Tandav is a confused and confusing, nuance-free rehash of House of Cards that dug deep into the entrails of Washington power games played by a cohort of ambitious sleazeballs, where conscience is the missing word in their vocabulary. When our writers try to adapt an American model to Indian reality, they can only grasp at the superficial — the cunning, conniving, and vicious ploys to climb the political ladder, while pulling down those already perched higher than the grasping, totally amoral ‘protagonist’. The writers were content to pack in surprises at every corner — 15 minutes into the first episode, the corkscrew twists were predictable. The major flaw of the writing is to forget to root their characters, and give them a semblance of psychological credibility. Forget psychology. Even plot credibility is gossamer thin. Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey, before the Me Too infamy got him thrown out of the series) is a Democrat, a Congressman from Redder than Red South Carolina who schemes all the way to the White House through murder, blackmail, manipulation, and unbelievable amounts of chutzpah. He and his wife are a modern incarnation of Macbeth, minus the poetry and the redeeming depth of guilt. The writers of Tandav spun the convoluted story around a national party that sounds like a regional variation of the many Dals of the Hindi heartland. It has been in power at the centre for two terms, on the cusp of a third term, waiting for the expected sweep predicted by exit polls.
The PM, Devki Nandan Singh (Tigmanshu Dhulia, effective in the few scenes he appears), distrusts his son, and thwarts the heir who wants to supplant him. Devki’s wine is poisoned by the son Samar Pratap Singh (Saif Ali Khan, all suave swagger). The initial plot surprises depend on the untraceable poison, and how it is leaked to the demurely glamorous Anuradha Kishore (Dimple Kapadia). She has been more than a party colleague, and special friend to Devki. She blackmails Samar to accede the gaddi to her, and relegates him to a sort of Marg Darshak Mandal. She has a junkie son who wants to be defence minister; Samar’s protégé for the portfolio is an ex-woman pilot, who is young, and a stunner too. Anuradha does a nice balancing act between various claimants like a seasoned politico. Samar’s wife Ayesha (Sarah Jane Dias) is complicit in the crime (and other crimes to come), but she is more like a model for elegant, one-of-a-kind saris. Tandav makes women politicians and their aides elegant dressers, not the usual khadi-wrapped solemn-miened women of yore. (We have a Mahua Moitra, and, of course, others who break the unwritten dress code that signified serious purpose). Tandav’s selling point is the look of settings. So the ministerial bungalows, dark dangerous Old Delhi alleys, shabby hostel rooms, and dingy police stations where torture and abuse are the norm — they are all waiting to be perfect settings for riveting action and dark conspiracies.
Unfortunately, that’s where Tandav is such a let down. The parallel track of student elections is supposed to be dramatically complementary to the deep games coiling under the surface cordiality between Anuradha and her rivals, whom she has upstaged with such finesse. VNU of Tandav may mention Vivekananda statue on a couple of occasions, but any fool will know it is JNU. You don’t need a Ph.D in quantum physics to get the connection between Shiva Sekhar, the student leader, and Kanhaiya Kumar, he of the heroic Azaadi chant that went viral. Both speak of Bihar and its poverty. It is precisely this connection and Shiva’s (Mohammad Zeeshan Ayyub) stage act that got the Hindutva Vadis’ goat. He plays Shiva in a tracksuit, with a vibrant blue line running down his face. His bantering partner Narad, tells him that Ram has managed to get a lot of followers, leaving Shiva far behind. So tweet something new? Or post a new photo? These are the options before Shiva to catch up with Rambhakts.
The mild satire seems to have got some people’s knicker’s into a twist. To posit Shiva — unpredictable, untamed free spirit against the virtuous Ram is a threat to the roots of carefully constructed Hindutva ideology. That is why, the little satirical byplay has enraged one set of Hindus. They talk of insult to gods and goddesses, but no goddess is mentioned in Tandav. We have always had a robust and healthy sense of sending up the gods in popular culture. Theatre is a good example. I remember as a schoolgirl in Hyderabad, attending an inter-college theatre competition. Yamalokamlo Corruption (Corruption in Yamlok) was a popular hit. People call up Chitragupta, the assiduous book keeper of our sins and virtues, to alter the books, try to bribe him and pass on the profits to Yama too. Telugu films subverted the staple mythological with satire that depended on the anachronistic descent of gods into modern times. They are baffled; people think they are actors from a theatre company, looking at the tinselly grandeur of their costumes. And this humour was enjoyable. No one took offence at this satirical departure by an industry that specialised in sumptuous mythologicals with big stars. I am sure this sort of good fun existed in other languages and theatre traditions.
What is perhaps more dangerous (for the objectors) is that Shiva and his friends raise the empowering chorus: azaadi from Manuvad, Jaativad, Bhook, and Berozgari. How dare they? Hindutva must have thought the azaadi chorus had been silenced by the lockdown. Now, this star-studded Tandav, directed by a Muslim, where the hero is a Muslim, makes the campus resound with the battle cry of youth we last heard at Shaheen Bagh. It is this resolve to teach such dissenters a lesson that has powered the demand for an apology, deletion of scenes, escalating to censorship of OTT series. This is serious. More and more people have gravitated to streaming content that has escaped the fell hand of the government censor. Tandav has a scene where the SHO tells off a clutch of students: go, be good kids, and say Vande Mataram. Loudly, he commands the mumblers. We all know Vande Mataram too has become a weapon to make Muslims cower. At the end of the season, Shiva forms a new party to take on established student wings of mainstream parties. The trident atop a nib is his symbol. Intellect holding up the threat of a trishul. A powerful visual statement that seems to have sent objectors into a funk. Nothing else explains why an avalanche of concerted attacks has descended on a series that wouldn’t have had this high visibility if left alone to make its way in the thicket of contending web content.
The question goes beyond just Tandav. There are enough people and groups who can take offence at anything and everything. Many things passed under its radar. Like Made in Heaven, the glitzy take on high profile Delhi weddings. The male partner of this wedding planner duo is gay, and is outed, and then becomes an activist. Saffron–flag–waving goons vandalise his office, and beat him up. In Paatal Lok, you had a guy thrashing a suspected beef carrier. Plus, there was the serious issue of the CBI cooking up the story of a Pakistani plot behind the attack on a famous news anchor, to cover up the police nexus with criminals. In the same series, someone objected to a stray female dog, lovingly called Savitri by the panic-attack prone wife of the news anchor. How dare you sully the revered Sati by giving her name to a stray who delivers a litter of illegitimate puppies? The Family Man had extended scenes set in Kashmir where a colleague of the protagonist, a Kashmiri woman, talks of the stifling curtailment of human rights, and the consequent resentment. There is now talk of the government censoring web content. Once this happens, do you think such scenes will pass? That is the end of creative freedom. Just one last point. The much awarded House of Cards did not result in Democrats calling for a ban, or censorship of the series. The Crown is not at all flattering to British Royals. They are on view with all their warts. I don’t remember any royalists calling for censorship. If you are offended, don’t watch.