We have many films and television shows that have had male or female actors play the role of a trans man or a trans woman, and in most cases, they have aced it. The notable ones are Sadashiv Amrapurkar in Sadak, Vijay Sethupathi in Super Deluxe, Kalidas Jayaram in Paava Kadhaigal, and Kubra Sait in Sacred Games. We have never had anyone tell the story of a prominent transgender activist who has faced severe hardships and managed to help the downtrodden. We are talking about Shreegauri Sawant, a prominent figure who fought for the rights of transgender community in India. Keeping her story in mind, writer Kshitij Patwardhan, director Ravi Jadhav, and creators Arjun Singgh Baran and Kartik D Nishandar give the audience Taali, a six-episode mini-series about her life. The question remains: Was Taali a good attempt to showcase her struggle?
Taali revolves around Shreegauri Sawant, originally born Ganesh Sawant in Pune to a loving mother and a close-minded police officer. Ganesh’s father has a tough time accepting that his son might be effeminate, and that was the root of all the conflict between them. Suddenly, Ganesh’s mother passes away, which increases the gap between him and his father. His sister is unable to get a grip on the situation at home. Ganesh, on the other hand, starts relating himself to plenty of transwomen but is appalled by their financial and mental states. He walks away from his home at the age of 18, starts relating himself as a woman, works tirelessly for sex workers, and speaks up for the trans community so that they are treated with dignity. Her social work is stalled because, as a trans woman, she has no right to do anything in this country. She files a case with the Supreme Court to win recognition. Thus begins her fight to secure basic human rights, and this forms the plot of Taali.
The biggest concern regarding Taali is the maker’s decision to cast a female actor to play the role of a transgender person. Currently, if one looks at the discourse that is happening on inclusivity, the makers could have cast a transgender actor instead of a cisgender woman. In the recent season of Made in Heaven, we saw a transgender activist cast in Taali as a supporting actor. Hiring transgender actors will get them accepted, thereby normalizing and acknowledging their presence. This was the point Shreegauri Sawant was trying to make in the show. The makers also cast a young female actor to play Ganesh. They placed an odd-looking wig on her head and smeared makeup that resembled stubble. This makes the audience question the budget of the show.
The story by Kshitij Patwardhan had ample opportunity to put forward the struggles a transgender person faces right from childhood. The hostility begins at home and school, but how Ganesh’s struggles are written and executed feels caricature-ish, and no time was spent giving any layers to any characters in the show. The father’s character is presented through cliche scenes and dialogue. All the antagonists in the show are one-note and given nothing to work with. Their subplots begin, but there is no definite conclusion. The writing of Taali is structured erratically; as the screenplay and the direction jump from scene to scene, there is no seamless transition. The viewing of the show is mostly disturbed by a clumsy narrative that banks only on stereotypes about the transgender community.
Taali is supposed to break the conventional image, but it ends up enhancing it. The execution of all the scenes is lazy and problematic. One scene has a gay guy speaking about his hardships. In the next scene, he claims the hardships faced by him as a homosexual human being are nothing compared to what Shreegauri or other trans women have faced. This trivializes the suffering of a marginalized community altogether. Every individual goes through a journey of pain and rises above it. There is no comparison when it comes to struggles. Such scenes shed light on why there should be more sensitivity training. The producers and the creators of the show should have interviewed transgender people while developing the screenplay to gain knowledge about their experiences. The screenplay of the show is merely an outsider’s view of what the community goes through. There is no internalized pain or anguish that has been described. Shreegauri Sawant only speaks of her pain, but there are no scenes that could describe that. A lot of crucial emotions are just brushed under the carpet.
The screenplay seems to romanticize motherhood. It is described as the ultimate joy any woman or transwoman could have, which isn’t a very progressive perspective to push. Not every woman wants a child or can have one. The overemphasizing of a mother’s love being compared to divinity gets repetitive after a point and just puts the onus of being a perfect parent on mothers.
Apart from the over-the-top dramatic screenplay, which generates no sentiments, the dialogue is equally corny and cringeworthy. It is disheartening to see a great personality such as Shreegauri Sawant’s story being presented in the most tormenting manner. One of the few good qualities of Taali is the runtime of each episode, which does not go beyond 33 minutes. Each episode was like a quick Google search, which provided surface level information. We wanted a deeper understanding of the stories, nuances of the scenes, and intentions of the characters. Another redeeming quality of Taali is how it portrays the relationship between Shreegauri Sawant and his sister. She comes to understand her new sister. Her arc is tiny, but she acknowledges Gauri for who she is.
The direction by Ravi Jadhav is abysmal because every single aspect of the screenplay is exaggerated. The actors seem to be following the director’s instructions rather than performing. There are parts where the actor resorts to hamming. There are plenty of scenes that were included just for the sake of it, and they did not add any purpose to the bigger narrative. The screenplay and direction exploit the pain of the transgender community. Amitraj’s music in the show had the potential to become a soundtrack that could evoke a sense of pride that the people of this community accept themselves. But sadly, the effect of the music and the lyrics is the opposite. We get to hear a hymn sung for Lord Ganapati, which is usually in Marathi, but for Taali, the lyrics are in Hindi. A bizarre soundtrack.
We had hoped the performances would somehow salvage the series. Every actor except for Sushmita Sen delivered a below-par performance that made the viewing experience wearisome and flat. Not one actor could deliver any emotion in the right manner, especially Ankur Bhatia as Navin. Ankur, as Navin, is just there as a stereotypical good guy. Krutika Deo as young Ganesh is just the wrong casting. Sushmita Sen, as Ganesh, who transitions into Shreegauri Sawant, speaks in Marathi and Hindi, which is anglicized in most parts. She is unable to give the character the quality of being rooted in her culture and identity. Sushmita’s angst can be felt only in a few scenes at the end, but those were again not enough for the show to be revived.
Shreegauri Sawant deserves much better storytelling for the work she has done for the upliftment of her community. We all deserved to learn more about the trans community through Taali. The makers sadly got stuck delivering commercial work instead of meaningful cinema.