"Being a star is not easy," declares Rose, as she arrives fashionably late. Draped in a yellow sari and matching accessories with scarcely a hair out of place, she announces that she will host a weekly talk show that will discuss gay issues, sexuality, and other 'taboo' topics. It's not just the subject matter of Ipadikku Rose (Yours, Rose) that is expected to make waves in this largely conservative city when it launches on the Star Vijay channel from the end of December. It's Rose herself who seems all set to create a sensation in Chennai.
"I started out as a boy. But the body must have the same gender as the mind," explains the 28-year-old, who 'came out' nearly four years ago to embrace her new persona. From Ramesh she became Rose, after a journey both tortuous and torturous that first saw her battle deep-rooted prejudice and outrage within her own family. Twice, she was thrown out of home—the last time in February 2007, when she won the Miss Chennai title in a beauty contest organised by Sahodaran, a gay group.
Gradually, though, her family is coming to terms with who she is. Things are better now, she says, to the extent that a sister-in-law has loaned her the yellow sari, and her father, her worst critic earlier, now takes her side against a censorious brother. But is Chennai ready for her brand of in-your-face discussion on alternate sexuality?
A couple of years ago, a renowned psychiatrist, Dr Matrubhudam, broke new ground by hosting a show called Pudhira Punidhavam (Is it revolutionary or is it Sacred?) that had 250 episodes discussing sex. In fact, the show was aired in rural areas, and featured sexual problems that people in rural Tamil Nadu faced. Chennai-based sexologist Dr Narayana Reddy comments that with the proliferation of Tamil channels, they need to do something different beyond cinema and politics to get eyeball attention. "Having such a show as Rose's could be one way of doing so."
Through her show, Rose wants to change the overwhelmingly negative image of transgenders as beggars and sex workers that is perpetuated by films and TV. "We have no role model and I wanted to fill that vacuum," she says. She hopes that with youth in the studio audience, and discussion of subjects like child sexual abuse and other sexual crimes, her programme will bring into the open issues that have been hushed up for too long. Some 26 episodes are planned, and shooting starts next month.
"She's elegant, composed, articulate, and has an original opinion on every subject," says Jaya Sreedhar, technical health advisor, Internews Network, who trained Rose for her TV show. Star Vijay's Head of Programming, Pradeep Milroy Peter, is also optimistic about the show's popularity and acceptability, and says the channel is counting on Rose to discuss topics that have been taboo in the public realm. But what if she provokes the kind of outrage Khushboo faced after speaking her mind on premarital sex? Rose has no such apprehensions: "Our approach and style of conveying the message will be accepted," she says confidently.
Rose graduated as an electronic engineer, got a masters in biomedical engineering and exercise science from the US, but decided that getting a job in her transgender avatar would be difficult. So she works out of her home as a web-designer. She's also a master trainer, sensitising police personnel about transgenders under a Tamil Nadu government aids project. "I get comfort and security at my place, and the only thing my family insists on is that I dress appropriately so that there's no gossip, because I have relatives living nearby," she says.
As an ISKCON member "married" to Lord Krishna, her goal is to eventually build a temple and live near it. Next year, she plans to go in for sexual reconstructive surgery because "I do want to get married". The only problem, she says, is that "Indian men are jerks—they use you, and then tell you they have to marry a woman."
Neither the channel nor Rose are willing to reveal how much she will earn from her TV show. "Let's just say, what's wrong with having a rich transgender!" she says, arch yet evasive. She reiterates that her intention, and that of the channel, is to "not sensationalise but to talk sense" on sexual matters. TV viewers in Chennai, meanwhile, are eagerly waiting to find out whether Rose and her programme will educate and liberate, or merely titillate.
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