Gazal Dhaliwal’s journey from being a small town girl in Patiala to a celebrity screenplay writer is nothing short of inspiring. The woman behind the screenplay of the recently released Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga was born a boy. Till the age of 25, she had to live the life of a lie. Each day, she felt she was dying inside… So how did she realise she had Gender Dysphoria? A condition where one feels trapped emotionally and psychologically in the body of the opposite sex.
SheThe People.TV’s Surbhi Rastogi talks to Gazal Dhaliwal about her initial years, how she came out to her family, undergoing sex reassignment surgery, gender roles and how she found her foot in Bollywood.
At what age did you realise you are a girl trapped in a boy’s body?
So for as long as I remember, I always felt that I was a girl. As a child of five or six, I loved playing ghar-ghar, wear my mum’s clothes and put on lipstick. At that age, I never realised that there was anything “wrong” with me, because honestly, gender roles are not so defined when you are a child. One day, I had dressed up and was playing and my mum was not around, when my aunt gave me one tight slap. That was the day I realised this may not be socially acceptable. And there started my journey of suffocation and misery.
So for as long as I remember, I always felt that I was a girl.
So what happened next? Say as a child of seven or eight, when the gender roles start getting more defined. Boys start playing with the boys and the girls with girls. Did you make friends easily?
Growing up as a girl trapped inside a boy’s body was not easy. In the eyes of the world, I was a boy. And I tried to fit in. I tried playing cricket with my brother and failed miserably at it. I would try to walk like a boy as my gait was effeminate and others would make fun of me. But there was an increasing sense of living a lie. I wasn’t a boy, I was a girl. And I loved doing things which girls did. The positive part of this was that I made a lot of friends who were girls. They liked talking to me, playing with me, being my friend, because honestly, I was one of them! The boys were another matter though. They would harass me, make fun of me and bullied me. This went on till college days.
But there was an increasing sense of living a lie. I wasn’t a boy, I was a girl.
So when did you decide you could not live this lie anymore. You had to tell someone?
I was increasingly getting sadder and more depressed each day, and was not able to see a way out. Also, I was born in Patiala, a small town in Punjab, where these things have not been heard about, much less talked about. So I was struggling with my own identity. The society in the northern part of our country requires one to be even more ‘macho’ or ‘manly’ per se, but I just couldn’t. The sense of despair was growing increasingly, and one day I came to know there were counsellors coming to my town, and I had to go and talk to them. I told my parents I was going to my friend’s house to study, but went to talk to the counsellors instead. Things got complicated when the said friend called up my place to ask my parents where I was at the same time. That’s when my father asked me what was going on.
How did you tell your parents?
Once I was back from the counselling session, my dad sat me down and asked me what was happening. And I told my parents honestly that I felt I was a girl trapped in a boy’s body. I was fortunate enough that they accepted it, but I guess they thought it was just a phase, being a teenager and everything. They probably thought it will pass… But it didn’t. And I grew increasingly sad with the passage of time.
When did you find out about the Sex Change Surgery?
When I was about 17, the internet was just starting to get popular, and cyber cafes popped up around every nook and corner, and all of us would go to explore the mail and the messenger. That’s when I googled, and found out that sex change is possible. But it was an expensive procedure, and all the cases I read about where from the US and other parts of the world. It was a difficult thing to do and a very big deal… but hope did exist.
Then what happened? Did you talk to your parents and go in for the surgery?
No, just as I said it wasn’t very talked about in India, so I went the usual route. Did my engineering from Jaipur NIT and joined Infosys. When I was in Infosys, that’s when the depression really hit me. What was I doing with my life? I was living a lie completely. I disliked my job. I was unhappy with my personal life… I had to do something about this.
You said engineering right? Now from whatever I know about engineering colleges, the ragging in the first year is pretty bad. Some of the young boys are scarred forever by the way. But many never talk about it, being a boy and all. They are supposed to man up to it! But I know friends who became total introverts, didn’t even marry, and much worse went into a severe depression post this ragging. We all have heard about the suicide cases too. It couldn’t have been easy for you?
Actually, the first year was tough. I was roughed up a couple of times, but I was fortunate enough to make a few close friends. That was my circle of trust. The ones who I was comfortable with and protected me. You have to understand that sometimes few of those who ragged you also become your closest friends. Plus I was good at the extra-curricular activities. So that made me pretty popular.
Coming back to Infosys… Mysore campus is it?
Yes, I realised I had to take charge of my life. I had to do two things to get out of this misery. One, I had to go in for a Sex Reassignment Surgery (SRS). And second, I had to start working in a field which I had real potential in, which gave me happiness.
And you came to Mumbai.
Yes, I came to Mumbai and joined the Xavier’s Institute of Communication. This is where I finally met like-minded people who understood me. As a part of a project, when I told my friends about my quandary, they decided to make a 20 minute documentary on Transgenders where we interviewed doctors, psychologists, and other people facing the same issue. Finally, once it was made, I travelled to Patiala to show it to my parents. It was after watching this documentary that my dad said, “let’s do it for you.” And the next phase of my journey started.
As a part of a project, when I told my friends about my quandary, they decided to make a 20 minute documentary on Transgenders where we interviewed doctors, psychologists, and other people facing the same issue.
Take us through the next few years, of your life.
So the Sex Reassignment Surgery is not a simple procedure. It takes about three years. It started with me consulting two different psychiatrists a couple of times to make sure that this was the right thing for me. I also met a couple of Endocrinologists and started taking the hormones which would enable the change. Finally went in for the surgery in Bangkok where I was accompanied by my mom and my Bua who were with me for three weeks when the entire procedure took place which can be painful and takes time to get adjusted to.
The Sex Reassignment Surgery is not a simple procedure. It takes about three years. It started with me consulting two different psychiatrists a couple of times to make sure that this was the right thing for me. I also met a couple of Endocrinologists and started taking the hormones which would enable the change.
In 2007, I returned to Patiala and stayed home with my parents for a while and started working in an advertising agency, only this time as a woman employee.
Post the surgery, how did you react to the attention from the opposite sex?
There were a couple of relationships, found a few good men too. Few, of course, ran as fast as they could when they found out about the surgery.
Have you found love yet?
Coming back to your journey as a scriptwriter. How did that come about?
So I came back to Mumbai in 2009, and the usual Bollywood struggle pursued. Wrote and wrote and passed my scripts to just about anyone and everyone who would read. Finally, I guess it was destined and one thing led to another and got introduced to Tanuja Chandra, and the rest was history.
Two fabulous movies, Qarib Qarib Singlle and Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga, under your belt and couple of smaller ones… what path-breaking story should we expect from you next?
It is a web-show, and can’t reveal more at this point of time.
A final word to leave your followers with.
If it were not for the rocks in its path, the stream would not sing.
You can read the interview here too