, because of the story. In India, people don’t support this kind of cinema. Actors are usually apprehensive to portray any part of the LGBTQ community. Why? They think if someone plays a gay character, people might think that person is actually gay. My question is how does it matter? That’s the perception and notion that we want to erase. That’s why this kind of cinema is important. Khejdi’s story has been adapted from a short story, “Sanjha”, written by Kiran Singh. Her short story was stuck in my head for a couple of years and once I shared it with my wife, we decided that if ever we make a film, this should be our first one. So we worked on the screenplay for about two years. Everyone asked me not to play this kind of a role, some close friends also warned that it would destroy my career. There were all kinds of negative comments. And those things that they kept saying made us more focused and we felt a stronger urge to get this right.

Q. How did you prepare for the role of a transgender character?

A. Preparing for the role was a grueling journey. For about 4-5 months, I had to physically and mentally transform myself. I had to lose my muscles, let go of my masculinity. In your muscle memory, you do things like a man. So you have to get rid of that. The movements needed to flow organically. I lost almost 25 kilos for the part. I was living on liquids for those months. Then to perfect the gestures and postures, I attended very extensive workshops. I took Kathak classes to get more feminine. Usually, when you play characters, you’ve either seen them around or had similar experiences in life and so you can relate. But I had no reference point at all to play this unfamiliar character. I had to create it in my head and then imagine how the person would think or be like. The story aims to break the projected image of transgenders. They are taught to behave in a certain way… Society molds them to do so. But they are like any of us. The story breaks the stereotype around transgenders and hopes to curb the discrimination against them.

Q. You have worked across different platforms, like films, television and web series? How different are these from each other?

A. The mediums are different. So work ethics, processes and cultures are different. The end product becomes a little different because the target audience is different for all. I feel fortunate to be working across mediums right now and I think it’s a very good space for any person related to the performing arts. I am enjoying as an actor. But I love cinema more—not just acting, but creating stories from scratch. As for television, which I have done the most, I call it my paid learning as there is a great scope for learning in TV and you get paid. But the kind of stories that the web has come up with is beyond cinema and television both. The way we can explore on web is immense. You can tell stories the way you want to tell them. You can tell them honestly—stories that are very true to their nature. The other two platforms have restrictions. So you don’t have to fabricate stuff on the web.

Q. Tell us about your first web series, Modi: Journey of a Common Man, which released recently.

A. Umesh Shukla is such a prolific director that I just wanted to work with him. So when I got a call from his office, I had “yes” in my mind before even hearing about the project. Then they threw this thing at me about playing a young Narendra Modi and the first thing on my mind was that I don’t look like him. I didn’t know how to do this thing. Then the director said that he wasn’t looking for a lookalike of Modi. He just wanted an actor who could take forward their honest effort. That approach made sense to me. Then I read the book on which this series is based. They had done a lot of research. It was not a glorified documentation of somebody’s life. So I went ahead with the project.


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