The new nine-part web series Tandav wears its politics on its many sleeves, the action divvied up in a couple of parallel strands. There’s the ‘strong’ party which has been in power for ‘two terms’, with its ruling satraps, uber ambitious leaders eyeing the ‘kursi’, and faithful henchmen (and women) who know that real power vests in those who stay behind the throne, because they can see the enemy most clearly.
And there’s the student politics, playing out in a university, which looks suspiciously like Jawaharlal Nehru University, called here, nudge, wink, Vivekanand National Univerity, with its blocs of ‘left’ and ‘right’, slogans of ‘azaadi’, and charismatic Muslim youth leader being bunged into jail without any recourse.
Sounds familiar? Of course. That is the whole point of this series, created and directed by Ali Abbas Zafar. You don’t need to be a media hound to twig on to the sly digs that are strewn through the show. Strong parties which swing right, ‘left’ politics in vilified red brick varsities with controversial statues, and the potential challenge of the ‘yuva varg’: all these ‘real-life’ elements come up in ‘Tandav’.
But that’s exactly the rub. The trouble with cobbling plotlines from headlines is that it can slide into seen-it-been-here territory. Tandav’s insistence on clinging to formulaic telling, with its staccato cutting back and forth from the ‘satta ke galiyaare’ to the ‘chahal pahal’ of the student arcades, lets down its characters, and dilutes its impact.
It begins well, giving us a refreshing father-son equation. When we first come upon Devki Nandan Singh (Tigmanshu Dhulia), he is looking at Samar Pratap (Saif Ali Khan) as only a died-in-the-wool ‘neta’ can: the latter may be his ‘beta’, but Samar is also Devki’s strongest rival. Through that single glance, we know that these two may be united by blood, but are divided by their ambitions. And so when blood is spilled, we are not surprised. The act launches the series into predictable arcs, where we can see what’s coming from miles off.
This a great, varied ensemble: Dimple Kapadia as the power-hungry Anuradha Kishore, Kumud Mishra as senior party leader Gopal Das, always the bridesmaid, never the bride, Sunil Grover as Gurpal, Samar’s ruthless yesman, Gauahar Khan as Maithili, the canny woman behind Anuradha, Anup Soni as Kailash, the lower caste leader who knows the value of holding on to anger. And on the other side, Zeeshan Ayyub as dynamic student leader Shiva Shekhar, Kritika Kamra as his complex compatriot Sana, Sandhya Mridul as a feisty professor, Dino Morea as a two-faced bridge between the two sides.
Given this bunch, Tandav should have been much smarter, and much more interesting. What floats up top is the deep distrust between family members of politicians, as does the curse of ambition– to live with no peace, always worried about someone stabbing you in the back. Saif Ali Khan has moments, but comes off too Bollywood-familiar, as does Kapadia, clad in the most mouth-watering saris: both are capable of so much more. Those who rise above the pedestrian writing are Grover (his Gurpal is shiver-inducing), Gauahar Khan and Sandhya Mridul, and Tigmanshu Dhulia, who infuses his part with real brio, and is the best part of the show.
Whatever punch there is comes from the ‘netas’ and their machinations. The portrayal of the students, their in-fighting-speeches-campaigns, never really lift off the screen; neither does, even more surprisingly, Zeeshan Ayyub, usually so good. Disappointing that this goes the way it does. The way it ends, though, is clearly not the end. Can the second season be sharper, an actual ‘tandav’?