Tandav prefers to dumb down its plot assuming Indian audiences need to be spoon-fed Indian politics. As a result, one feels bad for gifted actors like Saif Ali Khan, Sunil Grover and Gauahar Khan, whom the series lets down.
Gurpal (played by the highly underrated Sunil Grover) is a pucca Dilliwaala at heart, and the right-hand man of an important and powerful Delhi politician. He wears a safari suit, and Ray-Bans. He’s a vegetarian who smokes too many cigarettes and drinks glasses full of neat rum to (perhaps) suppress his conscience, and that’s because his bosses make him do all their dirty work (murder, treason, kidnapping, voyeuristic stalking, and conspiring abound).
In fact, in one scene in Amazon Prime Video’s latest “political” “thriller” series Tandav (using these words very loosely — but we’ll get to this point later), Samar Prathap Singh (Saif Ali Khan), the son of the late Prime Minister of India Devki Nandan (played by a forgettable Tigmanshu Dhulia), asks Gurpal outright how he sleeps at night. Gurpal gives his pet cat all the credit, claiming the feline love he receives is enough to keep him afloat. That he finds a cat’s love inspiring is in itself a quirky addition to his complex and alluring character.
There is nothing about Ali Abbas Zaffar’s Tandav that makes it stand out amongst its peers in the fledgling world of India’s web shows. For starters, it has none of the cinematic grit or the powerful writing that shaped politically-charged Indian crime thrillers like Paatal Lok and Sacred Games. Nor does it offer a palette of well-fleshed out characters present in trailblazing productions like Mirzapur and Scam 1992: The Harshad Mehta Story.
At the heart of the show, runs two parallel stories. One is of Samar Pratap (Saif Ali Khan), who is an up-and-coming political leader. He is hell-bent on replacing his father and the three-time incumbent Devki Nandan (Tigmanshu Dhulia) as India’s Prime Minister. While the other follows campus activist Shiva (Zeeshan Ayub), who is on his journey to becoming a popular student leader, by mobilising popular support against the status quo.
The new nine-part web series Tandav wears its politics on its many sleeves, the action divvied up in a couple of parallel strands. There’s the ‘strong’ party which has been in power for ‘two terms’, with its ruling satraps, uber ambitious leaders eyeing the ‘kursi’, and faithful henchmen (and women) who know that real power vests in those who stay behind the throne, because they can see the enemy most clearly.
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.
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 Samar’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. The Editorial is independent of any business relationship the organisation may have with producers or any other members of its cast or crew.