Tandav, now streaming on Amazon Prime Video, is yet another high profile offering from the streaming platform that brings together a talented star cast, and a high-profile director who is best known for directing Salman Khan-led blockbusters. Safe to say then that quite like his movies, Ali Abbas Zafar keeps his debut web series Tandav stylish yet shallow and simplistic.
Though he gets nine episodes between 30-to 39 minutes to play with, Ali and writer Gaurav Solanki barely manage to scratch the surface of their characters, choosing masala over meaningful storytelling. Tandav sticks to reaffirming our existing perception of politicians, instead of offering any insightful commentary, or entertaining civic lessons.
The show kicks off quite earnestly, weaving in issues like farmers protesting about their lands being usurped, Muslim youth being illegally detained or killed, a growing restlessness amongst students whose idealism is still untainted, and the blurring of lines between politics and activism.
Gaurav initially divides the characters into puppets and puppet masters, only to tell us later, that in politics, almost everyone comes with strings that can be yanked or cruelly twisted. The series begins with the current Prime Minister Devki Nandan (Tigmanshu Dhulia) poised to win the elections for the third time. His son Samar Pratap (Saif Ali Khan) greets crowds from the balcony of their palatial home and as he smiles, we know instantly that he is sophisticated but shady. Devki Nandan tells his friend and colleague of several decades, Gopal Das Munshi (Kumud Kumar Mishra) that he sees a dictator in his son who will be the death of democracy.
A strained father and son relationship is established immediately, as is the close bond Devki shares with Anuradha Kishore (Dimple Kapadia), a senior member in his party and Devkiâ€™s â€˜close confidanteâ€™ of 30 years. You can sense a plot twist coming up quite early in the first episode, so it isnâ€™t particularly shocking to see the extreme steps a disgruntled son takes to claim what he rightfully believes is his. However, what he thinks is going to be a smooth transition of power given Indiaâ€™s love for dynastic politics soon unravels into an increasingly hostile and bloodthirsty mess where the ends justify the means.
Parallel to Samarâ€™s schemes for vengeance is the story of hopeful and sincere Shiva Shekhar (Mohd. Zeeshan Ayyub), Sana Mir ( Kritika Kamra) and their friends who are students at the fictional VNU, which is obviously based on JNU. Shiva claims he doesnâ€™t want to be a politician, positioning himself as an activist who fights for farmers' rights and demands Azadi from social evils. Unknown to him, Samar is scheming to lure him on to the grown-ups table and use him as his â€˜Chandraguptaâ€™ to gain control over the influential student population. Helping him, a tad too obviously, is his henchman Gurpal (Sunil Grover) who follows orders, no matter what those might be.
Tandav is a show that probably sounded great on paper. It has darkness, conspiracy, greed, ambition, treachery and pathos. Sadly, the makers are unable to translate these emotions onscreen because their characters never really tell us who they are behind those gorgeous saris, kurtas and band galas. Saif looks dapper and sufficiently dubious, but he seems too conscious of having to be both these things. The only time he lets the soft-spoken menace go is when he recalls his days as a student leader and suddenly you sit up and take an interest. Otherwise, for the most part, he just walks around drinking whiskey from crystal glasses while Gurpal does all the legwork and makes sure to keep his master in the race.
After nine episodes, we know nothing about Samarâ€™s wife Ayesha (Sarah Jane Dias) and why she is supportive of his schemes. Ditto for Samar's frenemies turned foes, Gopal Das and Anuradha. Anuradha, who is a major player in this drama, is reduced to a two-line backstory and a conveniently recorded audio clip which reduces her character arc to FYI moments. Zeeshan looks much older than his supposed classmates but he is a talented actor to bring the required wide eyed innocence and sincerity to his part. Unfortunately, the script never really gives him the depth or complexity of an Ansari from Paatal Lok or even a Katekar from Sacred Games whose histories told us just why we were supposed to root for them. Sunil Grover manages to get the best deal and the comedian who is best known for dressing as female characters is great fun as a stoic henchman who combats guilt with a pet cat and relaxes with sermons from a dubious godman.
Tandav could have been a gripping political drama that took us into the dark and self-serving alleys of politics and allowed us to understand what it is about political power that makes it so intoxicating. Instead, we get a soap opera that does Tandav with two left feet.
Disclaimer: This review was not paid for or commissioned by anyone associated with the series/film. TNM Editorial is independent of any business relationship the organisation may have with producers or any other members of its cast or crew.