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Bandish Bandits review: Naseeruddin Shah towers over web series

The conversation around the need to revive interest in classical music, and the fact that there doesn’t need to be a rift between the classical and the popular, needs to be on-going. Despite its flaws, Bandish Bandits keeps up focus on this crucial theme.

Written by Shubhra Gupta | Updated: August 8, 2020 10:34:15 am
Bandish Bandits Bandish Bandits is streaming on Amazon Prime Video.

Bandish Bandits cast: Naseeruddin Shah, Atul Kulkarni, Rajesh Tailang, Kunaal Roy Kapur, Sheeba Chaddha, Amit Mistry, Ritwik Bhowmik, Shreya Chaudhry, Tridha Choudhary, Rahul Kumar
Bandish Bandits director: Anand Tiwari

‘Ten seconds, that’s what we have to catch the attention of the millenials’, says one character to another in Bandish Bandits. That, in a nutshell, appears to be the mandate of Amazon’s new series: to make Hindustani classical music appealing to Gen X, and it colours everything, right from its clever-sounding title, to its tone and tenor.

Shot on location in Rajasthan and Mumbai, the series opens in Jodhpur, in the ‘aangan’ of a big haveli, where Sangeet Samrat Rathod (Shah) is holding a class. He’s the crusty custodian of his ‘gharana’, and one of those formidable teachers of Hindustani classical who demand, and receive, absolute discipline. Despite failing hearing, inevitable with ageing, his word is law: even his family, including his grandson Radhe Mohan (Bhowmik), also one of his most able ‘shishyas’, addresses him as Panditji.

Along comes Tamanna (Chaudhry), a comely creator-cum-performer of studio-music, and a dangler of several equally attractive baits. Radhe takes his time but is duly smitten, though his agreeing to Tamanna’s ‘chichore’ blandishments has more to do with rescuing his family from financial peril, than falling for ‘fusion’ music. There we have it– the clash between the old and new, modern and traditional, music that is handed as a ‘dharohar’ (heritage) from teacher to student, taught painstakingly over the years, to a more rapid form that emerges from synthesised sounds, ‘ragas’ that are lovingly rendered in increasingly shrinking ‘baithaks’ and ‘sabhas’, to market-driven sounds that can be amplified over a million gadgets.

These are important issues. And definitely worthy of a series, which tries to do a balancing act between the overpowering influence the diktats-graven-in-stone guru exerts over Radhe (Bhowmick), and the corporate-driven demands laid upon Tamanna, who comes with a backstory of an ambitious, estranged mother (Malik), and a too-loving dad (Rituraj), and whose burning ambition is to sing with a fictional global pop icon called Queen Eli.

At its best, the series surrenders to the beauty and complexity of Hindustani classical music, as we hear the singers differentiate between a ‘teevra’ and ‘madhyam sur’, Shah building a lovely alaap, an old pupil (Kulkarni) who shows up half-way, and who has smartly learnt how to contemporise his classical talents, fire off rapid-paced ‘taans’. We also see the arcs of the other members of Panditji’s family, older beta Rajendra (Tailang), bahu Mohini (Chaddha), younger beta Devendra (Mistry), all musically gifted, but stunted professionally and emotionally, by the dominance of the guru.

Shah towers over the show, showing us how silence can convey so much, his expressions ranging, with a slight flicker, from outright disgust, to disapproval, to faint praise: last seen toying with ragas in Sarfarosh (1999), he fills his role completely. You wish though that the writers hadn’t chosen to reveal a few dark secrets which have deeply impacted his family, especially his daughter-in-law, so late into the ten episodes. It’s done with the intention of cracking the façade of the guru who can do no wrong, and by implication, stating that the old is not always the best, but it’s all done in too much of a hurry.

But each time Bandish Bandits veers towards the classical, it remembers its millennials, and we get, apart from Tamanna, who smokes (in the first few episodes; we never see her light up later), colours her artfully wavy hair blue, boxes to keep fit, and says things like, ‘this is legit, this is so legit’, as she admires a raga, several other youthful characters who represent the ‘other’ side, the kind who feel classical music sounds like a ‘goat being strangled’. Now come on, you guys, get down to your angry make up sex, says Arghya, Tamanna’s music producer (Kapur, manfully and enthusiastically channelling many portrayals of Hollywood agents looking out for their clients). He also says: har Arjun ko apne Krishna ki zaroorat hoti hai. Okay then.

Cuss words fly around, both in English and Hindi; Radhe has a foul-mouthed pal (Kumar) who has his back, and steers one of the most problematic bits of this series, in which a girl, seen in a graphic sex video filmed without her knowledge, is forced to quit a relationship. That episode only adds to the shaky ways in which women are depicted: Chaddha’s Mohini is granted a place at the men’s table almost at the end; the rest of the time she’s got her head covered, and her voice low. It’s to the credit of this terrific actor that she makes so much of the role. As we see Radhe Mohan exulting over his win in a climactic contest (what will we do without those competitions: a character helpfully calls the ‘sangeet samrat’ an ‘Indian Idol for classical music’, just in case we missed the point), Tamanna is sent off on a journey of self-improvement.

Clearly, Bandish Bandits has a season two coming up. Hopefully, we will get less old-style drama, and a more polished younger set, and more confident about its intentions. And maybe the writers will be careful to not have characters cheerfully dispense advice and medicine for ‘bipolar disorder’. Yes, this happens: we actually hear the names of the prescription drugs.

The conversation around the need to revive interest in classical music, and the fact that there doesn’t need to be a rift between the classical and the popular, needs to be on-going. Despite its flaws, Bandish Bandits keeps up focus on this crucial theme. I’m always in the market for great music (done by Shankar Ehsaan Loy), locations (Jodhpur is stunning, and the city’s famous mirchi pakode that the characters are shown eating, whether they are happy or angry, look extremely inviting).

Mirchi pakode, anytime, and music, always.

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