Wednesday, February 20, 2008

A Rose Grows In India

a really good article in the New York Times about Rose Venkatesan, India’s first trans-gender TV host

A complex procedure even for experienced hands, the process of tying a sari is particularly hard for Rose, who was raised as a boy, and used to be known as Ramesh Venkatesan. Her mother never taught her the skill and refuses to see her wear one. Even so, the outcome was flawless.

When it is broadcast on Vijay television to an audience of up to 64 million people in the southern state of Tamil Nadu later this month, “Ippadikku Rose” (“Yours, Rose”) is expected to cause a sensation, introducing India’s first transgender celebrity to television. [Ed Note: who are America's transgender celebrities? I don't think Amanda Lepore counts]

The show’s director, Anthony Thirunelveli, said the half-hour talk show had been conceived as a program suitable for family viewing but would discuss issues of sex and sexuality, confronting “hush, hush, under the carpet subjects.” The first nine episodes will tackle, among other things, divorce, sex and relationships among the mostly young employees in India’s call centers, and sexual harassment.

The main attraction will be Rose herself, who now goes by only one name. A poised, 28-year-old, American-educated former Web site designer with a master’s degree in biomedical engineering, she started wearing women’s clothes full time four years ago and is still waiting for acceptance from her family and society at large.

If nothing else, the show will start to propel downtrodden groups of transsexuals, or hijras, into the mainstream.

“Transgenders in India are seen as immoral and evil,” Rose said, calmly leafing through the script of her first show — an interview with a prostitute about her recently published autobiography. “I will break that image by being articulate, intelligent and a bit like the girl next door.”

“This is a radical development,” she added. “There have been transsexuals in Indian movies, but always as the object of ridicule or as villains. This is the first time in the history of Indian television that a transgender person has been featured as a television anchor.”

His anxieties are understandable in a country where the boundaries of sexual tolerance are shifting daily, with much uncertainty and unpredictability. Fashion TV was briefly banned for showing too much flesh; a film star’s career was threatened after comments that appeared to condone premarital sex; and fringe political groups like nothing better than to stir noisy (and often spurious) paroxysms of moral outrage.

The channel was not searching for controversy, but executives were so impressed by Rose’s screen presence and determination to fight prejudice that they agreed instantly to give her a show despite her lack of experience.

“People here will not openly let transsexuals into their homes,” Rose said, disclosing that she had deliberately isolated herself from college friends and neighbors to avoid rejection

Rose said attitudes were no less hostile in parts of the United States, where she had spent three years studying at Louisiana Tech University. “There, people were aggressively homophobic,” she said. “America is very hypocritical when it comes to its stand on sexual minorities. Historically, India was very progressive about this until the British came and imposed a Victorian sense of morality, which still remains.”
[Ed. Note: Goddamn christian morality]
Rose said she had no desire to shock, but just hoped that she would be watched.

“As a person, I am very open, but this is a big television channel which goes out to millions of people,” she said. “We don’t want any bad reaction.”

Here's a clip of Ippadikku Rose” (“Yours, Rose”)

reading that article reminded me of something similar in Begum Nawazish Ali, a transgendered talk show host in Pakistan who is breaking down barriers of her own and is (or was in 2006) a huge star and almost a feminist icon
The talk show host making waves in the Islamic Republic of Pakistan (and apparently Kashmir) is purportedly a stylish, middle-aged, socialite widow of an army colonel. Her monologues are often laced with sexual innuendo, she flirts openly with her guests, and sometimes embarrasses them with probing questions about their private lives. Her guests include some of Pakistan's most well-known personalities: the urban elite, film and television stars and even some top politicians. Most are nevertheless thrilled to be invited to appear on a program millions are watching.

Viewers are obviously fascinated too. Dinner party conversations here in Karachi are often peppered with anecdotes about her risqué banter and sly digs at Pakistani politics. Women call the television station to inquire about the tailoring of her sequined blouses and where to buy her glamorous saris.

The thing is, Begum Nawazish Ali is actually a man. Ali Saleem, the 28-year-old man who dons lipstick, mascara and a wig to Begum Nawazish Ali, has managed to break many taboos in conservative Pakistan through the character.

When I nonchalantly mentioned that the host was in drag to the Kashmiri journalist, his eyes almost popped out of his head. That was almost a bigger surprise for me. I thought that fact was obvious to everyone and was part of the show's success. Certainly no Pakistani woman on television could get away with the kind of double entendres she gets away with.

To the actor Saleem, there is little doubt about why audiences are tuning in – they’re all waiting to see what the well-coiffed, manicured character will say next.

Female guests often find themselves comparing wardrobes and jewelry with her, while male guests have had to bear the brunt of a suggestive proposition from her. "Some people compare her to Dame Edna's character on British television," said Saleem, "but Begum Nawazish Ali is much too sophisticated to ever be that crude."

So popular is the show that advertising rates during its weekend prime time slot are triple that of other shows in similar slots. Saleem is now one of the highest paid television hosts in the country and is constantly receiving offers from rival channels to bring the show to them.

During an arduous three-hour hair and make-up session before the recording of a show, Saleem was philosophical about the reasons why the show has clicked with audiences.

"I think Begum Nawazish Ali inspires women in particular because she is a strong, glamorous, opinionated woman who is unafraid of saying what she thinks and of flirting with men if she feels like it," explained Saleem. "Men, on the other hand, find her intriguing because she transcends all kinds of restrictions and plays with their imagination."

So far, despite the thin line Saleem treads between the outrageous and the socially acceptable – overt sexuality of any kind is frowned upon in conservative Pakistan – his celebrity guests have also been good sports.

Surprisingly even Pakistan's firebrand religious leaders have never attacked the show. "We couldn't convince [the head of the main religious parties alliance] Qazi Hussain Ahmed to come on the show," said Saleem, "but he was very good-natured about it. He praised the Begum and said he would rather just watch the show on television."

Even a septuagenarian belonging to Jamaat-e-Islami, an Islamist political party, claimed that he did not know what he was getting into after appearing on the show.
Here she is on Al-Jazeera's "Everywoman" (starting at 5:40)

(and here are a lot more clips if you're interested)

isn't it sort of ironic that in countries that a lot of people look at as so oppressive especially sexual, there are shows with positive transgendered role models while in America you can look far and wide for any recurring and thoughtful portrayal. Could you imagine a show, a talk show where a transgender host, in a non camp manner talks frankly about issues and has guests of power onto her show and it becoming a phenomenon?
(But if you can imagine that and there is such a show in America please let me know- I'd love to be watching it)

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