Creators: Anand Tiwari, Amritpal Singh Bindra
Director: Anand Tiwari
Writers: Amritpal Singh Bindra, Lara Chandni, Adhir Bhat, Anand Tiwari
Cast: Ritwik Bhowmik, Shreya Chaudhry, Naseeruddin Shah, Sheeba Chadda, Rajesh Tailang, Kunaal Roy Kapur, Amit Mistry
Streaming on: Amazon Prime Video
Ever so often, the first thirty minutes of a ten-episode-long series tends to break my spirit. As a viewer, there are a few cheat codes. Narrative exposition, for instance, is an early indicator of trouble. How does a story introduce its setup, its characters and their motivations? Will it be through voiceover, flashbacks or smart editing? In Bandish Bandits, the makers use the laziest trick in the book – conversation. On its own, conversation is an organic device. But here, characters who've known each other all their lives randomly narrate the context to one another only for the benefit of the viewers.
So a series that opens with a young man sporting neatly parted hair (character trait: sincere) being scolded by a revered classical music teacher is followed by a dinner-table "chat" between the boy's family members: "you know the Pandit is harsh on his talented grandson because he is trying to find the successor to his legacy". Moments later, we see the young man, Radhe (Ritwik Bhowmik), sitting at a cafe and explaining his ambitions to his childhood friend as if they were total strangers: the great Pandit – who is Jodhpur's "Sangeet Samrat" – has only tied the 'sacred thread' to his best students 7 times in 40 years. A scene in between features a girl with blue-hair extensions in Mumbai smoking a cigarette (character traits: unapologetic, cool), mounting her motorbike and riding to Rajasthan. (Evidently, the journey is not too arduous: her make-up is still awesome). When her frazzled producer calls, he makes it a point to tell her – and tell us – that she is a Youtube popstar who needs a new hit song, and whose dream is to sing with international star 'Queen Eli'. She smokes a beedi while cursing her luck.
This complete lack of nuance plagues the duality of the series, where classical is juxtaposed against electro-pop, tradition against modernity and art against commercialism. When the girl, Tamanna (Shreya Chaudhry), meets simple Radhe for the first time, she jokes with her friend about how Indian classical sounds like "someone strangling a goat, or gargling with balls in your mouth". Once she's besotted with his voice – she is perhaps convinced that a 'fusion' can make her the next Sneha Khanwalkar – she refers to him as a male Lata Mangeshkar and, to drive home her millennialism, does an Instagram Live at a royal palace and screams "Legit! Legit!" after his performance. Once he agrees to their secret collaboration, he starts speaking in chaste Hindi like a Mahabharata character to highlight the dissonance between the two; on the other hand, her hip friends tease her about "nightly blowjobs in the bushes". She soon seduces pure Radhe so that he sings with greater emotion in his voice. (It works.). It doesn't help that her liberal father is played by Rituraj Singh, whose bearded face here resembles Jayant Kripalani, who played a sexually charged patriarch married to a girl younger than his daughter in the Jaipur-based series, Aarya. The mind does funny things in lockdown. But I digress.
There are several problems with Bandish Bandits, but purely on a storytelling level, the writing suffers from attention deficit disorder. An unlikely love story is barely registered before the next track – of Radhe's "rishta" – is introduced. The third wheel is quickly done away with, and once the romance returns, Radhe's family story – a climax-building contest for the Rathod lineage – overlaps and snatches the baton away. At one point, a terrific moment – of the Pandit wincing in disgust when test cricketer Radhe hits a T20-style falsetto during a performance – is diluted by the announcement of Radhe's engagement, which in turn is diluted by a ghost from Pandit's past appearing at the doorstep. At the same time, cracks appear between the lovebirds because Radhe's masked fame hijacks her thunder. At the same time, the family must come up with an obscene amount of money to pay for an operation. There are four different conflicts jostling for space, and it often seems like the focus on ending every episode with a cliffhanger is what defines the freestyle direction of the story.
As far as the music is concerned, there's a lot to appreciate in the way Shankar Mahadevan's classical purism combines with Ehsaan Noorani and Loy Mendonsa's party-pop tilt. In fact, "Bandish Bandits" might have been an apt band name for the trio in the '90s album ecosystem. But I believe that an original soundtrack – especially in a film or series about musicians – cannot be judged in isolation. For instance, the songs of Rock On!! found a strange sort of layman-indie-rock resonance only after we noticed the way the film's moments were punctuated by its (otherwise-ordinary) music. In Bandish Bandits, it's impossible to take the soundtrack seriously because of how superficially the scenes are designed. It's important to believe the craft of music rather than believe in the art of music. None of the characters look even remotely capable of breaking out into technical solos. Flailing their hands and closing their eyes seconds after speaking makes them look like cheap imitations, rather than performers who've spent their lives mastering the body language of busy vocal chords. Ironically, the playback music – like the Bhansali-isque Bandish Bandits theme – sounds far more in sync with the quasi-dramatic setting.
Performances-wise, the only character totally irrelevant to the premise – Tamanna's foul-mouthed producer (my fondness for Kunaal Roy Kapur only grows) – is the only one I reacted to. His imagination – "I'm under so much pressure that if you put coal in my ass, it'll become a diamond" – is what the series sorely misses. The young protagonists are at best forgettable, while the veterans – including Rajesh Tailang, Atul Kulkarni and Sheeba Chaddha – are belatedly given screen-time to rescue a mediocre script. They cannot. This is also the fifth time Naseeruddin Shah, as the Pandit, plays a father whose past features an abandoned woman and an illegitimate child. There's a separate piece to be written on this recurring role – about whether it's commercial Hindi cinema's facile reading of an evolved actor who isn't afraid of evoking, and regretting, the greyness of Indian masculinity. But Bandish Bandits is not the series that merits that kind of analysis. It dies, late into the last episode, just like it lived: unnecessary, confused and torn between 487 priorities.