Every time Jeeva Subramaniam, a transgender actor is on screen, her face is intensely articulate. Her performances in various films, including Darbar (2020), Dharma Durai (2016) have been notable. Her acting in short films like Aval Nangai, have left audiences with goosebumps and a great deal of sadness. Jeeva says that she is able to convey intense emotions with clarity because she connects deeply with emotions.
“I feel like I understand most emotions well because I keenly remember feeling them. It also helps that I have practised the lines of various performances by actors like Raadhika [Sarathkumar] and Sujatha. I am sure I know every dialogue they have uttered simply because I love and respect them,” she says.
Jeeva began her career as a makeup artist in the Tamil film industry at the age of 16, and has donned several caps since. She has been an assistant director, camera assistant and costume assistant to ensure daily survival, while constantly being ridiculed. However, she has always seen herself as an actor.
“I have a crazy amount of self confidence. Even when directors offered me a chance and laughed in my face when I performed, I have brushed it aside and gone on to perform better in the subsequent audition. (Actor) Aishwarya Rai and I were born on the same day. It is only right that I too consider myself ‘Miss World’,” she says.
Speaking about her journey to Silverscreen India, Jeeva speaks about her journey to Chennai, her entry into the field and fame.
From Sivakasi to Chennai
“I come from a small village called Ammaiyarpatti near Sivakasi in Virudhunagar district. Although it was always a dream to travel to Chennai, I was made to move because my family began to realise that I am trans. I left at the age of 13, without any money and no one to call family. When I landed here, I worked in small hotels and at a big sweet shop chain. I was residing in Vadapalani and saw that there was a dance class close to my room. I would regularly go there and watch. Eventually, I began to train as well,” says Jeeva.
Around the same time, she also became part of the housekeeping staff at different five-star hotel chains. “This was a big boost to my income and I was able to learn dance. Eventually, a group of us formed a dance troupe and became stage dancers. I have travelled to Amman temple towns in Tamil Nadu, except the ones in Sivakasi, and danced my heart out during temple festivals. This was a great phase in life as I also received regular income,” she says.
In 2012, when the Madras High Court decided to ban Aadal Paadal performances (cultural music, theatre and dance performances that take place through the night usually during festivals) at temples as they were “vulgar”, Jeeva says that her income suddenly dried up.
“This is when my friend helped me join as a makeup assistant in Tamil serials,” she says.
As Jeeva’s makeup skills improved, she eventually became a sought-after makeup artist, helping actors including Anushka Shetty, Taapsee Pannu, Divya Spandana, Shanthanu Bhagyaraj and Bala Singh shine on screen. “I would regularly travel for shoots. I would always have problems with respect to allocation of rooms,” she says.
While working as a makeup artist, she also worked as an assistant director and a camera assistant, she says. All these times, her views were dissed because of her gender, she says.
“I was never taken seriously. Many have asked me why they must take instructions from someone like me. I have never been able to understand why my opinions do not hold any value,” she says.
“There is one terrible incident in everyone’s life. Mine is the Chennai floods,” says Jeeva.
In 2015, when her makeup career was enough to cover her monthly rent and food expenses, the devastating floods struck. The flood waters inundated her house and washed away all her belongings, except a bicycle.
“I lost all hope and was planning to leave for Bangalore. I visited a temple to pray before I left the city. Until then, I was never really religious. I felt like being in a safe space. The very next day, I received a call from the makers of Dharma Durai asking if I would like to be the makeup artist. Although I first said no, I heard that Raadhika would be on sets. I wanted to meet with her once before I left the city. It was at that time that the director of the movie, Seenu Ramasamy, saw me on sets and offered me a role. I thought it was a joke, but he sat me down and explained my role. It was the best experience- to share screen space with someone like Vijay Sethupathi,” she says.
When Dharma Durai released, several people came up to her and asked to click selfies with her, she says. “It was such a redeeming moment. I realised this is what I want to do in life,” she says.
Although she got appreciation from several celebrities for her performance, it did not translate into roles, she says. Her opportunities as a makeup artist also dried up. She she worked for free for a couple short films in order to gain more visibility, which eventually led her to get her more roles in prominent films.
After completing work on Darbar, she has been waiting for the release of a movie produced by director Karthik Subbaraj’s Stone Bench production. She is also working on several short films, she says.
“I have seen too much sadness to get where I am today. However, I wish to only look at life positively. Going forward, I want to speak about my difficult journey and change it to ensure that there is only happiness,” she says.
Watch her short film here: