Sushmita Sen in the series
Before Sushmita Sen met Gauri Sawant in 2022, she remembers running a Google search on her. Watching her TED Talks and multiple videos gave the actor a fair idea of the transgender activist. Or so she thought. "When I went to meet her, the person I expected was the one I saw on YouTube. It turns out that is not what any of us are. When we met, I saw a vulnerable, kind and compassionate person.
Because of the world we live in, there is a [difference] between the person she is and the one she projects. The world needs to see the vulnerable Gauri Sawant," states Sen. That is where Taali comes in.
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Sawant's biographical series, helmed by Ravi Jadhav, attempts to reveal the person behind the many achievements to her name. Sen, who plays Sawant, emphasises that even though the show chronicles the protagonist's fight for transgender rights and highlights society's apathy towards them, it's not an underdog story.
The actor says, "The kinnar community has existed for 4,000 years, and they are still looking for recognition. Hijra is a community, not a gaali. Over the years, people have made it into an abuse. What people forget is that at the core of all of this, is a human being who is being abused day in, day out for simply existing. Gauri and her sisters have lived that life every day. We have someone to go to [when hurt]. This is the story of a trans woman who had no one to go to, and she decided to create a home for the underprivileged."
Casting a non-queer actor in a queer-themed story is usually slammed. The leading lady admits she too was worried about the casting decision. But after the teaser was launched last week, she felt "an onslaught of love."
While it was a brave decision on the part of Sen - a beauty pageant winner who is seen as the epitome of sexy - to play the role, she acknowledges it was "an enormous responsibility" to tell Sawant's story. "Gauri is breaking the barrier of why a trans person is not chosen to play her. And [the circle] will be completed when a trans actor will play a gender-neutral role. These are small steps to progress," smiles Sen.
The JioCinema offering traces how a young boy Ganesh identifies as a female, moves from Pune to Mumbai and builds her life as Gauri. Sen credits acting coach Atul Mongia for helping her slip into the role.
"I had to play a man, Ganesh and then Gauri. When shooting the portions as a man, I would bandage my chest, and wear a crotch guard to physically separate the legs. I had to put on weight [to attain] a more masculine structure. The mannerisms had to be different. We had to dub those portions separately. During dubbing, I had to increase the bass in my voice. The worse my throat got, the better it sounded. We discovered the right voice through trial and error," she recounts.
The makers wanted Taali to be the story of transgender people, told by them. Which is why they were roped in across departments. "More than 70 per cent of the crew was made up of kinnars, including my co-actors and some co-directors. The right and wrong were dictated by them on the sets. My director was clear that we would get it wrong [in terms of on-screen representation]. So, whenever we went wrong, they would tell us, âThaamb', and we would follow their guidance."