‘Taali’ series review: A strictly Sushmita Sen show all the way

Sushmita Sen portrays transgender activist Shreegauri Sawant in a respectful but conventional series

August 15, 2023 12:41 pm | Updated 12:52 pm IST

Sushmita Sen in ‘Taali’

Sushmita Sen in ‘Taali’

Shreegauri Sawant is a renowned trans rights activist and social worker based in Mumbai. In 2014, she was a petitioner in a landmark Supreme Court ruling, one that accorded legal status to transgender persons and granted them a range of civil rights and safeguards. Sawant’s non-profit, the Sakhi Char Chowghi Trust, has been active for decades. She adopted a girl, Gayatri, in 2008. Sawant was featured in a viral Vicks campaign; she also appeared on an episode of Kaun Banega Crorepati, along with Usha Uthup — a personal hero whose trademark large bindis Sawant fashioned as her own.

These are the facts of Sawant’s life, and, watching Taali — a six-episode biographical drama series starring Sushmita Sen in the central role — I was left none the wiser. Directed by Ravi Jadhav and streaming on JioCinema, it is a respectful but straightforward series, reverentially mapping its protagonist’s extraordinary and well-known journey, a dramatisation for dramatisation’s sake. After a quick prologue, the series begins in 2014, in the run-up to the historic Supreme Court judgment. As Gauri (Sen) relates her inspiring life story to a journalist, we get a series of conventional flashbacks: childhood, transition, youth, motherhood.

Taali (Hindi)
Creators: Arjun Singgh Baran and Kartik D Nishandar
Cast: Sushmita Sen, Krutika Deo, Ankur Bhatia, Nandu Madhav, Hemangi Kavi, Ananth Mahadevan
Episodes: 6
Run-time: 25-35 minutes
Storyline: The inspiring real-life story of transgender activist and social worker Shreegauri Sawant

Gauri, who was assigned male at birth and named Ganesh (Krutika Deo affectingly plays her in the younger years), runs away from her home in Pune. Her father, a widowed police officer, never recovers from the shame (“My son is dead,” he declares). In Mumbai, Gauri works odd jobs, including as a mustachioed waiter at a cafe. She volunteers as a social worker but it proves a tougher calling than she presumed. In one of its more perceptive tracks, the show refuses to paint the transgender community (blanketly and often derisively called hijras in India) as a broad homogenous tribe. We see divisions of class and social standing —”Our conflicts are often internal,” Gauri says. Even as she picks up a common fight for dignity and gender self-identification, the show celebrates the diversity and nonconformity of its central characters.

Kshitij Patwardhan’s writing is often gratingly obvious (“In Mumbai, there was neither food to eat, nor water to drink...”). Gauri likes to converse in rhymes, an infectious trait frequently mimicked by other characters. This is a sentimental series, with radio transistors used as a metaphor for stalled relationships. The series has the structure, but not the staging, of Gangubai Kathiawadi: young girl rises up the ranks in an unremitting world, builds allies, becomes a firebrand. There are movie posters to indicate specific years, and a perfunctory ‘villain’ character much like Vijay Raaz’s Raziabai in the Bhansali film.

As in Aarya (2020—), Sushmita Sen is the tough, fiery centre of this series. The actor is having one of the most exciting second innings in contemporary Hindi cinema. Her Gauri is more a celebration than an accurate portrayal of a revered trans icon. It’s a cinematic turn, lacking the oddities and dissonances that make a complete performance. Still, there are moments that the actor sells really well, like the mixture of delight and gratitude on Gauri’s face when she’s hired as a part-time teacher. As she does a charmed walk down the corridor, I was reminded of Sen in Main Hoon Na (2004) minus the fluttering saris. As Gauri puts it, “Your clothes need not shine when you do.”

Taali is currently streaming on JioCinema

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