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India’s first gay actor to win a national award

India’s first gay actor to win a national award
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Mumbai or any other place in the “mainland” is not as tolerant or understanding of the LGBTQ community as the northeast of India, the country’s first gay actor to win a national film award says. Benjamin Daimary was awarded the jury special mention at the 67th National Film Awards on March 22 for his portrayal of Jahnu, a transgender, in Prakash Deka’s Assamese film Jonaki Poruwa (Fireflies).

And the new label of “you have created history” from people in the entertainment industry, has taken time to sink in for the youth. “I hope the award changes the way people view the LGBTQ (lesbian gay bisexual transsexual queer) community in the country,” he told The Hindu.

“But having said that, I prefer to stay anywhere in the northeast than in Mumbai or Chandigarh or Delhi, or any place they call mainstream. People at home, or in Assam, do mock you but not in a way that breaks your heart or makes you feel belittled,” Mr. Daimary said.

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The twenty-year-old actor is from Goreswar, about 60 km north of Guwahati. He feels lucky to have been born in a family that accepted his sexual orientation and supported his passion for theatre. “I have been into amateur theatre since 2014. While at it, I discovered I have a penchant for make-up and fashion designing. As a make-up artist and designer, I have to travel out of Assam frequently,” he said.

Tough gender rules: An absent-minded parent has meant that writer-director of Jonaki Poruwa, Prakash Deka, has virtually lived a double life. He prefers to use the name his family gave him — Prakash — but has to write his official name — Pranjal — in parenthesis.

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“This is because my absent-minded father registered my name [in school] as Pranjal instead of Prakash! All my certificates read Pranjal,” he says, speaking from Mumbai where he has been based since 2010.

Mr Deka started as a theatre actor in Mumbai under mentor Ashok Purang but gravitated toward writing and training actors. He had written scripts in Assamese and Hindi for other directors before deciding to research on and direct Jonaki Poruwa, the first Assamese film on the LGBTQ community.

“Hindi is very gender-specific, so I get the final draft corrected for misplaced genders. In a way, handling Hindi helped increase my sensitivity toward gender issues, specifically that of the LGBTQ community,” Mr. Deka recalls. His research took him to various places in Assam where he met transgenders, some of whom have acted in his film. The research also led him to Mr Daimary, whom he trained for 15 days.

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“He did a fabulous job in his very first film,” Mr. Deka says. The film was shot in 2018, released toward the end of 2019 and was shown in international film festivals. Mr Deka has also written the script for an Assamese film on political immigration. The film is yet to be released.

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