Fauda, the Israeli TV series on which Tanaav is based, is easily one of Netflix’s biggest hits. A political thriller about an undercover Israeli Army unit operating on the West Bank has everything you would expect from it: Machismo, roaring guns, an impulsive protagonist and tense twists. But creators Lior Raz (who also plays the protagonist, Doron) and Avi Issacharoff had initially struggled to find a domestic production house willing to fund them. The reason? Fauda’s portrayal of Palestinians. For a Jewish audience, the show’s refusal to paint Hamas as flat-out villains – a common portrayal in mainstream Israeli media –was groundbreaking. Fauda’s Netflix debut in 2016 turned the show into a global phenomenon, with many lauding its even-handed portrayal of pain on both sides. But there was equal backlash, especially from Palestinians, for how does one depict the pain of an asymmetrical battle – one between the occupier and the occupied – objectively? Surely, being courageous is different from being enough?
Tanaav’s screenplay, by Ishan Trivedi and series director Sudhir Mishra, adapts the Israel-Palestine conflict to the unrest in Kashmir. There is a lived-in nonchalance to Fauda’s violence and this is glimpsed in the first few minutes of Tanaav, as a Kashmiri student casually tells his professor that he hasn’t been attending classes because “zabaan rukti nahi hai, aur government baar baar andar bula leti hai (I can’t keep quiet, and the government keeps locking me up).” The pilot is almost a scene-to-scene rendition of the original – Kabir Farooqi (Manav Vij), retired from the Special Task Group, is living a quiet, apple-jam-making life with his wife and children. This domestic bliss is upended when Kabir is informed by his former boss (Arbaaz Khan) that the terrorist he shot dead is believed to be alive. Much like Fauda, the series incorporates multiple languages into the mix, with everyone on the Indian Army unit speaking Dogri and Urdu – one of the many parallels drawn between the radicals and the Army. But Tanaav also adopts a few key changes. Unlike Doron, who is an Israeli pretending to be an Arab, Kabir is a Kashmiri. The original, perhaps true to its cultural context, makes room for some startling intimacy between the men – wet kisses are showered on each cheek, necks are grabbed to get a good look at the other’s face. Tanaav replaces this with ball-grabbing and chokeholds. In the pilot, when an operation goes horribly wrong due to the protagonist, the treatment is starkly different in the two shows: Doron messes up the mission because of an impulsive mistake; Kabir makes an active decision to put his team’s life on the line. The last shot in both versions is a close-up of the hero’s face: Doron’s facing downward, almost guilty for his slip-up; Kabir’s staring ahead in defiance, a vein of pride in his droopy eyes. Delicacy wasn’t a priority here.
Tanaav, like its predecessor, will find many takers because the show delivers the sugar rush of a fast-paced action thriller – the kind that makes you ignore the flimsy portrayal of loyalty or the suspension of disbelief required to make its incidents credible. The trailer mentions the show depicts “two sides of the same story”. Tanvaav’s war is a dance between equally malicious men, nestling their own definitions of ‘justice’ into a larger, more noble cause. Kabir is dedicated to wiping out Umar Riyaz (Sumit Kaul), the militant face of the people who rally for Kashmir’s freedom. But his devotion towards his duty often hides a strain of his personal ambition. Over the course of the series, Kabir indulges in decidedly anti-hero behaviour, kidnapping a child here, torturing an old man there. Like in the pilot, Kabir isn’t afraid to let his male ego step in to take the decisions, even when it might result in the loss of lives. He’s the kind of hero who would say, “Trust me,” and then proceed to do things that abuse that very trust. So when Umar The Terrorist decides to blow up some people, his actions don’t stand out as particularly hateful. There are other moments of aching vulnerability from the Kashmiri characters, like when a militant meets his first love, his face crumpling when she says, “Kitne badal gaye ho tum (You’ve changed so much).” Or when a just-widowed woman, about to plant a bomb in a cafe, worriedly asks, “But what should I order? A cappuccino?” Perhaps this portrait of a violent Kashmiri – and a violent Army man – is courageous, especially in an era of nuance-less writing and self-censorship. Perhaps Tanaav might break new ground, much like Fauda did, for people who view Kashmiri radicals as rebels without a cause. But we must ask: Is painting your heroes and villains in similar colours the same as portraying “two sides of the same story”?
The insurgents in Tanaav speak often of “Kashmir ki awam (people of Kashmir)” and of Kashmir’s freedom from “Hindustan”. They love, persevere, manipulate and kill in the name of this freedom. But we’re never told about the continued Army presence in Kashmir or why so many Kashmiris, across two generations, have felt the need to fight for their identity. The show doesn’t nudge us to wonder how far one must be pushed to believe the only way to resist is by sacrificing one’s life. How long does one need to endure occupation to believe violence is the only way? Tanaav acknowledges the humanity of its radicals but it doesn’t acknowledge their cause, which is vilified through Umar’s actions. In contrast, the Army is depicted as inherently honourable, which is why no matter how decidedly anti-hero Kabir is on occasion, he remains the hero. Tanaav assumes that we will, at the end of the day, understand how the good (ish) guys must get their hands dirty to keep the country safe. It’s questionable whether a similar goodwill is extended to the depiction of Kashmiri insurgents. Perhaps one can’t anymore, given the current political climate. “But then again, this is a TV show. Come on! Let us watch the TV show, and if you have any criticism about the TV show, say it!” said Fauda creator Issacharoff to Hollywood Reporter, in response to the criticism the show received.
Until the last few episodes, Tanaav is an engaging watch with its flurry of languages from the Valley; its women, forcibly carrying their men’s crushing ambition; its narrative style which packs a twist at the end of each episode. It is held up by an ensemble cast – Vij who, despite his one-note performance, fits the role of Kabir; Rajat Kapoor who commands a calm malevolence as an Indian Intelligence official and Ekta Kaul as Dr. Farah who makes the most of her under-written and thoroughly regrettable character arc. It is in the last few episodes that the show engages in glaringly convenient writing (for example, the climax hinges on Umar and his team not knowing Kabir’s face), which predictably culminates in an underwhelming last episode. But from the last scene, and the fact that Fauda already has three seasons, it seems that there is more to come. Fauda was accused of wading into murkier political waters in Season 2. Hopefully, Tanaav’s writers will take a different route.
Tanaav, produced by Applause Entertainment, is available to stream on SonyLiv