Transgender danseuse Sanjana Chandran opens up about landing a role in 'Malaikottai Valiban'

The 25-year-old transwoman had recently wrapped her shoot for 'Malaikottai Valiban'.
Sanjana in full dance mode
Sanjana in full dance mode

TNIE catches up with transgender danseuse and model Sanjana Chandran, who got to play a prominent character in Lijo Jose Pellissery’s Mohanlal-starrer, ‘Malaikottai Valiban’.

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Sanjana Chandran is on cloud nine. The 25-year-old transwoman has just wrapped up her shoot for Lijo Jose Pellissery’s Malaikottai Valiban, starring Mohanlal. And she is thrilled about getting a pat on the back for doing a “great job” from the legend himself. 

A Bharatanatyam dancer, model and singer, Sanjana says she never even dreamt of being an actor. “I had already played a minor role in a film (yet to be released). However, I was not crazy about cinema,” she smiles. “So when I got a call for Malaikottai Valiban, I was caught in a daze.” 

Sanjana adds that it’s a “notable character” this time. “The role was not labelled as ‘trans’; but as a bold character — something not very common in Malayalam cinema. I believe this film will be a career break for me,” she says.

Incidentally, she has signed up for two upcoming projects in Malayalam and Hindi.  During the shooting of Malaikkottai Valiban, Sanjana was told that Lijo had been searching for the “perfect person” for the role. “That’s when they came across an interview in which I spoke about an issue that happened during a Kalolsavam,” she says.

A Bharatanatyam PG student at St Teresa’s College in Kochi, Sanjana had decried colourism at the 2021 ‘Transgender Kalolsavam’ organised by the social justice department. She was awarded second place, as a judge had opined her skin colour didn’t match that of a goddess. 

Sanjana believes getting picked for Malaikottai Valiban was poetic justice in a way. “Like Robert Greene and 50 Cent say in their book ‘The 50th Law’, every negative situation contains the possibility for something positive, an opportunity. I always like to think that way,” she says.

Despite being an ace dancer who has won multiple awards across India, the new terrain of cinema overwhelmed her initially. “The film industry is a different world, and acting is very difficult,” she says. “A film shooting will have a huge team, and people working hard for months. The set can be massive, with over 1,500 junior artists.”

Sanjana with director Lijo Jose Pellissery and cinematographer Madhu Neelakandan
Sanjana with director Lijo Jose Pellissery and cinematographer Madhu Neelakandan

Moreover, it was her first time away from home in a long time. “I have never worked anywhere for this long (over two months). Though I am studying in Kochi, I go home (Kozhikode) every week. I am grateful to the make-up artists, costume designers and the production team for never letting me feel homesick.”

Discussing Bharatanatyam with Mohanlal
Though not permitted to disclose details of the film, Sanjana shares one of the memorable moments from the sets — shooting an action scene with Mohanlal. “It was a fight scene in which some of us run with Lal Sir. While running, fires started to burst out from both sides, and things would fall on us,” she recalls. 

“In the beginning, we thought special edits and stunt dupes would be used for these scenes. However, everyone, especially Lal Sir, wanted it to be realistic. After that adventurous run, they showed us the take. We could see Lal Sir’s charisma and the panic of the rest of us.” 

Sanjana adds she was left spellbound by Mohanlal’s knowledge about artforms. “I had the privilege of being part of some discussions on Bhartanatyam on the sets,” she says.  Another exhilarating experience was getting trained by Lijo, adds Sanjana. “I always thought acting was about emotions through face and body language. He taught me how to act through words,” she says. “He was raw, and jovial with everyone — always seeking to extract the natural best of every artist.” 

Sanjana is happy that many people did away with preconceptions about transpeople after getting acquainted with her during the shoot. There were painful moments, too.

“We went to north India for shooting. There the local people assume that all transpeople beg or engage in sex work. That’s how some of them looked at me,” she adds. “However, I realised that such behaviour came from their lack of knowledge or awareness. Thinking in that way helped me deal with people positively.”

How it all began

Sanjana says she has loved dancing since childhood. “On Fridays, there was Chitrageetham on TV. Many of our neighbours used to come home to watch it. I would dance into trance once the music came on. My neighbours were my first audience, and that gave me a boost to perform in school,” she recalls.
However, Sanjana wasn’t able to learn classical dance then. “No one was interested in sending a boy to learn classical dance,” she says.

Later, during her high school vacations, she started doing odd jobs to earn money. “I saved up, and joined a Kozhikode-based dance school run by a couple — Sadanam Sadashivan and Radhika Sadashivan,” says Sanjana. 

“There I started learning classical dance. Subsequently, I reached the state finals in the School Kalolsavam.” Sanjana decided to come out after Class 12. “I was always aware that I was a girl. I had that innate femininity. I wanted to come out – with a bang,” she laughs.    

She did so, on a very public platform. “I was 18 then. I participated in the Queen of Dhwayah - 2017 (Kerala’s first trans beauty pageant, held in Kochi). I walked the ramp in a woman’s attire for the first time. I reached the final five, too,” she says. That was the beginning of Sanjana, the model.

During the pageant, Sanjana proclaimed she was a transperson. Her parents refused to accept it. 
“They were guided by so many misconceptions,” she says. “I also had to drop out of the private college in Kozhikode where I was studying. My parents took me for counselling and conversion therapy.” 

Sanjana rues that many transgender children are forced to undergo “traumatic” conversion therapies, which are prohibited in India. “I firmly believed in who I was and stood up for myself. This led me to move away from my home. I had to leave my family,” she says.

“The transitioning process was arduous. One has to be mentally and physically prepared for it. The entire process can be excruciating, taxing.” A major turning point in Sanjana’s life came in 2021, when her guru Harshan Sebastian Antony of Ohm School of Dance, Kozhikode, encouraged her to participate in a national competition in Chhattisgarh. 

“There were more than 600 contestants, including foreigners. That year, I won the Natuvar Guru Gopi Krishna National Award for Bharatanatyam,” she says, with pride. “A year later, I won the state government’s Award for Cultural Activities.”

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Today, Sanjana’s family is proud of her. “Their misconceptions have been dispelled. To a great extent, social media influenced and played a role in that,” she says. “Whether it is my partner’s family or mine, all of them back us now.”

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