Gazal Dhaliwal, Writer Of India’s First Light-Hearted LGBTQIA+ Film Is An Inspiring Trans Woman!

The film's writer, trans woman Gazal Dhaliwal feels that with Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga Bollywood has finally stepped out of the closet, and hopes it never has to go back into it again.

The film’s writer, trans woman Gazal Dhaliwal feels that with Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga Bollywood has finally stepped out of the closet, and hopes it never has to go back into it again. 

Gazal Dhaliwal came out to her parents as a trans woman when she was 13, when they were as confused as she was about her gender identity, but their whole-hearted support is what drove her to accept herself fully and embrace her identity publicly when she was 25, finally having her gender reassignment surgery in 2007. Today, Gazal is the writer of a few highly acclaimed movies – being either the screenwriter (Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga, A Monsoon Date), the dialogues (Lipstick Under My Burkha), or contributing significantly to the screenplay (Qarib Qarib Singlle, Wazir).

A trans woman myself struggling with many things in my life, I came to know her first at a time when I was at the end of my tether. I was hanging from an invisible rope, trying to somehow survive and not take that one decision to end it all once and forever. It took a simple message from her to save me. It reflected everything I had wanted to hear, “hold on for some more time and I’d be there.”

Coming out as something I wasn’t born as per ‘societal standards’ is hard, doubly so if your parents are not just unsupportive, but also think you have gone mad. The stigma associated with my identity is not an easy one to live with. Every single day I try to somehow get up and get going, listening to jibes and barbs day in and day out, trying to ignore them, sometimes succumbing to the pressure,… it is as if I have got used to being traumatized and nothing could be sadder.

In more than one ways, she has given me my life as I am today. This interview, therefore, is not just close to my heart, it encapsulates several aspects of my identity as well.

A child needs support from parents, family, friends

Drawing from her own experience, Gazal stresses on how important it is for parents to support their children in whatever they would like to do, whichever identity they would like to accept. “My parents’ support is the basic reason that I have been able to live a relatively easier life than most LGBTQIA+ people and I cannot be thankful enough for that.”

Coming out may not have been easy for her, because there is so much social taboo. “One grows up feeling that one is an anomaly; you feel like you know people will think you are demented or sexual deviant. Anyway in our society anything related to sex is considered taboo. And then when you talk about being different sexually or by gender identity, then that would raise a lot of questions and would cause a lot of mayhem” but all this can be handled bravely and strongly if the parents are supportive as is evident from Gazal’s story.

Gazal says that in places where she could not be herself or come out freely she felt suffocated and traumatized, and these places were as mundane as college and her first workplace. “I was always effeminate, so yes a lot of people in the college would guess things, some people would say think that I am Gay, and there were a lot of them who made fun of me for my mannerisms. But two of my very close friends, they knew my gender identity, and they did their best in comforting me and being there for me. In the workspace – well I worked in Infosys for two years, I was not out to anybody over there, it was in Mysore in Bangalore. That was also the reason that those two years were extremely suffocating for me because nobody knew about me.”

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Coming out at her work with Govind Nihalani

In the next job that she got in a stroke of luck with director Govind Nihalani, when she came out her boss ensured that everyone treated her kindly and supported her in all possible ways. When she developed a support system there, she started gaining confidence and felt less suffocated. Throughout her conversation, she stresses on how extremely lucky she got, thereby making us realize how much she acknowledges the good things that have happened to her. This sort of maturity, this sort of sensitivity can only be in someone who has seen the worst of things but decided to look beyond all of that and made a conscious decision to remain kind in the process.

Creating the first light-hearted desi LGBTQIA romance

So how does she feel about having created probably the first LGBTQIA+ Bollywood romance that is light hearted ending on a happy note?

Gazal says, “LGBTQIA+ lives are so prone to sadness overall in the society that we live in, that it is understandable that most of the art which is created around those stories is slightly in a melancholic zone, and yet all this films are really important, the times maybe changing but not as fast”.

While she mulls over the changing dynamics and acceptance in the society, she thinks Bollywood is also a reflection of these changing times. “I wanted to be able to fit the story of a gay character in a very typical Bollywood milieu, because I identify with both of those, the quintessential Bollywood movies as well as LGBTQIA+ representation. For me, a true representation of myself would be if both the things came together.”

She also expresses humble gratitude for being privileged enough to find a good director who was excited about her idea, and a brave producer who also was willing to put money and weight behind this subject. There is no arrogance, no entitlement, simple gratitude of things that came her way. She feels that with Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga, Bollywood has finally stepped out of the closet and hopes it never has to go back into it again.

Bollywood stereotype of the transgender person

Since she knows somebody like her is very rare in the industry or even generally to come across, she understands that her trans identity may have been a subject of curious whispers. But was it ever specifically a reason for the discrimination against her?

She doesn’t think so. What is noteworthy here though is that she does think she was discriminated because of her identity as a woman. “I have met a few male directors who have said they have liked my work, but then they cannot hire me because they think I will not be able to write a man’s story.” This clear hesitation does smell of discrimination according to her.

She does feel though, that Bollywood movies are wrought with stereotypes about transgender people. “Transgender people are objects of mockery or ridicule, and they can only be funny subplots or alternatively they can only be people from the Hijra community, and even in that their only options are to be a beggar or to be a sex worker.” Last year when the film Kalakandi had released, she found the portrayal of the transgender person extremely disturbing and she had taken to social media to express the same. She, however, also believes that despite having a long way to go, many writers like her are, and will try to push through it and break the cycle, so the representation is fair and not the way it is now.

Being a Sikh trans woman

Gazal very unassumingly also speaks about the religious issues she faced.

“I think being a trans woman in a religion like Sikhism is extremely suffocating. I faced it in the 7th or 8th standard around 13 or 14 years of age, when my facial hair had started growing. I always had long hair, wore the turban, and when my face started changing in that way I started going into deeper depression. Because it felt as if my true identity was gradually being pulled away from me day by day and there was nothing I could do about that.”

Her grandfather was a staunch Amritdhaari Sikh and most of her issues became complex because while he was so religious, he also loved her a lot and so did she, which is why she didn’t want to hurt him all the more. Owing to her apparent masculine identity, but natural femininity, she was also feeling very repressed and harassed socially.

One day, it was her birthday, and she decided to go get a haircut. “My dad was very upset with me, not much for himself but for my grandfather, because he knew that my grandfather would be heartbroken. I knew that too. My reasoning to myself and to others later was that the most important aspect of any religion is to be a kind person, a good person, to care for others, to serve other people. I didn’t think our religion stresses upon our appearance as if it’s everything.” She is not a very religious person and she knows religious people will not agree with her, but she thinks a religion wants you to have faith in a supreme power and to do your best, be a good, kind, generous person. “I believed that my turban and facial hair were not responsible in making me a good person. That is what I then wrote to my grandfather in a letter. He took some time but he eventually forgave me and visited us, and he stayed with us and continued to love me very much.”

The myth of “having a choice” as an LGBTQIA+ person

Fate v/s Free Will has been a philosophical debate since time immemorial. For people of LGBTQIA+ community, the act of transitioning is seen by others as free will, but we know it’s often not a choice at all. When I asked her take on this, she had some really interesting, eye-opening insights to offer.

“I am not a big believer of fate; I think we all make our own fate. Yes, you could say that somebody who is born LGBTQIA+ has been dealt an unfair hand by fate, or if somebody has some sort of a disability you can again blame that on fate, I know people tend to do that. But I think it is just biology. I mean we may not have cracked it, we may not have cracked why some people are born gay or transgender, or with even disabilities, or why are some people more intelligent than others or all that, but at the end of the day, it is all just biology, that’s what I believe. So if people say you are not subscribing to fate and you are only going by free will, then I actually will take that as compliment. I think we human beings have a blessing to exercise free will. Why should we then not use that? And even if we want to use the logic of fate, then if people say that it is your fate and you should accept it and live with it, you can turn it around and say that if they believe that whatever is in one’s fate is the truth, so now that you are choosing to transition or choosing to live as a trans person, or choosing to come out as gay, then that must be a part of fate as well. So you can always mix up Free Will and Fate and say that since you are doing it and since nothing can happen if it is not in one’s fate, maybe this is a part of fate as well, so accept it as fate, makes sense, right ?”

So it is all about how you’d like it to be and what would make you happy.

Gazal Dhaliwal’s empowering message

When I initially spoke about how inspiring she is, I decided I will elaborate it through an answer she gave me when I asked her about her message for all the trans women like me. Below is her very empowering message –

“So I am going to generally address trans people – trans women, trans men, gender binaries, or even otherwise. First, I would like to talk in context of family, the family of gender dysphoric people. You know that our constant grouse in life, and rightly so, is that people don’t understand us, our families don’t support us. And that is valid and sad, but I would like to make a proposition; I would like for us to put ourselves in their shoes.”

“Now it is extremely hard for a non gender dysphoric person to understand this phenomenon, where somebody who is born with a certain sex does not identify with that sex, 99.7% of people are not like us. So it is extremely hard for our families to understand this. What I want to suggest is that we give them ’empathy’. We are seeking the same from them, but we are not giving it to them. If we tell them that we understand them, that if we were at their position, we would have found it extremely difficult to understand someone like us, and that we will support them and calmly answer all their questions. That we would also like to have their support, because this is who we are and this is who we are choosing to be. It’s important for our family to see us as a sensible, mature person, who knows what they are doing. If we become confrontational, if they see us as rebels, then they can get very dismissive saying “Iska toh dimaag hi kharaab hai, that’s why he or she is this way, they don’t have any sense, they have lost their mind.” They will relate our gender dysphoria with mental illness, and that is something we would not want. If we act as if we are all one team, like we do our best to not disrupt anything around us, then the chances of them putting in a little more effort are higher too. Of course, I am not promising that it will be all hunky dory. But, I do strongly believe that when we are asking empathy from someone else, then we ought to give them empathy as well, that’s the least we can do for them. So that’s first.”

“Second thing is about us. From my own personal experience and from watching trans women and trans men around me, what I have concluded is, our sense of self worth is very low. We are very low in self-esteem because we have grown up telling ourselves that there is something wrong with us, that people always laugh at us because something must be wrong with us, that we are probably not good enough. This is our constant dialogue with ourselves subconsciously. So my message is to get aware of that dialogue and to stop it, to cut it out. It will take conscious effort, but every morning for 5 minutes, close your eyes and repeatedly tell yourself that you are worthy of happiness, that you are good kind person who is smart, intelligent and it does not matter what other people think of you. Just tell yourself you are beautiful in any form and that you are worthy of other people’s respect, even if they don’t give it to you, tell yourself you are worthy of it. Do that every morning and every night before going to sleep. I think it’s very important to lift our own self-esteem. It’s very important for our own stability and for a sense of hope and happiness.”

Gazal’s confidence in what she says and has observed reflects with every word she speaks. She is very self aware and has tons of empathy for everyone. Her poise, gait, her mannerisms – in my opinion – she is a human package worth emulating by everyone.

Women like her are the only hope women like me live by.

Image credit: Navleen Kaur 

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