Ravi Jadhav has been making Marathi films with unusual subjects, including the powerful Natrang (2009), about a man who plays the nachya (eunuch) in a traditional lavni troupe, and Nude (2018), about a woman who strips to model for art students. Jadhav’s previous experience with gender identity makes him a natural fit for Taali, a biographical series on transgender activist Shreegauri Sawant. Starring Sushmita Sen, the show is being streamed on Jio Cinema.
In Hindi cinema, transgenders are often portrayed as comic or slightly intimidating hijras. The myths surrounding hijras ignore the deep discrimination against the community – until 2014, eunuchs could not marry, adopt, own property, vote, drive or get any government benefits.
Shreegauri Sawant and other activists petitioned the Supreme Court for legal recognition, which is why application forms for official schemes now have the “Other” option after male and female. Taali is Shreegauri’s story, so one has to accept as true her experiences and her overwhelming desire to be a mother.
Shreegauri is born as Ganesh (Krutika Deo), who dances the lavni at a village function, with all the suggestive moves and expressions. Ganesh’s policeman father (Nandu Madhav) strongly disapproves of the boy’s effeminate ways. Ganesh runs away to Mumbai where he lives on the street for many years, starts working with a non-governmental organisation, and is attracted to the community of hijras, whom he sees either begging or practising sex work for lack of education or employment opportunities.
The difficulties of surviving in Mumbai are glossed over in the series, created by Arjun Singgh Baran and Kartik D Nishandar and written by Kshitij Patwardhan. Several aspects that could have made the character more vivid are overlooked. Shreegauri’s struggle to legal victory – which are narrated in a series of flashbacks to a White journalist (Maya Rachel Mcmanus) – is strangely left out.
It is also never clear how Shreegauri acquired her influence before the Supreme Court petition. But she seems to have the cops, the media and a politician or two on speed dial. At one point, she threatens to strip to get a man to listen to her demand – the kind of aggressive behaviour that gives eunuchs a bad reputation.
Although there are a few harrowing scenes of Shreegauri after her surgical transition, crucial segments happen off screen. She is invited to speak at a conference in the US, but what that exposure to a different culture means to her growth is left out. All she tells her coterie is that in America, transgenders do not beg or clap, to which one of them says, “But it is our parampara.”
Jadhav structures the story with enough overdramatic scenes that give Sushmita Sen a chance to spew fire or speak in slogans (the make-up gives her a faint five o’ clock shadow). But Sen delivers better in the few low-key and sensitive scenes that humanise her character.
A series like Taali is important to dispel misconceptions that surround the community. But to wipe out memories of films like Laxmmi (2020), the sinister Maharani in Sadak (1991), the racuous hijra anthem Saj rahi gali meri ma from Kunwara Baap (1974), a much more nuanced show was needed. Some of these, such as Njan Marykutty (2018) and Super Deluxe (2019), have emerged from Southern cinema. Hindi cinema did come up with a mature Chandigarh Kare Aashiqui (2021), but still has some catching up to do.