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Transgender activist Gauri Sawant hopes her viral video will give her dignity

After Masaan director's ad film starring transgender activist Gauri Sawant goes viral, the mother to a 15-year-old sees it as one step closer to the dignity she seeks

A still from the ad film
A still from the ad film

Barely a week after Gauri Sawant's first ad film released, she was bargaining at a sabzi mandi in Pune, when a lady approached her, requesting her for a selfie. The film, which is part of Vicks' latest campaign, #TouchOfCare, went viral within hours of release, clocking over 12 million views in the first week. Seeking to make the image of the mother more inclusive, the 3.30 minute long film features the Malad-based transgender activist playing herself, and captures a series of poignant vignettes of her relationship with daughter Gayatri. Sawant, who adopted Gayatri in 2001 after her mother, a sex worker succumbed to HIV, has been a forerunner in the fight for transgender rights. However, initially, she was not keen that a film be made on her.

"I don't like the idea of too many people in the know about my personal life; that is not the point of what I do," says the 37-year-old in a telephonic interview. "I was also worried that it might be made fun of - the way hijras are caricatured, the clap, the twang - what if it's another Kamla Ka Hamla?" she says, referring to a popular radio sketch where the protagonist mocks transgenders. When she was first approached with the idea six months ago, she turned it down. Then, Ghaywan and his team revisited the script and approached her again. "They came home. After talking to him [Neeraj] and the team, I felt I could trust them. I told Neeraj that I am not comfortable in front of the camera and the idea of the director screaming 'cut', frightens me. He said, 'don't worry, you tell me when you are tired and we will stop'."

Neeraj Ghaywan
Neeraj Ghaywan

On the sets, she recalls being "treated like a VIP". "I had my own vanity van, makeup artist and everyone was pampering me. The attention was overwhelming. And, even though it took us a little while to get used to each other, no one made me feel odd." Having been part of Marathi theatre group Avishkar, Sawant is no stranger to acting. "But this film did not require me to act, I just had to be myself." But, there was one thing she was clear about. "I did not want my Gayatri to be portrayed on screen. Today, she is young and it's all fun and games for her. But, when she grows up, I don't want her to tell me that I used her for my own fame. Neeraj agreed."

Recalling their first meeting, Ghaywan says, "We hit it off instantly. I told her, I hate hierarchy and that, on my set, everyone is a friend. We had to practice on set what we were trying to show in the film." He continues, "She's intelligent and quite a brat too - on the set, she would crack jokes, play pranks. On our way back from Lonavala where we were shooting, I put on my 80s playlist and she danced with us. Gauri is very comfortable with herself. I got to know things about her I didn't know. Did you know that besides her social work, she and her team also conserve turtles?"

Ghaywan's prime objective while making the film was to portray his subject in a dignified manner. "I get irritated by stereotypes. I did not want to make a film about a transgender - it is about a mother. Also, it was a conscious decision that the brand would take a backseat. If I had shown the product three times in the course of the film, it would not have felt honest enough."

Neither Sawant nor Ghaywan anticipated the rage the ad film would become. "But, none of this is about me. I owe it to my community to do whatever I can to bring us respect and dignity. And it's happening, although very slowly." Ghaywan is stoked with the compliments coming his way. "People are telling me that they look at eunuchs differently, and even appreciate their own mother more." We tell him about Sawant's selfie moment and he says, "This is exactly what I aspired for - for Gauri to get dignity."

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