Indian Bollywood actress Kubra Sait in Mumbai recently. Photo: AFP/STR
Indian Bollywood actress Kubra Sait in Mumbai recently. Photo: AFP/STR

Sacred Games, India’s first Netflix series which is based on the 2006 book by Vikram Chandra, has been praised and drawn a lot of attention in the two weeks since its global release.

So has actor Kubra Sait, who plays transgender bar dancer Kukoo in the series. Sait has also attracted criticism for playing a transgender, despite being a cisgender female, with some critics saying a trans person should have been cast in the role. The term cisgender refers to a person whose gender identity corresponds with the sex the person had or was identified as having at birth.

Bollywood has mostly portrayed the trans community as men in saris. Hollywood has not had the best track record either – Jared Leto was cast as Rayon, a trans person, in the 2013 film Dallas Buyers Club and won an Oscar for it; Eddie Redmayne portrayed Danish transgender woman Lili Elbe, one of the first known recipients of sex assignment surgery, in the 2015 film The Danish Girl and won an Oscar nomination for it.

Both films attracted criticism after they were released and five years later trans people remain inadequately represented in cinema, despite roles being written for them. Chandni Doulatramani spoke to Kubra Sait about her journey as Kukoo.

Asia Times: How did you research for the role of Kukoo? Which films and books did you study?

Sait: I actually never had the time to prepare for Kukoo. I picked up Sacred Games to read it. I’m somebody who likes to travel and take a taste at life and retain it in some part of my subconscious mind, and all of this at some level helps you prepare for anything that you want to do. If I were younger maybe it would not have felt the same or it wouldn’t have been as easy as it was for me to understand the psyche of Kukoo if not for the past that I’ve had.

I also watched The Danish Girl and that helped because the transgender movement began in the 1960s, and it’s so lovely when you see the actor just put in his life and soul and be unapologetic about who he is and who he wants to be.

Asia Times: What inspired you to take this role? Did you interact with people from the transgender community to understand the nuances?

Sait: I think you just need to meet a lot of people in general. As you grow older you realize that you are that much more scared to fall because society puts you in these brackets and tells you this is how you should be. And to break out of that box, think out of the so-called norms and feel what you’re doing, is something that inspired me to play Kukoo. Also, to be honest, I was looking out for an opportunity that would allow me to grow as an actor. For me, I had absolutely no second thoughts. It was a yes in the first go.

Also the kind of people that I was working with – the team was just so inspiring. You can’t say no to a package deal. It was me getting an a la carte laid out in buffet style.

Asia Times: Being a cisgender woman, what challenges did you face portraying a trans person?

Sait: Your gender or your anatomy does not change the way you feel. Emotions are widespread. If I cry, you cry. If I cry honestly you cry even more honestly because there would be triggers of emotions – maybe not the same situations but the same feelings that you can empathize with. If you’re a good person open to vulnerability then you feel that. So I guess my biggest challenge was to dig deeper, understand where my insecurities lie, pluck them out slowly one after the other. It was literally like finding lice in hair. You just feel so free. So I feel like I plucked out all those insecurities and it feels so much lighter to embrace who you are.

Asia Times: Do you think a trans person should have played the role of Kukoo, considering the trans community is under-represented in mainstream India?

Sait: Yes, it’s true. If I were a viewer and I had seen a trans person playing it, I would have been standing at the helm, applauding for the movement and applauding for the courage and applauding for the sensibilities in the transgender person. It’s heartbreaking that it hasn’t happened yet, but at the same time it’s heartwarming because it’s opened up the stream. People will not just be looked at as eunuchs or harmful or money lynchers – the stereotypes – because the transgender community is so much more – so many hardworking, lovable, beautiful people out there. I believe its time for them to receive their due credit. I’m grateful for this opportunity because it allowed me to foray into their hearts and minds even though I couldn’t meet them personally and I’m excited about that.

Asia Times: What was it like working with so many male actors on set?

Sait: Comfortable because I guess every single person on the set is a well-raised person. Everyone has their emotional stability in place. Nobody looked at me or stared or thought I was any different. And it was beautiful to work with experienced professionals. So that’s the kind of force I was working with – Nawazuddin Siddiqui (actor), Anurag Kashyap (co-director), the entire set. 

When we were shooting the scene where Kukoo was revealed as a trans person, it was Anurag outside, and just one camera person (Sylvestor) inside the room with Nawaz and me. That was the kind of space we were allowed to play with and I’m going to be grateful for it.

Asia Times: Why do you think you were chosen for Kukoo’s role? Were you comfortable playing a trans person?

Sait: I was comfortable playing the role. I was comfortable embracing the character as it is. I was not uncomfortable with the anatomy of being a man and wanting to be a woman. I was not at any discomfort at all. Also, I was chosen to play because I am cuckoo (laughs). I am crazy. I enjoy crazy, I like pushing myself. So the easiest way to explain this is that I was scared to swim. I didn’t know how to swim till I was 30. So my challenge was to learn how to swim at 30. Then I went to learn how to dive and sometime last year I clocked 33 meters. I have a fear of heights so I climbed a mountain – 6153 meters – in Leh. The peak is called Stok Kangri. I was the only person out of my 13-member group to climb it. My mum actually thinks I’m crazy, so what she actually means is I’m cuckoo, so it actually helped. I think this role was meant for me.