Tandav, On Amazon Prime Video, Is Intermittently Entertaining But Shallow, Film Companion

Director: Ali Abbas Zafar
Writer: Gaurav Solanki
Cast: Saif Ali Khan, Dimple Kapadia, Mohammed Zeeshan Ayyub, Sunil Grover
Cinematographer: Karol Stadnik
Editor: Steven H Bernard
Streaming on: Amazon Prime Video

Tandav begins with a quote by distinguished Polish philosopher Leszek Kolakowski, who said: In politics, being deceived is no excuse. A few hours later, Saif Ali Khan, playing the Machiavellian mastermind and heir to the throne, Samar Pratap Singh, explains to a friend that having power is like having an extra penis. Which is so long and throbbing that inevitably even the best women succumb to it. He explains some of this in Hindi so you can imagine how it sounds. Between this range of high and low, director Ali Abbas Zafar and writer Gaurav Solanki attempt to create a sweeping saga of politics in contemporary India.

It’s an intriguing combination. Ali is best known for larger-than-life Salman Khan movies such as Sultan and Tiger Zinda Hai. Gaurav rose to fame with grittier material like Article 15. Together, they construct a twisted tale of ambition, betrayal, deception, corruption and the evil that men and women do in the quest for power. Gaurav takes his cues from headlines – we see dynastic politics and farmer protests; a chunk of the narrative is set in a politically charged Delhi University, clearly modeled on JNU; there are IT farms to create Twitter trends, chants of Azadi, deeply entrenched sexism and bigotry and draconian laws, which are misused by sold-out cops. But this deep dive into the heart of darkness doesn’t chill your bones in the way that Paatal Lok did. Because Tandav is written in broad strokes and plays out like a pulpy soap opera. At its best – episodes two to five – Tandav is a deliciously wicked tale that keeps you hooked. At its weakest, which is the rest of it, the series is a patchily written smorgasbord of terrible people doing terrible things.

The star-cast is instantly sexy. Saif becomes the silky, devious Samar with ease. The character doesn’t have the vicious force of Langda Tyagi or his more recent Udaybhan in Tanhaji: The Unsung Warrior. But the actor revels in Samar’s sophistication, his ruthlessness, his bouts of insecurity and weakness. The same for Dimple Kapadia who plays Samar’s nemesis Anuradha Kishore. She has a steely beauty. Her brittle exterior hints at the many games played and compromises made to arrive where she is. Which might remind you of her stellar turn as the ageing star Neena Walia in Zoya Akhtar’s Luck By Chance. But again, Tandav isn’t interested in that depth or nuance.

Mohammed Zeeshan Ayyub doesn’t have the youth of a university student but he plays Shiva with blazing eyes and insistent integrity. And the scene stealer is Sunil Grover as Gurpal, Samar’s right-hand man for whom nothing is out of bounds. With a thick accent and poker face, Gurpal carries out the dirty work that must be done to keep the wheels of democracy turning. He is the ultimate stoic bad guy. In one scene, Samar asks him if his dark deeds weigh down his soul and Gurpal replies that he takes care of it by keeping a pet.

Tandav doesn’t offer much in terms of perceptive political commentary. There are some lines about the fight for the soul of the nation but mostly, it prioritizes plot

Politics might be dirty business but Ali and DOP Karol Stadnik showcase it with a glossy sheen. Nothing looks grimy, not even murder. Saif’s ancestral home Pataudi Palace, used here as Samar’s home, becomes a symbol of status and authority. The lifestyle is lavish with close-ups of gleaming whisky glasses, Samar grilling meat on his expansive lawns and a scene between him and his wife in a pool which has no ostensible purpose except to make Saif and Sarah Jane Dias look attractive. The women, dressed in gorgeous handloom saris styled by Subarna Ray Chaudhuri, seem ready for a fashion magazine shoot. In one scene, Anuradha is wearing pearls and tussar silk when dining alone. South Block and India Gate are recurringly used as backdrops, perhaps to lend authenticity.

But Tandav doesn’t offer much in terms of perceptive political commentary. There are some lines about the fight for the soul of the nation but mostly, Ali and Gaurav prioritize plot. Every episode is chock-full of twists and turns. There is little room for the characters to breathe or evolve. In the later episodes, as sub-plots are added, the story scatters. Bodies pile up, the scenario becomes increasingly far-fetched and moments that seem pivotal are forgotten. Additional narrative threads are tacked on instead of being organically stitched into the tapestry. So suddenly a love angle develops, somebody’s sister emerges or two other characters are seen in bed. But when anything is possible, nothing feels urgent.

Julius Packiam’s background score is solid but used much too often to infuse suspense into scenes which range from bland to downright silly

Editor Steven H. Bernard ramps up the drama by cross-cutting between the many stories. At one point, he skillfully juxtaposes the idealism of the students with the awful opportunism and deal-making of the people in power. The irony of how it begins and what it becomes is stark. But later in the series, the editing becomes a band-aid, which barely holds the many strings together. Julius Packiam’s background score is solid but used much too often to infuse suspense into scenes which range from bland to downright silly.

Tandav has too much Bollywood masala in its DNA. Which makes it intermittently entertaining but also shallow and not very smart.

You can see the 9-part series on Amazon Prime Video.

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