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The Trouble With Tandav: Real Student Activists on Why The Show Doesn't Get Caste, Feminism or Politics

By: Simantini Dey


Last Updated: January 20, 2021, 09:54 IST

A still from the web series Tandav, which courted  controversy

A still from the web series Tandav, which courted controversy

Amazon Prime Show Tandav has managed to infuriate everyone. Of course, the student activists from one of India's premier institutions - JNU - which is known for its fiery brand of politics, have several different reasons to be miffed at the makers of Tandav.

It rarely ever happens that the student activists and leaders of JNU and the ministers of Bharatiya Janata Party are on the same side of a debate, but it seems that the Amazon Prime Show Tandav has managed to infuriate everyone. Of course, the student activists from one of India’s premier institutions – JNU – which is known for its fiery brand of politics, have several different reasons to be miffed at the makers of Tandav.

In the web series, we visit a fictionalized version of JNU which is named Vivekananda National University (VNU). Tandav runs in two simultaneous story tracks: one shows Saif Ali Khan’s character, Samar Pratap Singh’s Machiavellian schemes to become the next prime minister, and the other follows Mohd Zeeshan Ayyub’s character, Shiva, who rises to power in his college campus as a student leader. Despite the disclaimer with which the show begins, it isn’t hard to note the similarities between Kanhaiya Kumar and the character of Shiva. The show also refers back to the violent attack that happened in the JNU hostels, during which several students and teachers were brutally beaten up.

Current student leaders of JNU say that the problem isn’t that the makers of Tandav have borrowed or ‘taken inspiration’ from such real incidents and have based the show in a fictional version of JNU but the fact that they have diluted the complexities and nuances of student politics, they did not offer any background for the issues they raised in the show, as well as completely failed to understand the ideological lines that define the kind of politics that play out in their campus.

Saket Moon, VP, JNUSU and a PhD scholar at the Centre for the Study of Social Exclusion and Inclusive Policy, told News18, “The show only reinforces the stereotype that exists about JNU politics in the popular mass media. It waters down our kind of politics to some degree to fit in their formula. In the show, there is no explanation or background about the movements the students were engaged in. Student politics has not been depicted with the nuance that is required. As a whole, I didn’t find it very entertaining or a well-written TV series.”

Dolan from All India Students Association (AISA), and a MPhil research scholar at the Centre for Historical Studies pointed out that while it is obvious that any filmmaker and scriptwriter is going to take liberties in writing a story or depicting an institution, what is hard to reckon with as far as Tandav is concerned is that the makers have ‘cherry-picked’ situations, incidents and slogans just so that their narrative looks cooler with utter disregard to their background, and historicity.

“They say that they are taking creative liberties, and of course, they are entitled to do that. However, when you use slogans like ‘manuvad se azadi’, and use the wall posters, and then name the university VNU, it isn’t rocket science for anyone to understand what the filmmakers are trying to show. And, when they take up the task to do that, they should at least show some reality. They can’t just cherry-pick the things that they like,” she said.

“They liked the idea that a presidential debate happens in JNU, but then they choose not to show anything that actually happens in a presidential debate…It feels like a total betrayal for us because these are things we have fought for so long. Even the right to have elections that we can trust didn’t fall on our laps. We worked hard for it,” she added.

Another depiction that is far from the reality – for a show that aims to capture the ground realities of India with every headline and trending topic squished into its frame – is the portrayal of the female student activist, Sana (Kritika Kamra).

“They showed the lead female character, Sana, as someone who is a strong woman. Yet, in Tandav, we see her constantly getting manipulated and blackmailed by a police officer who is about to retire. I am not sure what kind of precedence that sets for the feminist movement, or even for women students,” said Dolan.

“Rest assured, that any woman in our campus, and especially if she is a woman activist, would not yield to such manipulations. I found that extremely odd. Women of JNU are known to be leaders on the streets, we believe in the idea of ‘bekhauf, bebak azadi’ and we fight for that… that is what our politics and activism represent. We have surely set precedence for what the society should look like for women, here in our campus. And, in Tandav, we see the exact opposite thing…there was another movie, Raanjhanaa, that too had a horrible representation of the campus as well as that of JNU women. And, in that film too, the woman was represented as the ‘bechari’ who needed saving. Sorry, we do not need anyone to save us, we can save ourselves,” she added.

Dolan pointed out that unlike what has been depicted in the web series, student activists do not have such pronounced ins-and-outs into the mainstream politics and neither are they so gullible or naive to be charmed by a popular leader and give up their beliefs and ideologies.”That is plainly unrealistic… that lure that they have shown is not what our politics represents. What we fight for is to change the society,” she concluded.

The entire series has been painted in broad strokes, and while that might work for films like Bajrangi Bhaijaan, and Sultan, it clearly doesn’t work for Tandav.

“If I talk from my perspective, I feel that there had been a blatant generalization of student politics. They set the series up with a farmers protests, and refer back to it from time to time. Yet, they do not address the reasons for the farmer’s protest or the students’ involvement in the process. They don’t connect the dots. So, only those who follow student politics closely will be able to understand the representation. But, the general public who don’t follow such news closely, might not get it at all,” said Shehzad Ahmed, from AISA, a PhD student at Center for West Asian Studies.

“The way they have shown the election process, and how Shiva’s character could file for nomination a day before the Presidential debate is also unrealistic. It violates the independence and autonomy of the election committee, and would not happen in real life,” he added.

Ahmed, as well as many student activists, said that one of the most objectionable scenes in the show was the one with the remark on a ‘lower caste’ man dating an ‘upper-caste’ woman. ” They shouldn’t have shown that scene. It is outright offensive and wrong,” pointed out Ahmed.

Bala, the National President of AISA, and a third-year PhD student said that what student politics upholds, and means is best understood from student leaders themselves. “My suggestion to makers of the web series is that it would have been good if they had spoken to student activists before making the show. There are nuances and complexities which need to reflect onscreen when they delve into issues student politics address.”

After the web series premiered on Amazon Prime, BJP leaders asked for a ban on it for allegedly insulting Lord Shiva and hurting religious sentiments. It was followed by an FIR in Lucknow against the makers of the show and criminal complaints before courts in Delhi and Bihar seeking action against Amazon Prime and Tandav makers. Since then, the call for censorship of OTT platforms has become a topic of discussion and debate.

“The freedom of speech and expression must be exercised in a constitutional and responsible manner. Any form of creative expression must be responsible in their depiction of the sensitive issues related to religion, caste and other forms of identities,” said Saurabh Sharma, Assistant Professor, JNU.

Sharma, who had been JNUSU Joint Secretary from 2015-16 told News18, “In the recent past, we have seen a number of series on OTT platforms which have not dealt with these issues in an appropriate manner and have tried to justify them in name of creative independence. There is a need for a strong regulatory structure of certification and censorship with respect to the OTT content.”

“Tandav has approached student politics with a premeditated mindset,” he concluded.

After protests and call for ban were made for ‘hurting religious sentiments’, the makers of Tandav have issued an unconditional apology and agreed to make changes in the show to ‘address the concerns’.

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first published:January 20, 2021, 09:09 IST
last updated:January 20, 2021, 09:54 IST