Can a male or a female actor portray a trans person on screen? Is it the same as playing a mafia don, a policeman, a sex-worker, a coolie, a gambler or any of the myriad masks an actor puts on while in front of the camera? A performer may be able to get into the soul of a character he or she plays on screen, but is it possible to get into another gender? By extension, how many men play women or vice-versa in cinema? Not like Padmini in Mera Naam Joker or Kamal Haasan in Chachi 420, where they only put on a disguise, but a proper gender-reversal role? So, should only a trans person portray such a character on screen?
These are some questions that pop up in your mind even before you start watching Taali. There are no clear answers. Filmmakers and actors would argue it is perfectly legitimate for a male or a female actor to play a transgender—it is creative freedom for an actor or a director, as also the saleability of a star to make the movie a hit. Many trans people will disagree—that a trans person is not just a character but a whole being. It’s a layered debate worth having with filmmakers, actors and trans people.
It is good that an OTT serial has provoked this debate and a hat tip to Jio Cinema for green-lighting a serial on the life and times of the transgender activist, Shreegauri Sawant, when the suits at most other OTT platforms are apparently only giving the nod to crime dramas set in the boondocks. Also, to the creators, Arjun Singgh Baran and Kartik Nishandar, and the director, Ravi Jadhav, to be inspired to make it happen, even with all its faults.
Gauri Sawant’s (as she is called in the serial) is an extraordinary life, a perfect tale to be brought to screen. As a youngster, she realises she is a woman trapped in a man’s body. She loses her mother early and for her policeman father, it is unthinkable that his son wants to be a girl. But Gauri is too strong-willed and free-spirited to let her middle-class surroundings or societal pressure come in the way of finding her identity. She figures out early that education is a means to get out of the shackles of poverty and prejudice, and takes it upon herself to educate others. Gauri’s big moment is when her petition leads the Supreme Court (SC) to recognise transgender as the third gender.
Spoiler alert. (Actually, it’s redundant because in Taali you can see what’s coming from a mile). The serial begins with this impending SC judgment on Gauri’s petition. Tension is in the air, TV crews have lined up outside the court and Gauri is ensconced with a ‘foreign reporter’ who is interviewing her. This is a plot contrivance to cut back to Gauri’s past. And so Gauri’s story is told, the sex-change operation, her getting involved in the transgender community, witnessing the innumerable humiliations and injustices hurled at them, the police violence and the sex-trade. Gauri becomes aware of her rights—or rather the lack of them. She starts a collective to spread awareness, urges others to get back to school and barges her way into becoming a teacher.
Sushmita Sen as Gauri Sawant owns Taali. She hisses, she snarls, she seethes, she bawls, she guffaws, she soars. She gets the look right, the big bindi, the crisp sarees, the swinging gait, the rough skin, the long sideburn and a faint stubble showing in close-ups. But that’s also the problem—Taali is too much exterior, very little inward looking, too much tell, very little show. How different it would have been if the writers had given Sen some calmness, some stillness and some moments of quietude. The inner turmoil Guari must have experienced at various points in her life would have been so gut-wrenching, so confounding, but none of that comes through. Strangely, when so much experimentation is going on in OTT serials, Taali has a 1980s or 1990s Bollywood sensibility. The melodramatic set pieces, overused slow-motions, the low-angle shots to accentuate the drama, the music reaching a crescendo ever so often and gallons of glycerine.
An example of this is the sequence when Gauri decides to go in for a sex-change surgery. One can only imagine what must be going on in her mind. The final assertion to establish her identity, an act of rebellion against a hostile society, the cost and the risks involved in an operation which cannot be so routine. But in Taali, Sen might as well be going through a procedure for hernia. The emphasis is on the hospital, the nurse, the doctor, the medical equipment, the tubes all through which Sen sails with a beatific smile. But what is going on inside her head? We don’t know.
Early on—when Gauri is the eight-year-old Ganesh—she is bullied in school, tells the class she wants to become a ‘mother’ when the teacher asks the ubiquitous ‘what do you want to become when you grow up’? She is getting to know she is not like other boys, prefers to dress up like a girl and do the lavani—nothing of the fear, the quandary, the despair shows on the face of Krutika Deo (who plays the younger Gauri). Can a policeman’s daughter, in a closed neighbourhood, one day suddenly dress up like a girl, join a group of transgenders in a crowded crossroads, and dance away in gay abandon? What led her to it, what went on in the child’s mind?
The serial touches upon the controversial aspects of Gauri’s life—that she is a publicity hound, steamrolls all other opinions to suit hers, bulldozes her way through tricky situations. Like any other community, transgenders are also not a homogenous group. There are pulls and pressures, jealousies and pettiness within the community. This is tackled in the most filmy way in Taali—a rival camp leader sends a mole into Gauri’s household who tries to poison her by adding poison to the paan. At the right moment, Gauri’s friend Nargis (an excellent Sheetal Kale, one of the few from the supporting cast who stands out) comes and saves Gauri.
At the end of the season, we are back to the court scene. We all know which way the verdict went and yet there is a goosebump moment when the judge gives his order, recognising transgender as a third gender, opening the way for them to vote, to get a passport, to drive a car.
(This appeared in the print as 'Too Loud A Clap')