Tandav review: Saif Ali Khan's silly Amazon show has the subtlety of a lathi to the kneecap
Tandav review: Hokey and ham-fisted, Saif Ali Khan's sophomore streaming show is a major step down from Sacred Games.
Creator Ali Abbas Zafar
Cast Saif Ali Khan, Dimple Kapadia, Sunil Grover, Tigmanshu Dhulia, Gauahar Khan
Even the final season of House of Cards, which is generally considered to be worst of the lot, is better than anything that Amazon Prime Video's Tandav has to offer. Like Machiavelli for middle-schoolers, the new political drama takes ideas that might’ve seemed complex on paper, but dilutes them so thoroughly that they border on waste material.
Saif Ali Khan plays Samar Pratap Singh, the son of a two-term Prime Minister. Tandav opens with PM Devki Nandan on the verge of claiming another victory in the General Elections. Samar, who Saif essentially plays as a trust fund kid, also has designs on the top job.
Watch the Tandav trailer here
It’s an odd Saif performance, one that robs the character of all subtlety. Not that Gaurav Solanki’s screenplay could’ve been redeemed by the actors, but you'd hope for a more nuanced approach, considering the sheer potential of the material. Tandav, instead, conveys every idea with the force of a ‘lathi’ to the kneecap. Almost as if it doubts that the audience will be able to keep up with its (extremely) basic plot, the show has the characters recap important moments, and routinely think out loud.
So when Samar hatches a scheme to fill the power vacuum left by his father’s sudden death, he makes the strange decision to blab about it to virtually everybody within earshot. Those who aren’t privy to his plans — including a journalist — get a prompt phone call from Samar, filling them in. How could he have expected his masterplan to unfold smoothly when he can’t even be trusted to keep his mouth shut? This is not an exaggeration; in one scene, Samar, as if possessed by the spirit of a James Bond villain, narrates his methods to the person he has just poisoned. You almost expect him to provide them the recipe for his deadly cocktail next.
Samar might as well have been twirling his moustache, or stroking a cat. “How obvious,” he scoffs in one scene, having correctly predicted his opponent’s next move, as if he is smarter than everyone else. He is not. Everyone else is simply as dumb as him. There’s a difference.
This superficial approach extends to the supporting cast as well. A coke-snorting scion is always sniffling; and every time Dimple Kapadia entered the scene, I expected her to laugh maniacally. Tandav is a show that rarely scratches beneath the surface. It’s a lesson in civics for 5-year-olds. It belongs, to use the most unflattering comparison, to the Aashram school of storytelling. The theme music is suspiciously similar.
The show dabbles in ideas that are frankly too complicated to be executed in a manner such as this. Better minds than series creator and director Ali Abbas Zafar have tried and failed to make sense of student demonstrations and farmers’ protests — both of which play important parts in Tandav. So while Samar’s story unfolds in the upper echelons of Indian politics, a parallel plot plays out in the campus of a fictional university, clearly modelled after JNU.
I understand why they have to do this, but creating fictional stand-ins for real organisations, people, and locations, only pushes the show further into the realm of fantasy. For instance, in one scene, Gauahar Khan’s character is contacted by an anonymous caller, and promised some vague ‘saboot’ of Samar’s misdeeds in exchange for an exorbitant amount of cash. Maithili — that’s Gauahar’s character — is instructed to bring the money and dump it inside a trash can in the South Block. She does this in broad daylight, wearing the most fabulous sari, and manages to complete her task without a hitch. In real life, walking down Raisina Hill with a suspicious package would be like performing an actual ‘tandav’ outside the Rashtrapati Bhavan. You’d be pinned to the ground in no time.
By taking this ridiculous tone, Ali and his team completely ignore the moral questions at the centre of stories such as this. When the primary objective is to pull the rug from under the audience’s feet, over and over again, you lose sight of the larger themes that should’ve been examined instead. What drives Samar to do these dastardly acts? We'll never know. Or perhaps it'll be addressed in later episodes; Amazon provided only the first five for preview.
Tigmanshu Dhulia, however, is terrific as Devki Nandan (who is eliminated after episode one, in the first of the show's many missteps), as is the always excellent Mohd Zeeshan Ayyub as a firebrand student leader. Even the hokiest of lines sound believable when delivered by them.
But the brightest spark is the shady Gurpal Chauhan, who works as an enforcer of sorts for Samar. Played by Sunil Grover, Gurpal has the mind of Tom Hagen and the murky morals of of Luca Brasi. He quells his guilt by taking care of a cat. What an interesting idea. But this is Tandav. Why touch something gently when you can kick it instead?
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The author tweets @RohanNaahar