Beyond Paatal Lok, the pain and progress of transgender people in Manipur

Paatal Lok, Mairembam Singh
For Mairembam Ronaldo Singh, the “role of a lifetime” in Paatal Lok is close to her heart also because she got to express herself through her character | Still from Paatal Lok

Sometime in early May, as the evening descended into full darkness in Imphal, the quiet emptiness of a town under coronavirus lockdown was broken by a strange buzz on almost everyone’s lips. Huddled inside their homes, most residents by then had either heard or watched a web series, Paatal Lok, streaming on Amazon Prime. But the townsfolk were particularly interested in one character — Cheeni, or Mary Lyngdoh — played by Manipur’s Mairembam Ronaldo Singh.

Some were in awe, some intrigued while many celebrated the fact that for the first time in mainstream entertainment (a web series) in India, a transgender woman played a transgender character.

The issue —  that trans roles on screen be played by trans people — has of late been much debated. Mainstream cinema/TV/web shows in India are notorious for stereotyping transgender people, often with cisgender actors playing transgender characters.

So, when Paatal Lok got it right, the nine-episode web series is now being hailed as a landmark moment for LGBTQ+ representation on screen in India.

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