The latest OTT show to kick up a controversy is Amazon Prime Video’s Tandav, which is facing allegations of being offensive to Hindus and Dalits. But the only thing that Tandav is offensive and hurtful to are political sensibilities and the art of depicting how politics in India functions.
Amateurish, stereotyped, tacky, disconnected, unrealistically glamourised, and with no nuance, Tandav is yet another example of the representation of Indian politics in OTT shows — over the top. Politics in India is intricately complex — a blend of gritty, getting-hands-dirty grassroot electoral competition that involves devising the right messaging and perception management as well as the art of making friends, forging alliances, staying a step ahead of the rest and strategising. Politics is both subtle and larger-than-life, crafty and well-meaning. There is polarisation and amalgamation, just as there is black and white that often yields an unpredictable, fuzzy shade of grey.
But the representation of politics in OTT shows, from Mirzapur and Sacred Games to Paatal Lok and now Tandav, captures a simplistic understanding of reality — replete with forever scheming, murderous politicians with a persistent nexus with the criminal side deciding fates and fortunes over whiskey. They take real-life situations and characters but turn them into caricatures of simplified versions, all the while garnishing the tale with an overdose of sex and profanity as if politics is only about sleaze and nothing else. Bollywood’s understanding of Indian politics hasn’t really evolved from the crass portrayals of the 1990s.
It isn’t as if Hindi cinema has always excelled in showcasing the country’s politics. But some movies have managed to stand out. For every Rajneeti and Sarkar and Thackeray/Modi/Manmohan Singh biopic — all of them over-simplified, poorly crafted masala movies — there is a Gulaal, Hu Tu Tu, New Delhi Times and even Govind Nihalani’s lesser-known but fascinating 1984 release Party.
In OTT, a medium that has become extremely popular in recent times, especially during the pandemic, most web series and movies that have attempted to depict a slice of Indian politics have turned out to be cop-outs — failing to do justice to a theme so serious.
Look at Tandav, for instance. There is very little in the show that resembles realpolitik. There is a lot more that is plain embarrassing. In fact, any resemblance is barely even co-incidental. So, a prime minister’s son and the heir apparent, played by Saif Ali Khan, is a happy murderer and is more interested in playing saas-bahu games as conceptualised by Ekta Kapoor, than managing his political party. His advisor isn’t a political animal or strategist, but a henchman who goes around killing people. His main rival, who conspires to become PM, is cold-blooded. And this rival describes himself as a senior party ‘karyakarta‘ (worker), not as a neta (leader) with an aide who may not give political advice but can make Hercule Poirot question his detective skills.
In one particularly cringe worthy scene in Tandav, Saif Ali Khan — wounded after being pipped to the post of PM — storms into Dimple Kapadia’s residence at 12 Lok Samaj Marg, essentially the fictional version of 7, Race Course Road, now Lok Kalyan Marg, with swag. No security, no staff to usher him in, Saif’s character goes straight to the dining table where the PM is enjoying her spread (again no staff in sight), and threatens her to start packing her bags and step down as PM the very next day. Well, he may as well have poisoned her, like he did to his father, nobody seems to be watching their PMs anyway.
Furthermore, Tandav depicts a well-established political party that has been in power for three-terms. But the PMs change faster than clothes on the ramp during a fashion show, putting even the instability of the 1996-98 years to shame. The PM-aspirant has some inexplicable and convoluted interest in student politics, and in setting off fights among students of a university that can only be called a poorly-replicated version of the Jawaharlal Nehru University. There is a Kanhaiya Kumar-esque character too, whose understanding of politics is limited to chanting “azaadi” slogans a million and more times. A sitting PM, looking for another term, has no qualms, fear or political sense in insulting a senior leader of his own party for being from a lower caste. Besides alcohol, cuss words and sex flow freely in the show, just in case there wasn’t enough to keep you entertained.
There are way too many flaws in Tandav, often making it comical to list out. But where the web series fails miserably is in its presentation of the central theme — it promises to depict how corridors of power function, except the makers have no real idea about it.
This has become the go-to formula for OTT shows. Sacred Games showed a politics-underworld-money-religion nexus with no subtlety. Mirzapur 1 and 2, otherwise a show quite enjoyable, falls for the same trope as far as politics is concerned — with characters like J.P. Yadav portraying every bit of the stereotypical Uttar Pradesh politician who drinks and dances with women performers, and shows only arrogance and muscle power. And he isn’t any small-time local politician, but the chief minister’s brother.
Patal Lok, an entertaining show otherwise, delves into the same territory—yet another frivolous portrayal of a politician through Balkishan Bajpayee’s character.
Essentially, the OTT platforms are trying to convince us about a ‘realistic’ portrayal of Indian politics when it is largely mired in typecasting.
The big miss
Politics is a lot about strategising, manipulation and plotting, but at the very core, it is also about voter-engagement, projection and winning elections. Most of these shows, however, either completely ignore this aspect or gloss over it. Where is the voter? Where are her/his aspirations and expectations? Where is the depiction of how a politician plans an election, reaches out to voters, crafts a campaign and nurtures a constituency?
The politician-media-bureaucrat-police-underworld-money nexus is not what lies at the heart of Indian politics, as important as these might be in subsets. It is the politician-voter relationship that matters the most. Narendra Modi wins election after election because he knows what language to talk to the voter in. Rahul Gandhi has not succeeded because he does not know how to connect with voters. From Captain Amarinder Singh in Punjab in the north to Y.S. Jagan Mohan Reddy in Andhra Pradesh in the south, and from Ashok Gehlot in Rajasthan to Himanta Biswa Sarma in the Northeast — all have thrived because they won elections, and not because they have this murky nexus with the dark side and the ability to talk Machiavellian over an evening drink.
And this is what these creative minds (the makers of such shows) seem to be missing out — the very core that makes a politician.
There are several objections and complaints floating against OTT shows, with thin-skinned, attention-seeking lobbies vying to be the most offended. In fact, the makers of Tandav have said they would implement changes to the web series in light of the controversy. What, however, should offend viewers, especially those of us who observe politics closely, is the facetious and transient understanding of politics they display. Here’s hoping 2021 promises something better on this front — shows that remind politicians, political journalists and civil servants of a bit of their lives.
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