Created by: Ali Abbas Zafar
Cast: Saif Ali Khan, Dimple Kapadia, Zeeshan Ayyub, Sunil Grover
Rating: 2 stars (out of 5)
It isn't a good idea at all to project politics as a game - a mere battle of wits - when it is actually much more, an all-out war with and without weapons. Tandav, created and directed by Ali Abbas Zafar for Amazon Prime Video, falls prey to this misplaced emphasis. The result is a terribly tepid, spectacularly superficial web series that develops delusions of Shakespearean grandeur and believes it is providing us a view of the innards of the world's largest democracy. Through a tale of vaulting ambition and abject avarice.
Scripted by Gaurav Solanki (who wrote Article 15), Tandav dances to a typically facile Bollywood beat. It presents a cliched take on power-crazy politicians that tells us nothing that we do not already know. Murder, blackmail and palace intrigue are the fulcrums of a plot woven around men and women who will stop at nothing to cling to their positions.
Saif Ali Khan, in his second web series (after the critically acclaimed Sacred Games), is out of his depth here because the tale has no real sting. Playing Samar Pratap Singh, the scion of a political dynasty, the actor is reduced to holding forth on the character's perceived misfortunes and the dynamics of democracy that have prevented him from becoming the Prime Minister of India despite all the moral support that he has received from his conspiratorial wife, Ayesha (Sarah Jane Dias).
Khan is upstaged for the most part by Dimple Kapadia in the guise of Anuradha Kishore, a super-ambitious woman who challenges the son of a three-time Prime Minister on his own turf. She has her own reasons to be disillusioned with what her career has yielded thus far and she hopes to receive some recompense via her son cocaine-snorting Raghu (Paresh Pahuja) and her wily aide Maithili Sharan (Gauahar Khan).
Given the way Tandav kicks off - election day has ended and Devki Nandan (Tigmanshu Dhulia), Samar Pratap's father, is predicted to win again - the show raises expectations. Two cops at the site of a farmers' agitation against an order to acquire their land for a chemical factory are instructed by a political fixer to bump off three Muslim lads - Ayub, Saleem and Imran.
One of the trigger-happy cops is Manohar Thakur, the other is Ramjeet Chaudhary. These are pliable men with the right names. They ask no questions before doing the bidding of their political masters. Two of the boys, both farmers, are felled by their bullets.
The third, a university student in Delhi, escapes the encounter because he is summoned to the campus in the nick of time. But he is instantly branded a terrorist for participating in the farmer's rally (sounds familiar?), picked up from the university, and put in police custody. The students react and all hell breaks loose.
Right upfront Tandav addresses police highhandedness, intimidation of Muslim youth, distress among farmers and student unrest in a single sweep. Some hope is kindled. Are we about to witness a daringly radical show? Sadly, Tandav chickens out and loses its way quickly. It turns into a confused mess in which the exploration of the line between idealism and opportunism takes a backseat.
The nine-episode series veers into a palace of intrigues where a powerful politician and his son play a cat-and-mouse game while an ally of the older man struggles to hold the balance. He fails. The actor playing the role of the ally, Kumud Mishra, is a strong presence in the first few episodes before he vanishes completely until he resurfaces briefly at the very end.
The show, too, never hits the right rhythm, wending its way through a minefield of half-baked ideas that are rendered completely ineffectual by a directorial style that nixes any possibility of the characters springing to life and making sense in the context of the larger power struggles that are sought to be depicted.
The manner in which Tandav blends historical fact with flights of fictive fancy does not click because the show never rises above the pedestrian. One of many things that works against the series is the casting. The actors who play the politicians and the student activists look more like models - many of the cast members are real-life models - than dyed-in-the-wool street fighters.
And actors who might have added some heft to Tandav are saddled with sketchily delineated characters. The worst off in this regard are Sandhya Mridul in the role of a university professor and Annup Sonii as a Dalit politician waiting for his moment in the sun.
The title refers to the upheavals triggered by disgruntled students of an institution named VNU (Vivekananda National University), where a young man named Shiva Shekhar (Mohammad Zeeshan Ayyub) spearheads a movement aimed at securing azaadi from exploitation, privation and feudalism. Azaadi? The word does not raise hackles here the way it did in reality not all that long ago.
In the fictional universe of Tandav, Shiva and his co-travellers obviously hark back to the tumult that several campuses - especially JNU - have witnessed in recent years. The rest of the series is rooted in a totally imaginary world. Samar Pratap feels he hasn't been given his due by his father. The moves he makes as a result sparks a whirlpool of chaos that stymies his ambitions. When you can't be king it is better to become a kingmaker, he decides.
Samar's plans to stake his claims on the highest political office of the land faces opposition from his father's closest political ally Gopal Das Munshi (Kumud Mishra) and Anuradha, who is Devki Nandan's constant companion. Samar's trusted hitman Gurpal Chauhan (Sunil Grover) makes sure that the iron always stays hot enough for his boss to strike when the time is ripe.
As the tussle for power intensifies, Samar makes a bid to wean Shiva away from his leftist moorings and gain control of the VNU campus where he himself was a student leader many years ago. He enlists the help of a former classmate and a current professor, Jigar Sampath (Dino Morea), in this parallel mission.
Unfortunately, a majority of the Tandav characters are hopelessly underwritten. The more interesting ones have shady cores, not the least among them is Gurpal, who watches a spiritual guru's show on television and feeds his pet cat after every misdeed he commits. Sana Mir (Kritika Kamra), a girl from Kashmir who is an associate of Shiva's, has secrets that blow up in her face and push her into a deep, dark hole of deceit, betrayal, guilt and fear.
But very little in the rest of the show that is as interesting as Sana Mir's story. Tandav is more fluff than fury.