Taali Review: Sushmita Sen fights a losing battle in a facile series

The six-part series is available on Jio Cinema.
Taali Review: Sushmita Sen fights a losing battle in a facile series

Creators: Arjun Singgh Baran, Kartk D Nishandar

Director: Ravi Jadhav

Writer: Kshitij Patwardhan
Cast: Sushmita Sen, Ankur Bhatia, Krutika Deo, Nandu Madhav, Sheetal Kale, Hemangi Kavi, Aishwarya Narkar, Suvrat Joshi, Maya Rachel McManus

I’m never going to tire of writing this: The triumph of an important story cannot be that it exists. Representation in art is a double-edged sword. It’s a good thing, of course. But because Hindi cinema hasn’t been inclusive for so long, the very prospect of representation tends to reduce the characters to their socio-cultural identity. They become little more than their conflicts and struggles. We saw that in the second season of Made In Heaven, specifically with the addition of Meher, a post-op trans woman whose complexity is limited to her authentic casting (she is played by trans actor Trinetra Haldar Gummaraju) and a bunch of dating-app experiences. Taali goes a step further (or behind, depending on how you look at it), sacrificing authenticity at the altar of commercial reach. The six-episode biographical series stars Sushmita Sen as Gauri Sawant, the iconic transgender activist and petitioner in the landmark 2014 case where the Supreme Court of India declared transgender as the third gender. An early scene features Gauri telling a journalist profiling her to “ask new questions” because her information is already available online. And then, without the slightest bit of irony, Taali proceeds to do the exact opposite of that, reducing Gauri Sawant to a bunch of online bullet points. 

Awkward Storytelling 

For starters, the narrative choices lack the courage of the protagonist. Her life is shown in flashback, with the primary timeline revolving around Gauri Sawant speaking to the foreign journalist on the eve of the Supreme Court verdict. I like that a police station is factored into their day (an enraged Gauri goes to lodge a complaint after two lawyers hurl ink on her face), allowing for a transition to the childhood trauma with her Pune-based police-inspector dad. Her memories are triggered by the sights and sounds of law enforcement. But their conversation is gratingly basic; the reporter asks her questions with all the nuance of a ‘Did You Know?’ blurb popping up in a children’s animation video. “Where was I?” prompts Gauri every other episode, lest we forget that she is narrating her story. 

There’s no sense of time passing either, so the awkwardly acted scene of Gauri speaking broken English (the grammar might be incorrect but the diction is perfect) with a school principal is soon followed by a panel in which she chastises soap-opera-styled, corporate stooges in English. Her transformation is limited to her physical appearance, because her personality goes from meek to messiah across a single montage. At some point, the back-and-forth loses its patience, this long-form profile is forgotten, and the flashbacks hijack the series until they collide with the case.

Taali on Jio Cinema
Taali on Jio Cinema

Stuck in Basic Binaries

A lot of Taali unfolds like an amateur stage production and has the moral depth of an Amar Chitra Katha comic. A pimp has a thick beard and long oily hair; a sex worker has a fake mole on her cheek; a sleazy employer who tries to sleep with Gauri is bald and boisterous in an Eighties-sidekick sort of way. Rain is a recurring motif in all the statement scenes. A sexologist is an old bigot who gets schooled by the child he’s trying to ‘cure’. A jealous rival emerges for no good reason – even though society is Gauri’s real villain – and disappears after a cringey assassination attempt. Naysayers turn into noble humans – like a CEO suddenly promising to allot two positions to transgender workers; or the lawyer going from “you people have no rights!” to “I’ll fight your case!” – within seconds of listening to Gauri’s monologues. It’s like characters have only two shades: Good and bad. 

Every episode has a musical interlude to score passages of her journey, except the songs feel like a cheat code that the screenplay uses when the writing needs to look within. The dialogue rhymes words like gaali (expletive) and taali, bindaas (carefree) and badass, in its effort to decorate her grit. The visual symbolism is quite literal; multiple shots show Gauri stranded in slow-motion between queues for men and women, or looking at herself in a strategically placed mirror between signs pointing towards male and female washrooms. The ink drying on an older Gauri’s neck while she waits on judgment day is probably the smoothest of the metaphors. 

Taali on Jio Cinema
Taali on Jio Cinema

A Myopic View of Trans Identity

Most of all, the series is visibly seduced by the idea of a Bollywood actress playing a transgender celebrity. Much of it seems to be written to amplify Sushmita Sen’s performance rather than the brave character she’s playing. Like she did in Aarya, Sen uses her emotional intelligence to convey the purpose of someone who survives and protects; the maternal instinct to teach and nurture looks organic. One is even willing to forgive the forced Maharashtrian twang and curated voice. But it’s the optical illusion of watching a popular cis woman play a troubled man (the make-up is disorienting at best) and a post-op transgender activist that defeats the meaning of gender dysmorphia. It says something that a young girl is cast as Gauri’s effeminate childhood self, Ganesh. While I’d like to believe this reflects Gauri’s inner gaze rather than society’s reading of her, it’s more likely that Taali just has a misguided sense of empathy. Like, for instance, Gauri’s gay friend (Ankur Bhatia) finally declaring – in an attempt to canonise Gauri – that his problems pale in comparison to hers; that it isn’t until he met her that he realised what stigma was. Pitting one LGBTQIA+ identity against another isn’t the smartest way to make a point. 

Taali does have a few moments where intent meets entertainment. Like Gauri’s frenzied showdown with hospital workers who refuse to touch her friend’s body. Like the juxtaposition of a post-op Gauri’s integration ceremony with her father conducting last rites of the son he ‘lost’. Like the old patriarch later clapping at Gauri’s victory on television channels. Or like the sister’s reaction on bumping into Gauri at school with their kids – both mothers, both strong and career-minded, both still worlds apart. But these moments are the exception, not the norm. The rest of Taali is merely a student essay on celluloid, and a profile that’s happy to be a checklist of social subheads. For some, that’s more than enough. For others, it’s another reason to ask newer questions of progressive storytelling and demand more from creators.

Watch Taali Review by Prathyush Parasuraman

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