Tandav review: Amazon Prime Video's campy, poorly-researched political series misses the mark
Tandav prefers to dumb down its plot assuming Indian audiences need to be spoon-fed Indian politics. As a result, one feels bad for gifted actors like Saif Ali Khan, Sunil Grover and Gauahar Khan, whom the series lets down.
Gurpal (played by the highly underrated Sunil Grover) is a pucca Dilliwaala at heart, and the right-hand man of an important and powerful Delhi politician. He wears a safari suit, and Ray-Bans. He’s a vegetarian who smokes too many cigarettes and drinks glasses full of neat rum to (perhaps) suppress his conscience, and that’s because his bosses make him do all their dirty work (murder, treason, kidnapping, voyeuristic stalking, and conspiring abound).
In fact, in one scene in Amazon Prime Video’s latest "political" "thriller" series Tandav (using these words very loosely — but we'll get to this point later), Samar Prathap Singh (Saif Ali Khan), the son of the late Prime Minister of India Devki Nandan (played by a forgettable Tigmanshu Dhulia), asks Gurpal outright how he sleeps at night. Gurpal gives his pet cat all the credit, claiming the feline love he receives is enough to keep him afloat. That he finds a cat's love inspiring is in itself a quirky addition to his complex and alluring character.
On the other hand, there's Maithili (played by the effervescent Gauahar Khan, who really should be getting more acting gigs), the PA of the current Prime Minister of India Anuradha Kishore (Dimple Kapadia), also in charge of doing her bosses' dirty work. Maithili is a smart woman, with her own ambitions; but she doesn't let them show when the world is watching. She picks up the pieces of her ageing boss, gives her wings to fly by putting thoughts in her head, and stops her from making stupid mistakes — like making her nincompoop, coke-addicted son the Defence Minister of India, for one. She shows her displeasure at those who consider her weak by virtue of being a woman with her expressive eyes, and patiently waits for her moment in the sun. And when that inevitably comes by, she strikes hard, as if she were wearing her ace card up the sleeve of her colourful sari blouse the entire time.
Tandav should have really been about Gurpal and Maithli's stories. About how these invisible characters who are actually running the political show conspire to make or break governments with their polity, wit and intelligence. Instead, what we get is a poorly researched, campy series that prefers to dumb down its plot assuming Indian audiences need to be spoon-fed Indian politics.
Tracks of dissent, political espionage, religious discrimination, caste atrocities, farmers’ protests, police brutality are thrown around with no fresh perspective, and with the melodrama of a '90s Bollywood film. I guess you could give credit to director/creator of the show Ali Abbas Zafar, and writer Gaurav Solanki, for picking up relevant subjects that are pertinent to the politics of modern India, but the good things about Tandav pretty much end here. It's a much bigger crime to have a cast like Saif Ali Khan, Dimple Kapadia, Kumud Mishra, Tigmanshu Dhulia, Sunil Grover, Gauhar Khan, Anup Soni, Sandhya Mridhul and several other great actors — only to deliver a hammy, forgettable show.
Tandav begins on the heels of an election, where two-time PM Devki Nandan (Dhulia) is expected to return to the position at the behest of his party JLD. His son, Samar Prathap Singh (Saif) has had enough of being in the sidelines, and churns a political scheme to become the PM instead. In the midst of this, he cuts the throats (some metaphorical, some literal) of many of his rivals, including Anuradha Kishore, his father's mistress, who also aspires to be PM; Gopaldas Singh (Kumud Mishra), an LK Advani-type character who is revered merely for his age and experience; Kailash Kumar (Anup Soni), who pays the token OBC politician (with no deftness or detail).
In a parallel storyline, we are shown the lives of campus activist Shiva Shekhar (Mohd Zeeshan Ayub, who gets majorly shortchanged with this badly researched character) and his fellow batchmates from Vivekanand National University, as if it were some sort of music video on student politics (maybe the research for this storyline involved watching Gully Boy). Words like "azaadi" and "aakraman" are thrown around without any real backing. The activists delve into various issues like farmer oppression and the suppression of dissent without really digging into their complexities; social media tickers, shots of TV media and "virality" are thrown around to make the scenes more relevant.
One barely understands the need for Tandav to show us a fictional (?) glimpse of India's murky politics by romanticising how down and dirty and conspiratorial things can get. We know this by merely following the news.
Most political shows take the same route, when it comes to charting plots and characters. What is a show like Tandav in 2021, with big budgets, a great cast and so many resources at their disposal, really bringing to the table for Indian viewers who have more watching options than ever before? This is a question that the director and writers and creators should have asked at the development stage, because now, at the viewing stage, the cracks are showing. And no amount of smart editing and cover-ups can hide the flaws.
I find it important to bring up that this critique is only relevant if indeed Prime Video wanted to make a genuine political thriller. If the route they wanted to go with was the Inside Edge-Race series route, they have managed to do so with great success. Each episode is under or around 30 minutes, and on a bad day when you don't want to use your brain, you could, perhaps, sit through Tandav. Intentional campiness is never a bad thing.
Saif Ali Khan, Sunil Grover and Gauahar Khan perform their parts to their best ability — and there's something satisfying about watching Saif embrace his diabolically melodramatic character with an air of actualisation. In fact, Tandav would have been a much better show if it owned its melodrama and flaunted it, instead of assuming the audience prefers a dumbed-down political series. (On a side note, we really need Ali Abbas Zafar to stop pretending his projects have a natural political underpinning to them just by using catchphrases and keywords. There's a way to bring out subtlety with writing and performance; perhaps he should take a cue from Kabir Khan.)
Rating: * 1/2
Tandav is currently streaming on Amazon Prime Video. Watch the trailer here:
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