A great deal happens in the first episode of the Amazon Prime Video series Tandav. The country’s prime minister is re-elected by a landslide but before he occupies the throne once more, he is murdered by his power-hungry son. A protest by farmers against a proposed special economic zone involves students from a major university in Delhi. They are quickly labelled as “terrorists” by the police.
Back at the university, an allegorical stage production is in progress. The main character is called Bholenath, another name for the god Shiva. Playing Bholenath is a magnetic student leader, also called Shiva.
A Naarad Muni-like character reminds Bholenath that “these Ram followers” are increasing their social media reach. Bholenath jokes, should I update my display picture?
The students are restive. They have been shouting slogans of “Azadi”, Bholenath is told. Up until last night, freedom was cool, Bholenath says. When did it become uncool?
What do you want freedom from, Bholenath asks the cheering students. They quote the words of activist Kanhaiya Kumar – “Azadi” from “Manuvaad, jaativaad and atyaachar”.
What you actually want isn’t freedom from your country, but freedom while being citizens of your country, Bholenath observes. Even as he launches into a speech on why free thought should be encouraged on campuses, the police arrive to arrest the students who participated in the farmers’ protest.
This sequence might soon be edited out of Tandav, since it has been deemed to have denigrated Hinduism. Over the past few days, First Information Reports have been filed in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar against the show’s makers, who include director Ali Abbas Zafar, writer Gaurav Solanki and Amazon Prime’s Head of India Originals, Aparna Purohit.
Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Adityanath’s Media Advisor Shalabh Mani Tripathi weighed in, warning that Tandav was “spreading hatred disguised as a cheap web series”. Tripathi added ominously, “Prepare for arrest soon.” Even former Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Mayawati supported censorship, despite the fact that the series speaks against the casteist atrocities that her Dalit community continues to face.
The show’s makers publicly expressed remorse on Monday, but a Bharatiya Janata Party legislator from Maharashtra, Ram Kadam, thundered that “an apology was not enough”. Kadam repeated the threat that Zafar and others would be imprisoned.
It was hardly surprising that by Tuesday, Amazon Prime Video had caved in and agreed to make alterations to the series. “We have utmost respect for the sentiments of the people of our country,” said a statement from the cast and crew.
The narrative tradition of using celestial beings to intervene in earthly matters is an old one. In cinema, theatre, literature and television, gods descends on Earth whenever humans lose their way, reminding them of the wisdom contained in the epics and scriptures. Besides, competition between the numerous gods in the Hindu pantheon is hardly a new idea.
In Kundan Shah’s Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro, the chaotic staging of a play based on the Mahabharata provides an absurdist denouement of moral sureties. In OMG O My God!, Krishna descends on Earth in the form of Akshay Kumar to witness a court case in which an atheist petitioner sues the Almighty and runs into a minor army of angry religious leaders.
With regard to Tandav, the real target appears to be the repurposing of Bholenath into a symbol who can destroy cynical and discriminatory politics. What if Shiva were a student, angered by injustice, who seeks to liberate the disenfranchised, the Tandav sequence earnestly and clumsily wants to know.
The problem isn’t with the god Shiva, but the show’s character Shiva. Among the provocations appears to be Mohammed Zeeshan Ayyub being cast as Shiva. The politically aware actor has frequently exercised his Constitutional right to expression and made his opposition to the National Register of Citizens and the Citizenship Amendment Act widely known.
Another possible slight is the sympathetic portrayal of Ayyub’s Shiva and the other students. Shiva’s college is clearly modelled on Jawaharlal Nehru University.
In subsequent episodes, Tandav explores how Shiva and his friends are manipulated by the prime minister’s killer. Samar Pratap Singh, played by Saif Ali Khan, seeks to make Shiva a pawn in his game against a party rival. The show’s creators show how charges of terrorism against protesters can be dropped just as quickly as they have been levelled, depending on who is at the other end of the line.
Perhaps the makers’ biggest fault was to think that they could bandy about Kanhaiya Kumar’s “Azadi” war cry and get away with it.
The irony is that Tandav’s exploration of statecraft and Delhi’s political culture is shallow and unsatisfactory. Shiva’s naivete would amuse actual student leaders, whatever their affiliation. But the suggestion that this amateur could pose a serious threat to Samar seems to have had an effect beyond the screen.
Over the decades, India’s system of film certification has all but driven critical commentary out of the movie theatres. The clamour to subject locally produced web series – which are watched across the world – to the same censorship laws is aimed at ensuring that filmmakers don’t smuggle uncomfortable truths into their narratives. This form of control has been weaponised in recent months by a Molotov cocktail comprising FIRs, threats of arrests, downvoting on the internet and fiery television debates on government-friendly television channels.
Claims that the Mumbai film and television industry is constantly scheming to “insult” the country, the Central government’s policies and the Hindu faith seem to accompany the release of every other web series. The message is not even hidden any more: stay away from political critique, especially if it is aimed at the rulers, or pay the price.
Previous targets of specious complaints include the Netflix titles Leila and A Suitable Boy. Netflix used to be the favourite whipping boy of Hindutva supporters. Amazon Prime Video has now been added to the hitlist. It won’t be the last.
The attempt by filmmakers to talk about power structures and majoritarian policies is under such virulent attack, it could become untenable. Perhaps these escalating displays of intolerance will lead filmmakers and writers to create completely fictional countries, religions and social structures.
It’s a device that’s been used before. Rabindranath Tagore’s Tasher Desh is set in the imaginary Land of Cards, ruled by a tyrannical ruler and liberated by a pair of friends. For the satire Hun, Hunshi, Hunshilal, Sanjiv Shah came up with the fake country Khojpuri, ruled by the despot Bhadrabhoop.
Indian filmmakers may have to resort to their own versions of the genre known as the “Ruritarian romance” that were popular at the turn of the last century, set once upon a time in an invented landscape that is beyond history and geography. Should Indian filmmakers start naming characters after letters of the alphabet or objects, since there is no telling who might be offended? Could they take a cue from Christopher Nolan, whose Tenet is led by the man known only as “The Protagonist”?
Perhaps there can be some inspiration from the brilliant Marathi satirist PL Deshpande, who, in a comedy sketch, named a husband and wife after common terms of endearment. Surely “Aho” (the husband) and “Aga” (the wife) are inoffensive enough?
No vaccine can inoculate us from this slow-motion assault on the imagination. 2020 was out of whack. 2021 promised to be frighteningly focused.