Sushmita in a scene from the series. (Courtesy: Ravi Jadhav)
Sushmita Sen plays transgender activist Gauri Sawant in Taali, a biographical drama created by Arjun Singh Baran and Kartik D. Nishandar and directed by Ravi Jadhav. The composure and vigour with which the lead actor slips into the skin of the complex character is worthy of unstinted applause. However, the six-episode JioCinema series, notwithstanding many an admirable element, is strangely inert.
The show pieces together the key turning points of Gauri Sawant's eventful life, her estrangement from her policeman-father (played splendidly by Nandu Madhav) being the most emotionally wrenching of them. She has to come to terms with her physiological and emotional confusions as she grows up in a conservative environment that makes the process all that more challenging.
As Gauri evolves from a girl trapped in a boy's body craving acceptance into an assertive transwoman to files a petition before the Supreme Court of India for recognition of her community as the third gender, she has to take on inimical forces both within and outside the world of transgenders. On one hand, there are pimps and brothel-keepers. On the other, self-appointed guardians or orthodoxy and people in positions of power (one such person, the dean of a hospital, played by Ananth Mahadevan, faces the brunt of her aggression) stand in her way.
There is ample drama inherent in Gauri's journey towards asserting her gender identity. She makes both friends and enemies. As her network expands and her fame spreads, she gravitates towards activism aimed at securing the legal rights of transgenders.
The details the Gauri Sawant story are in the public domain. The retelling does not feel unnecessary because Taali serves the purpose of furthering awareness about the aspirations of the third gender and dispelling misconceptions that have prevented society them with the respect that they deserve as citizens of a free nation.
In terms of narrative meat, there is enough in Taali sustain the six episodes, but where the script fails a tad in in not attempting a proper deep dive into the world that the transgender community inhabits and apprising the audience of those aspects of their lives that are not already known (often in distorted ways) or fully appreciated.
We know that they are sexually exploited, mistreated by the police and others arms of the administration, and forced to live with the 'stigma' of being different. A little detailing regarding their inner compulsions and the minutiae of Gauri Sawant's personal and public battle to bring people like her on even keel with the nation's binary population would have lent the series far greater potency.
To be fair, both the lead and the director, working with a script by Kshitij Patwardhan, eschew exaggeration or any form of sensationalism in bringing to the fore the nature of the war that Gauri Sawant had to wage on behalf of a community pushed to the margins. The restraint works to the advantage of the series for the most part.
However, Taali never pierces past the obvious facets of the protagonist's struggles with herself, her family, her society, her community and the laws of the land. The series deals with the broad themes the surround the reality of being different in a milieu in which normality is defined by the cis majority.
One question that is bound to be asked about Taali is: would it not have been better had the central role been played by a real-life transgender actor? Not that Susmita Sen is out of place - she rustles up a convincing portrait of an individual who went in for a sex change operation at a time when it was still a very rare procedure in India and then proceeded to become the voice of all transgenders. But no matter how good she is as Gauri Sawant, absolute authenticity is a tough ask here.
The opening episode of Taali plays out for the most part outside the Supreme Court of India, where Gauri's petition is about to come up for hearing. The narrative moves back and forth between the present and her difficult childhood as the show seeks create a rounded portrait of a remarkable life.
Much of the narration flows out of a conversation that Gauri has with a journalist (Maya Rachel McManus) - a framing device that leads into a series of flashbacks that reveal the Ganesh-to-Gauri transformation. At school. a teacher asks Ganesh what he wants to be in life. The boy replies: I want to be a mother. The teacher shuts him up. Boys can't be mothers, she says. Ganesh's desire to be a mother one day becomes a focal point of the evolution of her persona.
In another crucial scene, a transgender woman, Nargis (Sheetal Kale), walks out in a huff from a meeting convened by a gay rights activist (Ankur Bhatia) because Ganesh/Gauri isn't really like them. Change yourself not just on the outside but also from within, Nargis demands.
That sets Ganesh thinking. It compels him to look at himself in a different light and take the next logical steps to reinvent himself physically. A handful of scenes are devoted to the transformation, but the series views the gender transition from an objective distance rather than delve into the deeper psychological dimensions of it. That prevents Taali from being the resounding series that it could have been.
Coming from Ravi Jadhav, that is a bit of a surprise. The director has a track record of creating outliers who fearlessly take on social insensitivity, if not outright opprobrium, and carry on regardless. In fact, Taali extends the gender discourse in Jadhav's debut film, Natarang (2009), about a tamasha actor who transforms himself into a nachya, an exaggeratedly feminine dancer, to the chagrin of his people and audience.
In a more recent film, Nude (2018) Jadhav explored the tribulations of a woman who migrates from her village to Mumbai, works as a nude model in an art school to fund her son's education and faces inevitable complications. The protagonists of both Natarang and Nude were fictional figures, but the two films dealt with themes that were firmly rooted in the realities of a conservative society resistant to change.
The real-life inspiration for Taali, an incredibly gutsy individual who dismantled many hurdles to pave the way forward for thousands of her ilk, should have enthused Jadhav to raise bar a few notches. He does the opposite. Taali makes undeniably important statements but in a manner that is disappointingly prosaic. The story is powerful, the treatment vanilla.
Sushmita Sen, Ankur Bhatia, Krutika Deo, Hemangi Kavi