Living Smile Vidya

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Living Smile Vidya
Born (1982-03-25) March 25, 1982 (age 39)
OccupationActor, writer, transgender activist

Living Smile Vidya, or Smiley, is an Indian trans woman actor, assistant director, writer, and trans and Dalit rights activist[1] from Chennai.[2][3][4]

Early life[edit]

She described her family as belonging to the Arunthatiyar caste in Andhra Pradesh, migrating to Chennai several generations ago. Her mother, a Dalit woman, worked as a street cleaner, in addition to domestic work.[5] As a child, she described herself as being "a woman in my heart…even as I was being given male privilege.…I was mistaken to be male and couldn’t yet articulate that I was a girl and so I was educated much more than my sisters." In a 2013 interview, Smiley traces the roots of her public art and activism to her realization that "since all women get oppressed under patriarchy, and trans women and dalit women through the combined might of patriarchy with casteism and transphobia, I might as well have a loud mouth and be assertive than take everything silently – to be a strong but silent woman was not enough."[5]

Vidya holds a master's degree[6] from Tanjavur Tamil University[7] in applied linguistics. In an 2014 interview, she said "while doing my post-graduation at university, I spent most of the time in the Theater Department rather than my Linguistics Department…So I was able to do a couple of plays."[8]

After she moved away from Thanjavur, she begged for a living.[3] After gender-reassignment surgery, she settled in Tamil Nadu, where she began her career working for two years at a rural bank in Madurai, and got involved with theatre.[3]

Film and theatre[edit]

Smiley has been described as the first full-time trans theater actress in India, participating in over twenty performances with at least nine directors.[9] According to Orinam, Smiley known for her acting if Srijith Sundaram's Kattiyakkaari production Molagapodi.[2]

She has acted in several short films, including Kandal Pookkal and 500 & 5, and in documentary films Aghrinaigal and Butterfly.[10] She acted in Leena Manimekalai's 2017 film Is it Too Much to Ask?, where she plays a trans woman seeking housing in Chennai, but facing discrimination; the film, a mix of fiction and documentary, was based in part on her own extensive experiences with housing discrimination.[11][12]

In addition to theater, Smiley has worked as a clown,[1] and described her experience as a dancer as being an important part of her journey as a trans woman.[13]

She has also worked as an Assistant Director in Tamil and Malayalam movies.

In 2013, Smiley was awarded a scholarship by the Charles Wallace India Trust to pursue theatre in the UK.[2][3] She spent six months of theater training at the London International School of Performing Arts.[6][13]

In 2014, Smiley co-founded the Panmai theatre troupe in Tamil Nadu, along with fellow trans activists Angel Glady and Gee Imaan Semmalar, inspired in part by cultural groups she saw in London.[6] Panmai's productions included Colour of Trans 2.0, which has been performed in India and the United States.[6][14]

In 2019, she performed her piece, Scars, in Switzerland. The piece touches on the mental and physical scars that associated with having her male body blend into her feminine identity.[15][16]


The Dalit History Month project describes Living Smile Vidya as "the first trans person [in India] to have her chosen gender identity reflected in her passport."[9]

Smiley has engaged in activism rooted in Dalit and trans communities, and has been critical of savarna transgender people who claim to represent her entire community.[17]

She was one of several trans people who approached the Madras High Court asking for a 3% reservation under a new category. “When parents see a transgender child," she said, "they think of begging or sex work as their future. How will they accept their own children if these are their only options?”[9] In a 2013 interview, she said "We need reservation on the basis of gender, not caste. But it has to be more complex. But I definitely do not want to be OBC. And you will understand why as a dalit, I do not want to come under the OBC category of all things! Puttings transgenders under a oppressed caste category erases the caste privileges that savarna transgenders have. It is better for us to have caste and gender based reservation so that dalit women and dalit transgenders get representation. Otherwise reservation will only benefit savarna transgenders and dalit men."

Smiley reports receiving death threats for her activism around caste starting in 2014 or 2015; her subsequent application for asylum in Switzerland was denied.[18][19]

Autobiography and film[edit]

Smiley's autobiography I Am Vidya[20] was written in Tamil, and translated into seven languages, including English, Malayalam, Marathi, and Kannada.[2][10] She was the subject of the award-winning Kannada film Naanu Avanalla...Avalu, based on her autobiography of the same name.[21]


  1. ^ a b Rao, Subha J. (15 November 2016). "Despair before hope". The Hindu. ISSN 0971-751X. Retrieved 17 August 2018.
  2. ^ a b c d "Living Smile Vidya wins Charles Wallace 2013 scholarship". Orinam. 6 May 2013. Retrieved 9 March 2019.
  3. ^ a b c d Sujatha, R.; Sangameswaran, K. T. (16 December 2013). "Transcending odds, she is set to study theatre in London". The Hindu. ISSN 0971-751X. Retrieved 9 March 2019.
  4. ^ Das, Monalisa (4 December 2015). "Transgender woman opens up home for Chennai flood-affected". The News Minute. Retrieved 9 March 2019.
  5. ^ a b "(Trans)gender and caste lived experience – Transphobia as a form of Brahminism: An Interview of Living Smile Vidya". Retrieved 9 March 2019.
  6. ^ a b c d Ahmad, Asam (28 September 2015). "An Interview with Panmai, A Trans and Mixed-Caste Theatre Troupe from India". BGD. Retrieved 9 March 2019.
  7. ^ "Trans Indians beg for mercy killings rather than lives of discrimination". Gay Star News. 7 September 2015. Retrieved 15 April 2017.
  8. ^ Kowalska, Monika (2 March 2014). "The Heroines of My Life: Interview with Living Smile Vidya". The Heroines of My Life. Retrieved 9 March 2019.
  9. ^ a b c "Dalit History Month – Inspirational Living Smile Vidya". Dr. B. R. Ambedkar's Caravan. 21 April 2015. Retrieved 9 March 2019.
  10. ^ a b "Living Smile Vidya — Artist". The Hindu Lit for Life. Retrieved 15 April 2017.
  11. ^ Ramnath, Nandini. "Two transwomen in Chennai go looking for a house to rent. 'Is it Too Much To Ask? is aptly named". Retrieved 9 March 2019.
  12. ^ Rao, Subha J. (31 October 2015). "Her life on screen". The Hindu. ISSN 0971-751X. Retrieved 9 March 2019.
  13. ^ a b Schwald, Marcel; Leuenberger, Chris (7 December 2017). "EF_FEMININITY - dancer profile: Living Smile Vidya". Vimeo.
  14. ^ Sarkar, Shreya (12 September 2015). "Living in a trans". Deccan Chronicle. Retrieved 9 March 2019.
  15. ^ Feuz, Gisela (30 January 2019). "Verdiene ich diese Narben?". Der Bund (in German). ISSN 0774-6156. Retrieved 9 March 2019.
  16. ^ "Living Smile Vidya bei "Schamlos"". Radio Bern RaBe (in German). Retrieved 9 March 2019.
  17. ^ "Caste and Religion Create Barriers Within the Hijra Community". The Wire. Retrieved 9 March 2019.
  18. ^ Mantri, Geetika (6 August 2018). "'You're educated, safe in India': Swiss officials reject Chennai trans woman's asylum". The News Minute. Retrieved 9 March 2019.
  19. ^ "भारत छोड़ना चाहती है यह किन्नर एक्टिविस्ट, पर स्विजरलैंड ने नहीं दी शरण". Jansatta (in Hindi). 7 August 2018. Retrieved 9 March 2019.
  20. ^ Vidya, Living Smile (1 November 2014). I Am Vidya: A Transgender's Journey. Rupa Publications. ISBN 9788129123985.
  21. ^ Rao, Subha J (31 October 2015). "Her life on screen". The Hindu. Retrieved 13 February 2019.