Israel has been steadily producing web series that have appealed to international audiences (Homeland, Hostages, Your Honor). Fauda has been the most successful for its gritty action. Based on the personal experiences of creators Lior Raz and Avi Issacharoff, Fauda pits Israeli intelligence agents against Palestinian militants in the West Bank. Among the criticisms against Fauda is that it is propagandist, stereotypes Arabs and justifies human rights violations.
The Indian remake, Tanaav (Tension), is set in Kashmir – an obvious location, given its history. The SonyLIV web series, directed and co-written by Sudhir Mishra (with Ishan Trivedi) and Sachin Mamta Krishn, is just as tone-deaf to actual ground realities as the original show.
Tanaav flattens any political or moral ambiguity even as it delivers an undoubtedly gripping thriller. The relentless pace and striking visuals carry the 12-episode show over its pitfalls.
Kabir Farooqui (Manav Vij) has retired from a special forces unit and runs a jam-making business, living a peaceful life with his wife Nusrat (Sukhmani Sadana) and two children. His commander Vikrant Rathore (Arbaaz Khan) drops by with the bombshell news that the dreaded terrorist Umar Riaz (Sumit Kaul), believed to have been killed by Kabir, is alive.
For this intel, the reptilian bureaucrat Malik (Rajat Kapoor) kidnaps a professor. Malik is later seen to fraternise with his counterpart across the border, also called Malik (Danish Hussain), which hints at a hidden whirlpool that only spies are aware of and control. These grey men don’t carry guns and bombs, but are more lethal.
Once Kabir is drawn back to his unit of hotheads, there is no returning until Riaz is found. It is not quite clear why Riaz has so much power, but he commands the unquestioning loyalty of his men, most of all, the impressionable Junaid (Shashank Arora). Like so many indoctrinated young people, they are dazzled by the idea of “shahadat” (martyrdom) for the cause.
Informed viewers might find it hard to watch a series about Kashmir without images flashing in their minds of the tragedy of the Kashmiri Pandit exodus, the largely Muslim community trying to survive with a constant army presence, stone-pelting protestors and kids with pellet injuries.
Another problem is that before and since Fauda, so many films and serials have been made on good soldiers fighting bad terrorists (The Family Man, Special Ops) that Tanaav might cause some amount of deja vu. (The wedding shootout sequence in Fauda was lifted by the recent film Code Name: Tiranga).
Tanaav greatly simplifies the complexities of Kashmiri life. Locals are shown referring to Indians as “Woh log” or “Hindustani,” speak of fighting for “Azad Kashmir” and call anyone friendly with Indians as “gaddaar” (traitor). A shot of graffiti on a random wall about fighting “oppression” is hardly enough to explain anything. A scene showing children throwing stones at government jeeps or using signals to warn a terrorist of a raid suggests that it is acceptable for innocents to be killed as collateral damage. To balance this, a terrorist leader talks of innocents killed by his attacks as paying their dues to the cause.
There are mentions of Harkat-ul-Mujahideen, Gulf money and moderate separatists, but the overwhelming tenor is that of testosterone-fuelled machismo on both sides. There is not much space for women in this landscape, but the few who are present are ferocious, whether it’s Riaz’s mother (Zarina Wahab) and wife (Waluscha De Sousa), the sole Indian field operative (Sahiba Bali) or the doctor Farah (Ekta Kaul).
Mercifully, there are no touristy images of flower girls in shikaras in a show made with the support of the J&K administration. Frequent aerial shots of the pretty border village (as opposed to the largely colourless vistas of Fauda) are rendered even more tragic by the violence and villainy that simmer under a seemingly placid surface.
The casting is remarkable in a way – Kashmiri Pandits like Sumit Kaul and MK Raina play separatists. Several Kashmiri actors lend the dialogue the right lilt and authenticity.
Manav Vij has the stoic look and hooded eyes that are right for Kabir’s unreadable character. The other actor who stands out in a competent line-up is Shashank Arora, who has Shah Rukh Khan’s twitchy body language and Naseeruddin Shah’s intensity. Arora lacks the fresh-faced innocence of the boy who played this part in Fauda, but his style works too. Junaid will play an important role if there is a second season.