Photography by Yash MalikYour debut feature film, ‘7 Din Mohabbat In’, is all set for release on Eid Al Fitr. How does it feel? It feels great. Working in a feature film is an important milestone in my show business career. 7 Din Mohabbat In marks my arrival as an actor of merit. A lot of blood, tears and sweat went into getting to this point but I am glad to be a member of the cast of a mainstream feature film. It makes me feel good about myself, my life and my struggle.‘7 Din Mohabbat In’ features a star-studded cast that includes Mahira Khan, Sheheryar Munawar, Javed Sheikh, Amna Ilyas and Hina Dilpazir. Are you concerned that your debut may go unnoticed among the performances of the big stars?I am not concerned at all. In fact, I am confident that my debut will not only be noticed, but it will be appreciated as well. 7 Din Mohabbat In is the story of a young man, Tipu, who starts out as a loser but comes into his own during the course of the film. My character, Mona Lisa, plays an important part in the growth of the main character of the film. The cast of 7 Din Mohabbat In features some of the finest actors in the industry but, thanks in large part to Faseeh Bari Khan’s excellent script and Meenu and Farjad’s wonderful direction, I will hold my own against them.The actor says her father threatened to leave the family if her mother insisted on keeping her home. “The threat worked and I was forced out of my home while still a child. I was never allowed to come back. I was not invited to the weddings of my siblings. My mother asked me not to attend my father’s funeral because she felt that my presence would dishonour him and embarrass the family”You play the role of a transgender dancer in ‘7 Din Mohabbat In’. How is your character tied to the story of the film?I am the first person that Tipu falls for in the movie. The relationship between Tipu and Mona is genuine, sincere and nuanced. Tipu does not walk away when he finds out that Mona is transgender and not a regular female. His reaction to the discovery reveals the innate emotional integrity and moral strength that forms the core of his character. I do not think that the emotional bond between a straight man and transgender girl has ever been depicted in Pakistani cinema, let alone with as much care and heart as 7 Din Mohabbat In invests in the relationship.‘7 Din Mohabbat In’ has been directed by two of Pakistan’s most celebrated directors, both of whom are known to be very exacting. What was working with Meenu Gaur and Farjad Nabi like? Meenu Gaur and Farjad Nabi are wonderful people and very capable directors. Yes, they are demanding but only because of their commitment to excellence and not because they like to throw their weight around. I did not get to work with Meenu because she was out of the country when I was shooting for 7 Din Mohabbat In. Farjad was my director. He expected a lot from me but elicited it in a gentle manner with a lot of kindness. I found him to be more like a teacher than a director.What did Farjad teach you?A whole lot, to be honest, but I can break it down into three areas: analysing and understanding the script of 7 Din Mohabbat In; developing a sound backstory for my character; and delivering an authentic performance as Mona Lisa.What are the strengths of ‘7 Din Mohabbat In’?7 Din Mohabbat In has many strengths. It is particularly well written and directed. It features a number of brilliant performances and has great music. Most importantly, it is hugely entertaining. I think that people will enjoy watching the film and go to see it over and over again.Wahab Shah directed a dance number featuring you and Sheheryar Munawar for 7 Din Mohabbat In. Did you enjoy dancing with the handsome young man?I loved it. Dancing with Sheheryar was a dream come true for me. He is not only a big star but is also hugely talented. And he is very good-looking. I must add that Wahab Shah worked very hard to choreograph an amazing dance for me and Sheheryar. A lot of money, time and energy went into recording the song to the satisfaction of Wahab, Meenu and Farjad. We rehearsed for two full weeks and recorded the song in a marathon session lasting nineteen hours. The set used for the song cost a whopping fifteen million rupees. I believe that it is one of the most expensive songs to have ever been filmed in the history of Pakistani cinema.What do you think of Sheheryar Munawar?Sheheryar Munawar is a great guy. I find him very attractive but not for the reasons that people may think. Sheheryar is a gentleman. He has a very endearing personality. He is very kind and gentle. He treats people with a lot of respect. His persona is very warm. And, of course, he is easy on the eyes – the best eye-candy in the industry today. It is hard not to fall in love with him.What is your fondest memory from the sets of ‘7 Din Mohabbat In’?It is related to Sheheryar Munawar. I was a little self-conscious and very guarded when we started shooting our song together. I did not want to come across as someone who got off on dancing with Pakistan’s handsomest actor and tried – very determinedly – to be distant and professional. Sheheryar saw through my behaviour and told me to have fun while dancing. I remember him telling me, “Maza le kar nacho mere saath. Aap ko maza nahi aayega to dekhne walon ko bhi maza nahi aayega” (Have fun while you dance. If you don’t enjoy your performance the audience won’t enjoy it either) That one sentence broke the ice and helped develop a remarkable chemistry between the two of us.The world of show business is notoriously difficult to enter, even for people who fit the binary notions of gender. As a transgender, did you face greater difficulties?Yes, I did. Of course, I did. Everything – and not just entering the world of show business – is more difficult for transgenders in Pakistan but I worked hard and persevered until I got my first break.Were you ever invited to the proverbial casting couch?Yes, I was but never felt the need to agree. I am a confident, talented and capable actor who does not need to sleep her way to success. All the projects that I have done were secured on the basis of merit. Not everyone in the industry demands sexual favors in exchange for work. A lot of very honorable people work in the world of show business as well. Farjad Nabi, Meenu Gaur, Faseeh Bari Khan and Sanam Mehdi, the producer of 7 Din Mohabbat In, are but four examples of such people.You have a diploma in graphic design and a bachelor’s degree in economics from Punjab University. Why did you opt for a career in show business instead of pursuing a more conventional career, say, in graphic design?I did not opt for a career in show business but ended up working as a dancer and actor because of my personal circumstances. My father passed away while I was still in school, forcing me to give up my studies and start earning money to support myself and my family. A career in show business afforded me the opportunity to make a living. Had my father not passed away when he did, I would have gone on to earn a master’s degree and probably ended up with a more conventional career. Happenstance or circumstance, I am glad that I am in show business today.How did you get your big break into show business?I had to work as a dancer and actor in the theater for a long time before I got my big break in the form of a music video I did for the band Soch. The song – Dhola – went on to become a huge hit and I came to be known all over the world. The British Broadcasting Corporation was the first media organisation to properly interview me. A lot of Pakistani publications followed with interviews and features about me, my life and my career.At one point, your primary interest was in dancing. How did that evolve into modeling and acting?Yes, it was but I have always been a very ambitious person who wants to do more – much more, if you will – than can be done easily. One of my childhood friends, Kaami, owns a beauty salon. He once needed to do a bridal shoot and asked me to model for him. The shoot became very popular and marked the start of my career as a model. My work as a model was noticed by the theater folks who gave me a chance to work as an actor. This was followed by a role in 7 Din Mohabbat In. And here I am today – a model, dancer and actor.Did you get a formal training in dancing?Yes, I did. I took classes in Bollywood dancing and ballet in Dubai. I was also trained by Arshad, Jabbar and Tauseef, the very capable choreographers of the Lahore theater world. The celebrated choreographer Nigah Jee is a teacher as well.How did you learn to act?In the theater. There is no better place to learn acting.Do you plan to work on television?Yes, I do but have not yet had the opportunity. I love television. I am confident that I will work in television plays in the future. At this time though, I am focused on films. I like seeing myself on the big screen.When did you first feel that your gender identity was different than your assigned sex?I have always known that my gender identity was different. There was never a time when I did not know that I was transgender. This is how God created me. I have always been, and continue to be, very comfortable with being transgender.Did you keep your feelings of being transgender a secret at first?No. My father knew that I was born a transgender. My mother knew. The entire family knew. The neighbours knew. Our domestic servants knew. No one kept it a secret. Everyone loved to announce the reality of my gender. I never had the opportunity to protect my privacy and keep it a secret.Did that bother you?Yes, it did but not because I wanted to hide the truth but because I would have liked to disclose it to the right people, at the right time, in the right manner.How did your family react to you being transgender?With hatred, revulsion and intolerance – as the families of most transgenders in Pakistan do. My father hated me with a passion. He threatened to leave the family if my mother insisted on keeping me home. The threat worked and I was forced out of my home while still a child. I was never allowed to come back. I was not invited to the weddings of my siblings. My mother asked me not to attend my father’s funeral because she felt that my presence would dishonour him and embarrass the family. My transgenderism prevented my family from treating me like a human being.That must have been horribly sad.Yes, it was but I am a very strong person. I was able to deal with the hatred that my family had for me. It was their problem and not mine. They were not happy with my reality. I was fine with it.Did being transgender affect your childhood?Yes, it did. My family did not want me to show my face when we had visitors at home. I had to hide when my father’s friends came home. My siblings were embarrassed by my sexual identity. Other kids made fun of me. People enjoyed harassing me. It was not a good childhood.How did things change as you got older?I became stronger and learnt to deal with abuse, disapproval and hatred. I came to understand that my being transgender was not a choice. I was born that way. Things started to get better once I decided to not let transgenderism hold me back. I gained confidence, decided to get an education and resolved to lead a productive, fulfilling life. I stopped caring about the opinions of ignorant, hateful people. And, I started enjoying life.Are you a happy person today?Yes, I am.I have a good career. I am financially comfortable. I have made some very good friends. There are times when people annoy me but I do not let it get to me. I chalk their behavior up to ignorance.What is it that people do that annoys you the most?I hate it when people treat me as an alien, someone from another planet. I am not sure why they are unable to treat me as a regular person. It could be the lack of proper education, an incorrect interpretation of religion, ambivalence about their own sexual orientation, an inherent lack of tolerance, or something else but, whatever it is, I find their behavior reprehensible and very annoying.The world of show business is known to be liberal and tolerant but the truth is darker. A lot of people do not know how to deal with me when I show up at industry events. Some female actors love to pass catty remarks about me. Others try to avoid me. A few resort to pity. And then there are those who use religion to berate me. There are very few people in the industry who treat me a like a regular person. I love those people. It is because of them that I like being a part of the world of show business.Marvia Malik recently made headlines in Pakistan by becoming the country’s first transgender news anchor. Do you share feelings of camaraderie with Marvia?Yes, I do. I am proud of Marvia. Her success makes me very happy. I love her and I respect her. I wish her the best in life.It took you a long time to make a name for yourself in show business. Were there times when you felt you would not make it as an actor?No, never. I have always believed in myself and my ability to lead a happy, successful life. I am just starting out at this time. The future, I am confident, is brighter, happier and more successful.Do you believe that you will be given female roles in films and television dramas?Yes, I do. A capable actor is able to give up his own identity to assume that of a scripted character, completely and fully. Shakespearean actors used to play both male and female roles. I believe and hope that I will be offered male, female and other roles in films and television drama.Do you have a preference for the gender of the roles you would like to be offered?Yes, I have a preference for female roles. Of course, as a professional actor, I would take on any role that I find interesting and desirable.Do you feel that your success has pushed open doors for other transgender people?I do not want to sound full of myself but, yes, I feel and hope that, in some way, however small, I have cleared a path for other transgender people to enter into mainstream media. I hope they find inspiration in my success and work hard to seize opportunities that have historically been denied to them. Transgender people have as much right to happiness, love, respect, and success as others. Anyone who denies them the right is a bad human being.The writer lives in Dallas and writes about culture, history and the arts. He tweets @allyadnan and can be reached at email@example.comPublished in Daily Times, May 26th 2018.