‘Taali’ is an episodic biographical series based on the life of iconic transgender activist Shreegauri Sawant who helmed the 2014 landmark petition that recognized trans people in India under the umbrella of ‘third gender.’ Starring Sushmita Sen in the lead role, it attempts to shine a spotlight on the resilient and obstacle-ridden journey of Sawant as she struggled for the social upliftment of her community, and her mobilization for state recognition of trans people and their rights.
Shreegauri Sawant has been a cultural icon for the Indian trans and queer community. Her fronting the 2014 petition where the Supreme Court eventually granted a legal status to transgender people and accorded them a series of civil safeguards was widely publicized at the time. It was also a precursor to the eventual striking down of Section 377 in 2018, which decriminalized homosexuality.
‘Taali’ narrates Sawant’s journey and transformation from a young Ganesh to trans activist Gauri primarily through a series of flashbacks that emerge when she converses with a white journalist hours before the 2014 judgment. Sawant tells the journalist that everything about her life is already on display, and to ask her incisive and new questions. But the series ironically progresses to give audiences an almost checklist-style conventional summary of Sawant’s life – and we walk away from the series being not much wiser about the life of the person behind the activist.
The series attempts to follow Sawant’s gritty and inspiring journey from boyhood. The initial episodes give us insights into Ganesh’s life – how he expresses his desire to be a mother when in school, and how he is ridiculed and punished for even daring to transgress social norms about gender and parenthood. We are drawn into the strikingly beautiful performance of Krutika as young Ganesh. When he curiously drapes a saree, applies a bindi and lipstick and gazes at himself in the mirror, we stand behind him quietly admiring, even as his mother’s gaze mirrors ours in horror. We see Ganesh’s first battle as he struggles to survive after the passing of his mother, bears the wrath of his conservative father (the patriarchal authority doubled by his police uniform) and is even forced to visit a sex clinic and take hormonal pills in a desperate attempt to retain and revive his ‘manhood.’
Ganesh secretly befriends a hijra and finds some belongingness within their secretive subculture. A powerful sequence is when he is subjected to a regular day in the life of his hijra friend, where her dignity is violated and she is even physically abused as she asks for money from passersby. Upon asking her why she doesn’t work, the hijra tearfully answers – “These people who do not even give us beggers’ offerings with kindness, why would they give us work?” It is here, on the verge of adolescence, when the deep instabilities of the elusive life that Ganesh craves truly dawns upon him.
Eventually, Ganesh runs away from home to make a living in Mumbai. ‘Taali’ provides us with brief glimpses where Ganesh tries to integrate with the hijra communities in the big city and learns their synchronized clap (or their signature ‘taali’) as she stands as signals and taps on passing windows. He dons many hats – becoming a mustachioed waiter, a student completing his degree and a volunteer as a non-profit organization working for queer and trans rights.
The show is slippery with its sense of time as it tries to fit a complex life into a linear journey. Ganesh’s transitioning journey into becoming Gauri is treated with a lack of nuance and seems orchestrated. A mass public ridiculing of Ganesh by the trans community for pretending to be one of them, yet not truly one of them in his kurta-pyjama, short hair and mustache is shown to be one of the main and only trigger points. The internal confusion, inner subjectivity and turmoil leading up to and after her sex-change operation is depicted in a few montages – and her transformation from a meek and still unsure Ganesh into the messiah-figure of Gauri occurs far too quickly.
‘Taali’ highlights Sawant’s many milestones – from saving a bullied trans sex worker to being recognized at a US conference for her efforts to educate and financially empower those from her community. Yet, the narrative denies us insight into her daily life, the rich forms of her inner world or the source of her incredible strength.
Sushmita Sen shines in her achingly tender portrayal of Gauri Sawant. She breathes life into and slips almost effortlessly under the skin of the activist, playing her role with the grace, fierceness and charisma that one knows of both the actress and the activist. Sen nails Sawant’s verbal quirks, gesticulations and even her walk without ever becoming a caricature of a trans person.
There are certain arcs within ‘Taali’ where the intent behind the making of the series is executed well. Sushmita is convincing in her role of nurturing, adoptive mother (being one herself in real-life), and is shown to rescue children of sex workers who have succumbed to AIDS. Her friendship with Nargis, a firebrand of a transwoman who initiates her initial journey into the community and remains her most loyal right-hand woman, even saving her from being poisoned is heartwarming to watch. The eventual role-reversal, with Gauri’s unrelenting battle to secure dignity for Nargis, at least in death is also powerful. The post-operative Gauri’s integration ceremony is neatly juxtaposed with her father mourning the death of his son. However, these moments of nuance are few and far in between.
‘Taali’ seeks to push boundaries, but is itself embedded in a moral binary. Characters are clichéd – from the stereotypical looks of a pimp and sex worker to an over-the-top sleazy employer who attempts to sleep with an innocent teenage Ganesh. A baseless antagonist from within the community appears and fades post a botched murder attempt. While this was an attempt to show the divided loyalties in a trans community that is often perceived as homogenous, the depictions seemed rushed and abruptly resolved. Characters dramatically shift stances after hearing Gauri’s monologues, portraying a stark black-and-white characterization. For instance, an orthodox CEO who refuses to acknowledge trans people should have rights suddenly promises to allot two positions to reserve two positions for eligible candidates. These instances of characters having a sudden change of heart are hard to swallow.
‘Taali’ is a valiant effort to portray a real-life story of immense bravery, grit and resilience – but it fails to fully explore the dark depths of an underworld it claims to represent. A story of representation cannot be lauded for the fact that it was simply created – in an attempt to shed awareness of trans lives, the show largely reduces them to already-known struggles and conflicts. Sushmita Sen and Sheetal Kale, cis-women become the faces of trans lived experiences for greater commercial viability, and a girl plays the role of young Ganesh. The intricacies of personal subjectivities; and sisterhood, solidarity and enmity within the trans community are not delved into.
‘Taali’ grips at the edge of understanding the realities of the one of the most marginalized communities who live amongst us, and yet don’t. Towards the end of the show, the character Naveen, who co-heads Rahi, the non-profit gender-equality organization for which Sawant is shown to work, is revealed as gay. However, the only comment he makes about his queerness is that the struggles he faced pale in comparison to Sawant’s. Resorting to comparing different LGBTQIA+ identities and consequently their diverse, lived histories to highlight trans discrimination is not the most sensitive treatment of the Indian queer demographic.
While Sushmita Sen taking on Sawant’s role and acknowledging the significant responsibility and sensitivity it demands is a significant step towards authentic queer representation in mainstream Indian entertainment, there is still a long way to go. More than ever, this is a chance to ask newer questions that problematize progressive storytelling and demand more from creators.