In ‘Bombay Talkies’ (2013), a beautiful anthology on relationships, Zoya Akhtar makes a beautifully poignant statement on the androgynous personality. ‘Sheila Ki Jawani’ explores the psyche of a 12-year-old boy who loves to dress up like a girl, puts on his mother’s lipstick, applies make-up, wears jewels and idolises Katrina Kaif for her item number ‘Sheila Ki Jawani’. But his father wants him to become a

football player though he hates football.

The boy is scared of the field because he knows he does not have the physical strength or stamina or spirit that the game demands. He dreams of becoming a dancer like “Katrina.”

Ten years later, we are invited to participate in a web series called ‘Taali’ on Jio Cinema starring Susmita Sen, playing a transgender and a leader of the community, in Mumbai. The series is based on the real life story of Sreegauri Sawant, born as Ganesh, who played a crucial role as one of the petitioners in the National Legal Services Authority (NALSA) case.

The case, filed in 2013, led to the Supreme Court’s final verdict in 2014, recognising transgender individuals as the third gender.

The agenda is powerful and courageous, made in the midst of romantic anthologies, revolving around the lockdown, scams, scamsters, and thrillers set against public boarding schools and such like. So, ‘Taali’,inspired from the ‘identity’ card the transgender communities use to announce and claim their presence comes across as a welcome change.

One needs to tip one’s hat to the creators of ‘Taali’, Arjun Singgh Baran and Kartik Nishandar, and the director, Ravi Jadhav, and of course, to Susmita Sen who has been brave enough to step into the shoes of a transgender hijra and become their campaigner to fight for their rights to a legal identity.

The child Ganesh reminds us of that 12-year-old boy in ‘Sheila Ki Jawani’ and the flashbacks, placed at random to function as randomly as human memory does, are the stronger elements in the cinematic narrative. So, the father of Ganesh/Gauri, when informed about his son’s sex-change surgery, performs ‘his’ funeral rights, eyes brimming with unshed tears. The camera pans across to focus on the garlanded portrait of the sweet little boy Ganesh.

Cut to the grown-up Gauri (Susmita Sen), decked up like a queen out of the pages of Maharashtra’s history, offering prayers to their Goddess and warmly accepted by the other members of the community. She wears the most expensive Maharashtrian sarees which does not go at all with her means of earning of which we do not have a clue.

All the repression the little Ganesh suffered as a boy with girlish looks and likes and desires, such as his policeman father dragging him away when he was performing a Laavni number at a neighbourhood function, or, dressing up with a chunni covering his face and expressing his desire to become a mother when he grows up come across in bits and starts, as chips drawn from a memory she cannot wipe away.

This includes the abandonment by her father who she loves dearly and would love to be accepted by. As a youngster, Ganesh comes to terms with the fact that she is a girl trapped in a boy’s body.

Gauri shows her leadership qualities by fighting and/or persuading her way through obstacles on behalf of her kin and not for herself alone. So, her crusade is a collective one, though she is the sole representative of the lot. Susmita Sen is brilliant in her performance focused on the crusading factor, shouting her way through every obstacle followed by her ‘children’ who call her “amma”.

Her first action is to rescue a member of the community from police torture in custody, the woman begins to call her “amma” which sticks. In another scene, she stands up solidly insisting on the body of one of her peers to be picked up from the floor outside the hospital and kept in the van.

Her sex-change surgeries come a bit later in the story when one of her clan accuses her of fighting for their rights while she is still a man, so her fight is external and not internal. The process of the surgeries begins from then on.

However, the film remains completely silent on the source of funding for these surgeries, which are said to be exorbitantly priced. Similarly, the narrative does not bother to pursue Gauri’s experience as a school teacher except through a single lesson to little girls in a mainstream school.

How did the parents react to a transgender teacher for their little girls? The film is silent. So also, a senior transgender of the community vows to get even with Gauri who has become a celebrity, which seems to have displaced her from her own hierarchical position. But this argument too, is not followed at all.

The scene of the transformed Gauri with her older sister, a cop, is one of the most touching moments in the film. She covers her sister’s hand with her own but the sister takes her hand away, ever so gently and Gauri shifts her position a little further than where she was sitting close.

The other touching scene is the one where her father performs her funeral rights beside a water body. The series keeps you captive mainly through Susmita’s brilliant performance, her fluid body language, the fierce expression in her eyes, the way she puts on her bindi and admires herself in her reflection.

Yet, ironically, she is also the one who spoils the whole show. How can a transgender person be so beautiful that she sticks out in the crowd like a sore thumb, big bindi, heavy jewellery and all? This is telling us to stretch our imagination a bit too far for credibility.

The music is good but a bit too loud which is logical. The editing is smooth and seamless, walking through the time leaps not through straight flashbacks but springing from Gauri’s nostalgia.

We are introduced to the real Sreegauri at the end of the film, alone and with Susmita Sen which shows the stark contrast between the exquisitely beautiful and well-built screen Gauri and the real Sreegauri who is as flesh-and-blood as we are.

The climax is as melodramatic as any mainstream Bollywood film. Though a man at the police station insults Gauri by pointing out that she has come to a police station and is not at a traffic signal, not once in the film are we offered a glimpse at these women clapping away for alms at any traffic signal.

Why? Then, how do they manage to keep body and soul together? Does this not give the lie to the title of the series ‘Taali’? So, should we dub ‘Taali’ an agenda film or a propaganda film? Make your choice.