Trinetra Haldar interview on extending her trans experience to Meher in Made in Heaven 2
Role Call: Trinetra Haldar debuts in Made in Heaven S2. In an exclusive chat, she discusses her ambitions as an actor and responsibilities as a trans woman.
For anyone complaining there are no trans actors to be cast as trans characters in Indian films or shows, I raise you Trinetra Haldar. The 26-year-old trans woman, doctor and content creator was discovered by casting directors Nandini Shrikent and Karan Mally on Instagram. She then auditioned for the part of Meher in Made in Heaven Season 2, and cracked it.
Trinetra is a well-known trans influencer as she's been documenting and sharing her transition process and other experiences on Instagram. In an exclusive interview, Trinetra talks about stepping into the acting shoes for the first time, how authentic Meher is to the trans experience, and her trials and triumphs as a trans woman. Edited excerpts below:
Zoya Akhtar told me you had inputs for your character of Meher, from the reference to her ‘dead name’ to Sanjay Kapoor complimenting her ‘husky’ voice. Do you feel you co-created this character with the writers?
She told me right at the outset that she's talking to other trans women and trying to gather everyone's experiences, and she'd like to know mine as well. We had a candid chat about what transitioning was like and how dating has been like. When I finally did see the script, there were a few things here and there that I thought Meher wouldn't say or she'd say differently. I tried to be as transparent as I could be with that. And she was extremely humble and forthcoming. The final script did have those changes. It was fantastic to work with her through that process and to see the final product as authentic.
How refreshing was to play a trans woman whose primary identity is not her ‘transness’, but the fact that she's a production head at a wedding planning company?
Extremely, extremely. It was also a lot of pressure because you don't want to let a community down. You want to get representation right. But I also don't come from this world, and I'm starkly aware of my limitations as an actor just starting out. I was terrified that it may not resonate with people. The head of production may not come across as the head of production. But it didn't matter at the end of the day because the character is very human, more than anything else. Her workplace identity, her gender identity, all of that comes later because everything she's going through, it's all basic human emotion, like getting hurt, broken, disappointed, violated, and eventually loved. Those are emotions people in general can relate to. That gave me assurance that this is going to work.
Arjun Mathur told me he's relieved to pass on the baton of the LGBTQ+ discourse to you in Season 2. How much pressure do you feel and how do you avoid letting it seep into your performance?
I did initially feel the pressure because it felt like a new, daunting world. But I got to know everybody on set gradually, including Arjun. I'd gone to set just to watch and see how it works, and I was very daunted by the whole thing. Because it was a wedding day also. Arjun and I shared a car ride back, and he was very sweet. He told me about his process, his journey with acting. I realised I'm in very safe hands and don't have anything to be worried about. I can trust the creators of this show to do everything right. You, as an actor, do need to have that complete trust in the insanely talented team that's putting it together. So the pressure eventually wore off.
And as time goes by, I also realise that if you're an actor, you can't have every single role to tie back to only representation. Because that becomes limiting for a trans person also. It means this person can't bear the responsibility that comes with every role that they do. I, as a trans person, would like to play any role. It doesn't have to be just trans, I'd like to play any and every role. So it doesn't feel like a pressure, it feels like a privilege.
I love that at multiple points in the narrative, Meher is told she looks “amazing” and “beautiful.” Of course, there are instances of catcalling and shaming as well. But how do you view the overall sexual gaze on your character?
Something we don't get to see very often is how transphobia shows up in the dating sphere. Men objectifying or fetishizing trans people is very common. But I think that's being balanced out on the show by a very non-objectifying or a non-sexual gaze by people like Arjun, who tells Meher how beautiful she looks the first time we meet her. Or how Danish (Neil Bhoopalam) sees her: it's beyond how she looks. It's very human, very tender, very loving. I love that you get to see both sides of the trans experience: the oppression and the euphoria. That really spoke to me when I first read the script and made me want to do it.
When Meher's first date goes wrong and she's thrown off the car by a guy who discovers she's transitioned, we don't see her discussing the trauma of that episode ever later. Is that because this kind of abuse in the dating ecosystem is very common?
The violence? Absolutely. My personal experience in real life doesn't reflect that of a lot of other people because I do have, at this point in life, a certain degree of safety. Which is, of course, not the case with many of my trans sisters. Also, because I've lived my live long enough as a trans person, I know the red flags and what to avoid, but it's difficult to expect when someone is going to not read your profile properly and react aggressively. The psyche is very simple. A lot of men out there can't deal with their attraction towards trans people. They don't know how to make sense of it or put words to it. All they know is their attraction is something shameful. And they project that shame on us through violence.
It's not addressed in any of the later episodes because it's something that Meher is going through alone and can't really talk about. It's also embarrassing. It makes you feel small that you put yourself out there on a date, you've been a little stupid about this, and it led to this. Not that it's a trans person's fault ever, but what does one do really? The experience of transphobia is a lonely one, and that's also something you see Meher going through.
I also love when Meher is talking to her parents on video call, and her mother dotingly calls her ‘meri beti’ (my daughter). I know that your parents supported your transition, but it must've been a long way to get them there?
Absolutely. It was so refreshing to see this. Even my mom is not like that ya. Even she wouldn't be like ‘meri beti.’ She doesn't care (laughs). She's a sweetheart, my mum. She called me when she watched the show and told me it's come out really well. I was a little worried about the intimacy, but they understand it's part of the job. I think my parents are mature after everything we've been through in life. It's so refreshing to see a trans person just have healthy relationships around her, with her parents, at her workplace, with her friends. The balance of that is what I really love. You always see the comical aspect, or the brutal aspect of it.
Even though her mum has that conditioning that how her daughter is going to get married if she doesn't know how to cook, it's not something that offends Meher. Even though she's ‘woke.’ She knows this is her mother's imperfect way of accepting her daughter, which is often how it is.
It's also refreshing to witness parental acceptance in a show where parents of other LGBTQ+ characters like Karan (Arjun Mathur) and a lesbian bride have given up on the same. How does parental acceptance add value to a queer person coming out?
One of the biggest takeaways from Meher is that she has access to things in life that every cis person has access to. She has an education, a job, and she's good at it. It feels like a big part of that is because her parents are supportive. Parents do need to understand that if you provide your trans or queer child at least the education and bare minimum support they deserve, they could do wonders with their lives. Many times, parents don't accept their kids because they're scared, ‘Will my child fit in? Will my child be okay?’ It's a misplaced sense of concern.
Vijay Raaz's character Jauhari tells Meher that her cost to company is very huge, and then follows it up with, “I like a woman who knows her worth.” We get to know later how that said a lot about the husband he was, but it also raises a larger question of pay parity. As a transwoman, have you faced pay discrimination at workplace?
I'm only starting out with career in general. Even medicine, for example, I just finished my internship and moved to Mumbai. I wouldn't know the struggles of a female doctor who's been in the profession for a while. Or an actor who's been in the profession for a while. I do know that it is a struggle. So far, I've not experienced it. As a content creator, I've never faced it. I've been doing content the longest, more than acting or medicine. That's democractised in the sense that you don't see discrimination gender-based. It's more outreach-based.
How do you plan to balance content creation, medicine, and now, acting?
Since my internship ended, I moved to Mumbai and am taking a break from medicine. It's for a reason. Throughout my internship, in the last two years, we shot Made in Heaven from start to finish. I was also doing content on the side. It was truly the most overwhelming time of my life. We shut down shop on Made in Heaven when the second wave hit, and I came back to the hospital for COVID duty.
Obviously, I wasn't eating or sleeping right. I still had to maintain continuity to shoot. It was impossible. It was really, really physically and emotionally draining to fulfil the demands of two diametrically opposite worlds. I figured if I really want to be good at one of these things, I have to prioritise. At this point, it didn't make sense to put medicine at number 1, then I'd have to let go of everything else. And I didn't want that. I wanted to see what this world has to offer. So that's the decision I made.
Coming back to Made in Heaven, when Danish tells Meher that he'd like to know all about her journey, she says she just wants to go on a date, and not give a TED talk. Do you also ever feel the burden of your trans identity?
On some days, yes, to be honest. Especially because as an actor, this is not something we get to do or see very often. Unfortunately, in a society that's so behind with trans rights in general, every trans person becomes an activist at some level, because you have to explain your side to so many people. That pedestal of being a representative is thrown at you, whether you like it or not. So it can be exhausting on some days. But it's also something you have to make peace with, in the sense that unfortunately, there's no way around it.
When you received feedback from really young queer and trans people that it helped, it really makes all of it very worth it. Especially now with Made in Heaven coming out, it's overwhelming to see people talk about how parents have come to see the humanity of it, or how queer and trans kids feel seen by the character. So I can choose to sit and whine about this pressure. But this trans identity is what got me here in the first place, it got me this role, the visibility. I'll always be grateful, but there'll always be a pinch of… I wish I didn't have to bear so much of responsibility.
The film industry has just about come to casting queer actors as queer characters. Do you feel they're ready to cast trans actors as cis characters?
I don't know, to be honest. So much of this is so new. It's all happening for the first time. So time will tell. I'm just excited to see whatever will happen next.
Did you have any queer icons in Hindi cinema growing up?
I would say Gazal Dhaliwal was my biggest inspiration. At 14 or 15, I watched her on Satyamev Jayate. She's become a friend overtime. My parents have spoken to her. She was whom I saw and I had permission to be myself. I also read her blog about her journey of recovering from surgery. That inspired me to document my journey.
Interestingly, Gazal told me just last year that it's still such a struggle to cast trans actors as trans characters. This week, Sushmita Sen plays trans activist Shreegauri Sawant in the latter's biographical series Taali. Do you think that day will come when a trans actor like you can headline a show on a trans character written by a trans screenwriter like Gazal?
I can't say much about the other show because I've only seen the trailer. I do understand that Shreegauri Sawant ji had a huge role in shaping this character. Given her major involvement and she herself is happy with who's portrayed her, it's difficult for me to comment. Because she's a very respected trans person with a voice in the community. I can't dictate to another trans person on representation of her own self. But I definitely think that in the future, we will and should see trans people headlining shows. As time passes by, there'll only be more and fresh trans talent. We're getting there already. If we can have a Meher in Made in Heaven, then why not.
Made in Heaven Season 2 is streaming on Prime Video India.
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