I can watch Sushmita Sen talking to a tree for an hour if she wants me to.
Can I believe her as a 25-year-old tho? Dekho aage and find out.
For once here is a production where a shapeless, exposition-y voiceover exists for a reason, Gauri Sawant is telling her story to a white journalist, Amanda. The journalist is shadowing Gauri on a momentous day, from what I understood its 2014, and Gauri is about to find out the result of National Legal Services Authority v. Union of India, on their petition to declare transgender people as “third gender”, allowing them access to basics like Aadhar Cards and Passports. Someone throws ink on Gauri’s face to show their displeasure, she now has to move to a police station to await someone who’ll come write her report. As she waits, she recalls episodes from her life with Amanda.
Writer Kshitij Patwardhan then takes us back to the 70s to meet a boy named Ganesh, growing up in Pune, with a policewala father slowly robbing this child of happiness by refusing to acknowledge his son could be anything but cisgender male. Talented young actor Krrutika Deo steps in to play a young Gauri going through puberty and young adulthood, through that time of her life that’s probably left the deepest scars, shaping this now activist’s personality. Through the rest of the 5 episodes, Gauri stays at the police station, and we move forward from the 70s, Pune to Mumbai finally making our way to Delhi for the judgment.
I will admit I am not familiar with director Ravi Jadhav’s work. A look at his filmography though tells you as a storyteller, he has been interested in exploring patriarchal rules in Maharashtrian homes, dictating how various genders must behave, at least two of his more famous works Nude and Natrang have this concern at heart. I invite you to tell me more in the comments.
His gaze upon Gauri is part bemusement and part unabashed awe, working extra hard to not let the bemusement turn her into an abnormality to be ogled at. The show is trying to figure out how a mother, caregiving, and loving, possesses the strength to lift a car if her child is trapped under it, once the awe of the moment washes over, it is an amusement that would lead to exploring what causes a human to abandon their regular reaction to stimuli so rapidly. So they needed Gauri to transform from loving, soft Amma to big, hulking, unafraid Mama Bear many times over, at crucial moments in the show. Highlighting this contrast, this duality of Gauri’s personality seems evident because its this scene, these moments, where Sushmita goes from silently sitting to menacingly swaying, from pleading to powerful in a split second, where Taali is at its emotional best, every impactful frame designed and delivered with wonderful intent. Sushmita Sen is incredible in these bits, more on this later.
But the show falters unfortunately in the softer sequences yaa. I wish I was allowed to be with Ganesh in more of this vulnerability, wishing I could become the mother he needed, reprimanding, and hating his father more. A young kid talking about self-harm, away and alone from their family doesn’t automatically become gut-wrenching because it’s raining outside. In fact, the setting contributes to it feeling more set up, more like a hurriedly put-together stage play for a small audience, only going over broad topics like, this is grief, this is abandonment, this is now sadness. You could be raising a demon child, a criminal, a person with all the flaws in the world, but the very specific heartbreak of a parent telling a teenager just on the brink of adulthood, that they just aren’t good enough, Taali doesn’t pause long enough to explore, thereby failing to lay the groundwork it is desirous of- exploring the childhood trauma that made Gauri the activist she became. Despite the significant time spent on the many flashback sequences, they feel like mere mentions.
In Greta Gerwig’s Ladybird, Saoirse Ronan begging her mother to talk to her, as the washes dishes with silent violence broke me in a way that allowed me to release something hidden away deep. I haven’t watched the movie a second time, mostly because I don’t think I can handle it. More recently there was Ali Junejo as Haider going through the duration of the film just hoping to win his father’s approval, only to end up losing everything. While Ganesh has been treated with respect and empathy in Taali no doubt, I can’t help but feel there is a deeper layer of the story there left uncovered.
The show THEN asks you to believe Sushmita Sen is now a grown-up Ganesh, and my apologies, all suspension of disbelief considered, the oversized clothes and overtime working wigs, along with an aggressive 5-o-clock shadow are not it. If de-aging was an issue due to budget constraints, might it have been prudent to cast another actor for the parts of Ganesh’s life transition?
Having said that, I do not recall ever seeing a sequence with a trans person returning home after Gender affirming surgery. The visual of a movie star like Sushmita Sen hobbling, and falling does more to normalize this conversation than a 100 seminars one can take their parents to. The show remains devoted to explaining why Sushmita has been cast in this role, which in an ideal world would go to a trans actor. The idea, I don’t think, is to create something she will win awards for, the whole bit with her playing a 20-something so shakily ensure that, but to make sure enough people are intrigued and interested in the show, for it to successfully make its point — trans rights are human rights. We are FINALLY moving toward the kind of cinema, using the word loosely here, where a trans character yelling in pouring rain is not heralding a murder that’s about to occur, but rage at being denied dignity after one of them has died. Sushmita as Gauri sits outside a hospital rocking side to side, barely able to contain her fury, slowly more trans women surround her, the rain blurring lines giving this peaceful but angry sit in, the vibe of a séance. Gauri was perhaps finally able to make peace with that little boy that died the day he left in the pouring rain, never to see his home ever again. Sushmita Sen single-handedly here manages to give the downpour a whole layer of significance, that entire sequences fail to do earlier in the show, without her. Yall she even makes the cheesy sequences work yaa, a montage of Sakhi Foundation workers rescuing abandoned babies all over Mumbai ends with Gauri picking one up and saying with every kid she finds, her life increases by 5 years and its so simplistic, yet I when I tell you I sobbed. In another kind of loose sequence only, Gauri walks out of a school building after becoming the first trans person to score a teaching position, a group of students is heard reciting the Jhansi Ki Rani poem, and Gauri finds a Jahni ki rani portrait in the hallway and her reflection in it. This means this has happened many times before, in many things, but knowing Sushmita Sen actually SHARES A BIRTHDAY WITH Jhansi Ki Rani, made me faaltu sent only.
Taali creators Arjun Singh Baaran and Kartik D Nishandaar, the whole major billing is exclusive cis men as far as I can tell btw, want the show to be helpful to the LGBTQIA+ causes by reminding us ki “Bhaarat ek pulling shabd hai, phir bhi hum use Ma bulaate hain”. They just fall a little short of making the world feel lived in. You see a group of transwomen arrive at a charity event, spitting paan everywhere, making a mess of the food tables, being generally rude and obnoxious, what you don’t see is WHY the group chooses to assert their dominance in such a way. The real Shreegauri Sawant explains this in a talk I will link here, saying spitting red pan on pristine white walls was her way of releasing pent-up anger. Also inexplicably a whole sub-plot is developed with a rival trans-leader looking to usurp Gauri, threatened by the attention she had begun to get, which just….poof, went nowhere? Forget closing the loop on that, the character, revealed with much pomp and shown as the cliffhanger of an episode, is just simply never mentioned again.
After I finished watching the very binge-able 6, 30-minute episodes, I found myself seeking out stories of Gauri Sawant’s life. After Neeraj Ghaywan’s incredible Vicks advertisement made her famous, she went on to give many, MANY public talks, candidly and freely sharing her life story, engaging with the audience after, patiently talking, listening, and answering even the most insane questions with a grace I know few to possess. Watching her for 3–4 hours enriched my life, if the show births that motivation in a fraction of its viewers, it’s a job well done, no?