We have come across many films and television shows in the biographical drama genre about real life people who have trudged through suffering to live life with dignity and respect. Shreegauri Sawant is an example many of us have read about. She is not just a leading figure in transgender activism; she has spearheaded the rescue of many transmen and transwomen of all ages who were abandoned by their loved ones. Keeping her bravery in mind, creators Arjun Singh Baran and Kartik Nishandar bring us the true story of Shreegauri through JioCinema’s mini-series, Taali.
Taali is associated with the clapping sound that a transgender person or a hijra from the South Asian Belt makes. Thus, the name of the show was derived. Taali begins with the story of Ganesh Sawant, who was always attracted to everything feminine. He longed to be a mother. Every story about a trans kid begins with the changes they go through. Not many around them can understand such transitions. There is never enough awareness about it. Ganesh is caught wearing his mother’s clothes and accessories, and she seems to have accepted him. In most cases, it is the mother who understands the plight of her kids. But in many other households, mothers can be insensitive. Case in point: in last week’s release, Made in Heaven, we got to witness how toxic Karan’s mother was. She was willing to use her illness to emotionally manipulate her son into marrying a girl, even when she knew he was gay.
Since Taali is based on a true story, his mother’s empathy allows him to embrace her nature. His father, a police officer, was too narrow-minded and practically illiterate about the subject of gender identity to understand the changes his son was going through. He insisted Ganesh be anything but a girl. An idea that emerges from a patriarchal setup where having a son in the family is considered a big deal If the son is pursuing a career or a lifestyle that is opposite to the gender norms set by society, they are always looked down upon and ostracized.
Tragedy struck his family when Ganesh’s mother passed away suddenly, and he knew this could be the end of the relationship he had with his father. His father made him ingest hormonal pills in the hope that Ganesh would showcase masculine traits. His father should have tried to communicate with his son instead of taking such drastic steps. His father was worried about his standing in society. A common pattern of behavior showcased by people as insensitive as him. Ganesh followed his heart no matter what his father expected of him and started communicating with transwomen, as he was fascinated by their lives. He was quick to understand the hardships they face and that their constant struggle to be treated with respect and dignity is never-ending. If only we could see around us why people of the third gender struggle to be treated equally. The percentage of transmen and transwomen taking up regular jobs is still low in India. Since Shreegauri’s origin story was set almost 35 years ago, the state of the transgender community was even worse, but Ganesh strived to be a woman despite that. When he realized his father had no room for his identity, the boy left his home and moved to Mumbai. Ganesh could not live with feeling claustrophobic in his home. We feel sympathetic for the pain young Ganesh had to grapple with and wonder about the kids his age who might be struggling with their identity as well.
Shreegauri In Delhi
Years later, the makers introduce us to Shreegauri Sawant, who is on her way to the Supreme Court in Delhi. She is simultaneously being interviewed by her journalist friend Amanda about her struggle for three main aspects: identity, survival, and equality. Shreegauri is right about the three important things her community constantly struggles with, as it takes time for them to come around to their identity and accept it. Once acceptance comes, it is society’s turn to learn about and be aware of their existence. At the Supreme Court complex, some miscreants threw ink at her as a sign of protest. Shreegauri was angry but took it in stride because she had faced worse situations. The miscreants are a representation of a group of people from a so-called conservative background. They are against the transgender community being treated as citizens of the country. We feel the story, up until now, sets the tone for what led Ganesh to become Shreegauri. The narrative also takes us through a series of incidents in Gauri’s life that made her pursue equal rights for herself and the entire community. Shreegauri starts recounting her life to Amanda as a part of the interview, and they are joined by Navin, who is her closest confidante. The story presented by the makers has good intent. It was only the execution that was subpar.
Why Does Shreegauri Fight For Transgender Rights?
The makers of Taali take us through the life Gauri led after reaching Mumbai. She lived as a beggar for many years and moved to work for an NGO to provide female and transgender sex workers with information about safe sex practices. Ganesh always wanted to work with the community to understand the predicament from their point of view. This allowed Ganesh to work toward making others aware of his community. We, as viewers, think this was probably the right approach. Working with the larger community gave him enough experience in the field of social care and welfare. Ganesh’s caring nature never faded away, and he was constantly positive about wanting to bring about necessary changes. He planned to assimilate the transmen and transwomen into society by taking them off the street. He encouraged them to study and work. Ganesh was trying to bring about a systematic change that could alter the perception of the transgender community in the eyes of the larger population.
This time around, Ganesh met with Navin, an LGBTQ activist who organized an event to let men and women meet members of the transgender community. In a scene we believe is executed in the tackiest manner, we get to see the hypocritical behavior of the men and women who attended the event and their unwillingness to understand the culture of the transgenders who were also invited to this gathering. The transwomen joined the event with a preconceived notion about society’s inability to accept them. The leader of the group, Nargis, was steadfast about her ideas about what people thought of them. She and her group would rather resort to begging or prostitution than pretend to be happy around those who act holier than thou. Nargis challenges Ganesh to be and live like one of them to understand the problems they face daily. The entire event and the falling out of the groups were presented as catalysts that made Ganesh finally decide to fully transition into a woman.
The gender reconstructive operation procedure was presented in the most caricature-ish manner. We, as viewers, are not informed about how exactly this surgery takes place. It is the makers’ responsibility to provide such knowledge without being condescending. Chandigarh Kare Aashiqui, a commercial Hindi movie made on the same subject of a man transitioning into a woman, presented the procedure in an educational manner without sounding too technical. Here, the makers did not try to do that. The screenplay conveniently did not touch on how Ganesh managed to gather enough money to fund this operation. They missed out on this detail, and it leaves us perplexed as to whether the makers are serious about providing a compelling narrative.
Ganesh finally transitions into Shreegauri Sawant. The first person to accept her was Nargis, and she helped her through the post-surgical recovery. Gauri tries to restore her relations with her sister, but her own flesh and blood find it difficult to do so. Maybe for her, she will always be Ganesh. Members of the family can choose to stand up for their trans children, or they could end up being like Gauri’s sister, who is having the hardest time placing her sibling as a woman. Even though her sister refers to her as’she,’ Gauri does not expect to be accepted anytime soon, but she is glad her sister took the first step of acknowledgement.
Shreegauri is termed the caregiver of all transmen and transwomen, and she helps them in every way possible. Her experience educating them landed her a job at a local school in Mumbai as a teacher. This was a big step forward for an education institution to let in a transwoman. The show normalizes their presence by increasing interaction between Gauri and the students. Her reputation as the guardian, or amma, as everyone affectionately calls her, led to many bringing abandoned kids to her doorstep in the hope she would take them home and raise them as her own. As viewers, we think it is one of the more noble works of Gauri. But soon, she realizes she will have to buy a care home for the kids. To handle this in a legal way, a lawyer lets Gauri know that transgender people do not exist in the Indian judiciary, and hence, they have no rights.
Many people in the country, including us, are unaware of this technicality in the Indian judicial system. The laws have changed now, and Shreegauri was instrumental in running a campaign to make sure she and the people of her community were given fundamental rights. The makers and the writers did not show the movement engineered by Shreegauri and people from the transgender community. They expected us to believe their word and be content with it, which is the wrong approach. Not showcasing their fight disregards their struggle. If any of the writers on the show were from the transgender community, this blunder could have been averted.
At a television debate, as Gauri is trying to understand the case of the transgender population for the sake of bringing equality to the legal system, she learns of Nargis’ suicide. Gauri is stunned to see Nargis’ mortal remains not being treated the right way by the hospital authorities, and she begins another crusade for solidarity. The hospital finally agrees to Gauri’s terms. Nargis’ death devastated her, but her protest created enough noise for the Supreme Court to consider Gauri’s petition.
As Taali is about to conclude, the screenplay takes us back to Delhi, where Shreegauri, Navin, and Amanda are awaiting the verdict. To their joy, the Supreme Court gives the verdict in their favor and allows the inclusion of the third gender, implying that transgender people exist and have access to all their fundamental rights. We get to see her father applauding while he watches on television as his daughter speaks to the media after a big win. It was probably his way of accepting Gauri as his child. As viewers, we get to see how thankful Gauri is to those who supported and did not support her. She did not take to this stage to badmouth anyone who was against her, which included people from her community as well. Sadly, this screenplay was a letdown because it managed to bring forward no sentiments required to tell the story of a struggle. We believe biographical stories should cover tiny details from a perspective that helps us understand who the person is. The makers failed to do that. Taali is a lost opportunity.