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Wednesday, September 22, 2021

It was a golden opportunity to represent the transgender community, says Manipur’s Mairembam Ronaldo Singh

A Manipuri teenager on facing the camera for the first time for the web-series Paatal Lok.

Written by Tora Agarwala | New Delhi |
Updated: June 21, 2020 10:51:57 am
Mairembam Ronaldo Singh, Cheeni, Mary Lyngdoh, Paatal Lok Screen time: Mairembam Ronaldo Singh in a scene from the web-series on Amazon Prime Paatal Lok.

One of the more moving arcs in the acclaimed web series Paatal Lok belongs to Mary Lyngdoh, also called Cheeni, who is one of the accused in the murder plot that opens the show. Playing Cheeni is Manipur’s Mairembam Ronaldo Singh. In this interview, the 19-year-old talks about the character, the challenges faced by the transgender community and life back home:

From Moirang, Manipur, to Mumbai — how did that happen?

I grew up watching Manipuri cinema. Acting was always a passion for me but never did I think I would be acting in front of a camera in a Hindi language series! The geographical remoteness of the place I come from and the language barrier — these are just some of the challenges we northeasterners face regularly in life. Last December, Eliza Ngangom, a transgender activist from Manipur (also my make-up teacher), told me that people from Mumbai had come looking for someone to play the role of a transgender character. Nikita (Grover) ma’am, the casting director, came down to my hometown in Moirang to meet me. We met at a chai stall and my audition happened in the backseat of a car! I was very, very shy but somehow they decided to pick me.

Did your family need much convincing to let you play this part?

Initially, my parents were not ready to send me to Mumbai. They even asked if my part could be shot in Moirang! Of course, that was not possible. They were not against the idea of me playing the role of a trans woman but had a problem with the place I was going to shoot in. My parents are simple people and they don’t really know much about filmmaking. Moreover, they had hardly watched any Hindi movies. But with Eliza’s help and my constant begging for permission, they ultimately had to bless me.

How was your experience of filming the series?

There was both joy and worry. I did not know Hindi — so they had to hire a Hindi teacher to give me lessons. Moreover, before this series, I had never acted professionally. I was nervous because I was sharing camera space with known faces of the industry, so I felt like I needed to prove myself to the team all the time.

Mairembam Ronaldo Singh, Cheeni, Mary Lyngdoh, Paatal Lok ‘Before the series, I have never acted professionally. I was nervous…I felt like I needed to prove myself to the team all the time.’

Did you connect with Cheeni?

Cheeni is a victim of human greed and lust. To some extent, the series showcases the challenges transgender people face regularly, such as in the jail scene where she was forced to share the room with other male inmates. Paatal Lok also highlights society’s ignorance about the existence and problems of the trans community. I think it sent a message that we are also human beings who want to live a dignified life. Honestly, it was a golden opportunity for me to play this role and tell our story. I represent my transgender community in the series.

Mairembam Ronaldo Singh, Cheeni, Mary Lyngdoh, Paatal Lok Mairembam Ronaldo Singh in a still from the series.

Can you tell us a little about your early life in Manipur?

I was born and brought up in Moirang, a historically and culturally important town of Manipur. My family was not well-to-do — I only attended government schools as it was difficult for my parents to get me admission in a private school. In my early years, I could not come to terms with my sexuality. Gradually — with support from the transgender community — I learnt that it is something I should be proud of. In the past, I have been mocked and subjected to numerous derogatory remarks. But what Paatal Lok has taught me is that we can do what we truly love, regardless of the obstacles that come our way.

Has your life changed after Paatal Lok?

The overall response and acclaim that our series has received so far is amazing. As for me, I am living the same life in Moirang, where I am a make-up artist. People in Manipur — except a few — don’t recognise me even after the success of the series since most are not even aware of Paatal Lok. First of all, this was not a mainstream Bollywood series, and, second, the culture of Manipur is totally different from mainland India — a lot of young people follow Korean movies and songs. However, I do get a lot of comments, praises and appreciation on my Instagram handle and I do not have words to express how good that makes me feel.

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