Bandish Bandits review: Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy's brilliant soundtrack anchors Amazon Prime Video's romantic musical
Bandish Bandits fails to successfully meld its musical largesse with the narrative scope of the show.
There is a lot to take home from Bandish Bandits, the 10-part Amazon Prime Video India Original show that released on Tuesday. Imprisoned as we are inside our homes for an unforeseeable future, the panoramic visual landscape of the show offers a heady vicarious joy of experiencing the fabled grandeur of Rajasthan, its royal traditions, ornate temples, and bustling markets.
Further, it taps into a genre of music left criminally unexplored in the commercial Hindi content arena – the Hindustani classical. Having learnt Indian classical music for a rather significant part of my life, I was exhilarated to find my kind of music having its moment in the sun. Small joys. Significant ones.
What Bandish Bandits fails to do, is meld its musical largesse with the narrative scope of the show. Predictably, the length of the show (10 episodes, each over 40 minutes) demands a complex storyline that slowly builds its dramatic tension to climax to a rousing crescendo. At least, this is what I feel the makers intended to do. Instead, what Bandish Bandits presents is a unidimensional tale of a man’s arduous journey to glory punctuated by conflicts, big and small, till he fulfills his heroic arc.
The central conceit of Bandish Bandits is fairly obvious — its traditional versus modernity, purity versus commercialisation. The show may have been marketed as a union between Indian classical music and electro-pop, but its focus steadily tilts to “saving one’s gharana” until classical music jugalbandis completely take over the electro-pop part of things. The (classical) music soars; the narrative dwindles.
The first two episodes of Bandish Bandits serve as exposition, giving us an insight into the lives of its protagonists Radhe (Ritwick Bhowmick) and Tamanna (Shreya Chaudhary). Their worlds could not have been more different. Radhe, brought up in a cloistered household run by his grandfather, has led 21 years of his life by the tenets of “Parampara, Pratishtha aur Anushasan.” We are told Radhemohan Rathod, (Naseeruddin Shah) the family patriarch, is waiting for a worthy heir to Jodhpur’ ‘sangeet samrat’ title (singer extraordinaire), one that he has boastfully exhibited for more than three decades, and is ready to pass on. He has only ever tied the ‘sacred thread’ to seven students in his life.
His impossible standards have rendered his two sons, Rajendra (Rajesh Tailang) and Devendra (Amit Mistry), into failures. His hopes now rest on the feeble shoulders of Radhe Jr, who leaves no stones unturned to impress his
perfectionist persnickety granddad. When he falters, he is banished to a mendicant life for a month, until he makes reparations for his gross indiscipline – arriving minutes late for his thread-tying ceremony.
Radhe’s caged life cleaves open when Tamanna, a YouTube sensation pop singer, journeys to Rajasthan in search of new music. He is a purist, with abject aversion to falsetto and autotune. In fact, he is so sanskari his vocabulary comprises only Devnagari Hindi. To amplify their disparities, Tamanna is portrayed as a poster girl of millennialism, who describes palace interiors as “legit”, and jokes about blow jobs and “doing it” (because sexually liberated cityfolk, duh). Her familial troubles also occupy much of the screen time – she has a contentious relationship with her stoic, pushy mother – but it has little to no bearing on the plot whatsoever.
Radhe and Tamanna’s paths soon coalesce when she realises his singing prowess can be used to create semi-classical pop fusion, and in turn, catapult them to stardom. What follows is Radhe’s constant struggle to juggle the colliding worlds of two divergent aesthetics, as demands to fulfill both mount.
In this mix are thrown several inconsequential subplots, that are as easily cast away when introduced in the narrative. Radhe’s marriage is fixed with the Belgium-returned daughter (Tridha Choudhury) of the prince of Jodhpur (Dilip Shankar), which Radhe is against because adores Tamanna. This “love-triangle” trope is toyed with for a few episodes, but the love-life crisis is resolved so quickly, you strive to find the purpose of introducing the third wheel at all.
The music-induced romance is also shoved to the sidelines soon, to now spotlight another twist — the return of the prodigal son. Digvijay (Atul Kulkarni), we are told, is Radhemohan’s only son with his first wife, who he abandoned in Bikaner to start a new family (and gharana) in Jodhpur. Digvijay, an equally able classical singer, has now returned to lay claim over their gharana as its rightful heir. He is the Karna of the clan — the gifted castaway, proud of his achievements yet forever seeking his parent’s validation; the tragic hero, deemed unworthy in the end. Thus begins the tussle between Digvijay and Radhe. Rapidly losing his auditory abilities, Radhemohan nominates his grandson to compete against the flashier, more experienced Digvijay, because Radhe, after all, is this prodigy.
The narrative takes several detours to provide insights into Radhemohan’s problematic past, whether it be banning his daughter-in-law Mohini (Sheeba Chaddha) from singing because she was better than him, or manipulating her to marry Rajendra despite knowing she loved Digvijay, or being a wife-deserter. This need to vilify Radhemohan in order to justify his rigidity towards modernity can be deemed extraneous, but it seems like director Anand Tiwari’s sly dig on “gatekeepers of traditionalism” in the current socio-political context.
Amid the high-strung drama with a Mahabharata hangover stands out Kunaal Roy Kapoor as Tamanna’s potty-mouth music agent Arghya. The wittiest lines of the show are delivered by him, be it “your faces look like you’ve seen your grandmothers shower,” “piss under the bridge” or “I’m under so much pressure that if I shove coal up my ass, I’ll get diamonds.” I wish they traded some of the drama for dialogues like, “I know it feels like shit now, but as you grow older, life becomes shittier” or “jis umar mein ladke patang aur papa ke paise uraatein hain” (at an age where boys only fly kites and waste his father’s money).
Where the tottering story falters, the music, composed by Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy, more than makes up for it. From the pure classical compositions — Javed Ali’s ‘Labb Par Aaye,’ Shankar Mahadevan’s ‘Padharo Maare Des,’ Ali and Pt Ajoy Chakraborty’s ‘Garaj Garaj’ to the fusion numbers — ‘Sajan Bin’ (Jonita Gandhi, Shivam Mahadevan) and ‘Chedkhaniyaan’ (Pratibha Singh Baghel, Shivam Mahadevan) – the Bandish Bandits playlist is the panacea for the 'Masakali 2.0'-s that have engulfed the present commercial music scene.
Apart from the music, it is the cinematography that duly elevates the show. One may argue that the Rajasthan of Bandish Bandits is exoticised, but Sriram Ganapathy’s camerawork is so spectacular and detailed that it seduces viewers into believing in his vision of Raja-sthan (the land of the kings).
Notwithstanding its music, Bandish Bandits is hardly original; from Patiala House to Abhimaan, the series is like a mishmash of popular Bollywood films. However, in an ecosystem of films and shows that uphold the unpleasant, grim realities of the world we are living in, its appropriate cheesiness serves as good ol’ popcorn entertainment. And that is perhaps why, even with its flaws, Bandish Bandits will be worth your while.
Bandish Bandits is currently streaming on Amazon Prime Video.
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