Unlike sports or art, politics is a largely impalpable profession. The spotlight is just as bright, its practitioners just as famous and infamous, but their machinations remain mysterious – and stubbornly private. The headlines are infinitely more exciting than the article itself. We read about big decisions and shrewd moves but paint a pronounced mental picture of the ruthless people and their conversations and conspiracies, because most of us know just how dull and bureaucratic the actual process is. There is no real reference for what happens behind Delhi's closed doors. Storytellers simply weaponize this lack of information. As a result, the political drama harnesses the narrative excesses of other kinetically energetic genres. The showy ones. Spy thrillers, dysfunctional family films, sociopathic gangster dramas, police procedurals and Shakespearean tragedies jostle for space under the umbrella of one all-encompassing device: politics. Everything goes. A pensive crime investigation has the license to cut to an unrequited love story within seconds, all by design. As House of Cards fan Barack Obama once remarked, Washington is a little more boring than displayed on the screen. (Pre-Trump of course).
Tandav (meaning "dance of fury"), a long-form take on the Indian political circus, has decades of dynasties and veiled dictatorship to work with. There is no dearth of source material. Consequently, the truth is never too far away from its (sly) fiction. The first season of what will presumably be many opens with the Delhi police – acting on "orders from above" – gleefully opening fire on a few Muslim boys at a farmers' protest in Noida. Across the 9 episodes, the cops make good on this reputation: as corrupt puppets fluttering in the breeze of the ruling party. The Noida incident triggers what is essentially the Kanhaiya Kumar origin story: VNU, a stand-in for JNU, nurtures the rise of Shiva Shekhar (Mohd. Zeeshan Ayyub), a Bihari student activist who becomes a viral sensation for hijacking public discourse. Back in the city, incumbent Prime Minister and JLD party leader Devki Nandan (Tigmanshu Dhulia) warily observes son and heir inapparent Samar Pratap Singh (Saif Ali Khan) on the eve of the Lok Sabha election results. Devki is on the brink of a third term in office, but he fears that the charismatic Samar – who has the country's youth eating out of his palms – is destined to be a dictator. "I've done some bad things, but at least I've preserved the democracy," Devki notes to his closest aide (named "Munshi"). Samar has daddy issues; he believes succession is his birthright. And thus, the stage is set for Tandav to become the Mirzapur of national politics.
The Mirzapur comparison is not just cosmetic. Tandav, too, like the Madhur Bhandarkar movies of yore, is both superficial and salacious. Every other character is a good-looking sociopath. It's as though the capital's millennial Twitter timeline is running the country. The narrative is driven by lust – for power, bodies, one-liners and one-upmanship. Killing is routine. A chain-smoking assassin finds refuge in his cat after every murder. Rajneeti metaphors fly thick and fast ("thin red line between right and wrong…" etc.), often leading characters to lose patience and demand more direct dialogue. The makers don't have the time and bandwidth to explore the nuances of student psychology, so they simply score the campus montages with an anthem of Hindi cinema's definitive student-politics story: Rahman's Dhakka Laga Bukka from Mani Ratnam's Yuva pops up every other episode. The music is supposed to accomplish what the writing cannot: "Feel" the revolution if you can't see it. When the rhythm hits a roadblock, insert a shady hacker in a hoodie operating from his digital den – blackmailing the cream of Janpath with one phone call. When VNU needs to be infiltrated, identify the one character who keeps spelling it out to the rest: "I'm fucked up, I have a lot of darkness in me". It's all too convenient and contrived.
And yet, I was hooked. The viewer is aware of how surface-level Tandav is, but it's impossible to not be entertained by its relentless devotion to entertainment. The premise is infectious and the twists, corny and outrageous. Over the years, Amazon India's think tank seems to have located – and destigmatized – a middle ground between cinematic and crass, between risk and frisk. Tandav, which follows in the footsteps of Inside Edge and Mirzapur and Breathe, firmly places itself in this new 'binge' category. I used to cringe at the label – a new-age OTT siege upon television purism – but the legitimacy is now irrefutable. Catering to the best and worst of opposing sensibilities is a conscious creative choice; the balance is a thin one. With politics, and India's current divisive and oversensitive climate, it's even trickier. Every new series is only a cow or Rajput away from inciting a riot. Which is where the writing of Tandav – by Gaurav Solanki (Article 15) – comes in.
Solanki is 34 years old, and represents a generation that is both restless enough to be enraged and informed enough to be amused. The screenplay of Tandav is smart in how it fuses the dynasty dynamics of the Indian National Congress (INC) with the cultural politics of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to present a morbid hybrid establishment – a Frankenstein's monster of ideologies. It's also placed in a rare space that's critical of everything and nothing at once – a space that might assure Congress supporters of an anti-BJP stance, BJP supporters of an anti-Congress stance, and student wings of a general anti-adult stance. Most importantly, much like the first word of this sinister genre (House of Cards), Tandav takes an anti-humanity stance – which, as we know, is a guilty pleasure that even the most high-brow watchers cannot resist. In the context of where this nation stands today, there is a degree of ingenuity to lines like "Stand in front of the mirror, and the left becomes right". Especially when said by Dark-Saif™, who is basically Langda Tyagi with an Oxford education.
The viewer is aware of how surface-level Tandav is, but it's impossible to not be entertained by its relentless devotion to entertainment. The premise is infectious and the twists, corny and outrageous. Over the years, Amazon India's think tank seems to have located – and destigmatized – a middle ground between cinematic and crass, between risk and frisk.
Ali Abbas Zafar, the creator-director of Tandav and frequent Salman Khan collaborator, struggles to shake off old habits. The background score moodily switching between scenes is a prime indicator of his masala roots. As are the awkward VNU campus portions, whose angsty extras resemble those of Aap Mujhe Achche Lagne Lage and Rok Sako To Rok Lo rather than Yuva or Rang De Basanti's. But Zafar is also the only recent director who squeezed a performance out of the famously clunky superstar in Sultan. In the verbal battlegrounds of Tandav, where an urgent soundtrack merges one scene into another, Zafar's exaggerated sense of moments is useful. Whether it's Samar Pratap Singh's ominous Frank-Underwood-ish mannerisms of massaging his ring finger or Sonia Gandhi stand-in Anuradha Kishore's (a riveting Dimple Kapadia) chameleon-like rage, the performances commit to an absolute tone. There are some misfires, like Zeeshan Ayyub's wide-eyed ambiguity and Sarah Jane Dias' exists-to-look-lusciously-at-Saif muteness (Nana Patekar in Rajneeti comes to mind). But most of the supporting cast – namely Sunil Grover as Samar's loyal Doug (a more menacing cousin of Sikander Kher in Aarya), and Kritika Kamra as troubled VNU student Sana Mir – grab their chance to shine. On an unrelated note, it's nice to see Dino Morea return in a rugged beard; it almost passes him off as a JNU pol-science professor. Almost.
After the pensive nobility of Sacred Games' Sartaj Singh, it's only natural for Saif Ali Khan to choose the role of the crowd-pleasing bad guy. It's true that he could have played Samar Pratap Singh in his sleep. But it's also true that he isn't built to overplay the concept of villainy. His is the kind of simmering authority that faithful deputies – as well as unsure viewers – strive to impress. By extension, many of his negative roles thrive on intellectual subterfuge. In one of the scenes, he addresses a student body with such sincerity that one suspects he's actually playing the part of a gifted orator instead of pretending to be one. A brisk hug later, the spell is broken. This marked ability to switch between the blinding whites of his early career and measured blacks of a weathered veteran results in a strangely attractive shade of grey. It's a grey that aids the world-building of a series whose palette has everything to do with colour and little to do with politics. After all, seeing – in the midst and mist of Tandav's Delhi – is imagining.