One of the dominant images used to promote the web series Tandav was that of Saif Ali Khan in the centre of a funeral service, flanked by women who are key players in his character Samar Pratap’s personal and political life. His wife Ayesha (Sarah Jane Dias), fellow politicians Aditi Mishra (Shonali Nagrani) and Anuradha Kishore (Dimple Kapadia) – these women play prominent roles in the plot. So do student leader Sana Mir (Kritika Kamra), and journalist Garima Deswal (Neha Hinge).
With so many women in this political drama, one would assume that the series would present an empowered version of them. But it establishes early on that the female characters exist as no more than cogs to make the wheels turn in a man’s world, in the way that patriarchal society continues to perceive them.
Samar has three women at his beck and call – wife Ayesha, whose sole purpose is to support his every move, journalist Garima who will compromise on her integrity to maintain connections, and Aditi Mishra who has been promised a powerful portfolio. The one woman in his life that he can’t control is Anuradha Kishore, senior party leader who has been in a relationship with his father, the prime minister of the country, for 30 years.
Anuradha and Samar are both power hungry. While he kills his father, she blackmails him using that information to snatch the position from him. Samar has a fleeting guilty conscience, while Anuradha is an ambitious woman who’d rather use the opportunity to her benefit than bring a criminal to book. Her defence? Despite being a senior party member for so many years, she never got a position she deserved.
The weak character development of the show does not give Anuradha a more legitimate claim to either chair of the prime minister or to the man she treated as her husband for 30 years. Samar’s father never married her in order to keep his image as a politician clean.
There are more illegitimate relationships in the series, which somehow manage to taint the women while taking a more sympathetic view of the men. Sandhya Nigam (Sandhya Mridul) rightfully asks for a divorce from her cheating husband, Jigar Sampath (Dino Morea). But Jigar’s a lovesick puppy who doesn’t want a divorce, while Sandhya is not only getting more powerful than him at work, but is also in an illegitimate relationship with a politician.
While consoling Jigar in episode 5, Saif’s character Samar makes a crude analogy about women being attracted to men in power. It’s very clear where the writer’s sympathies lie.
It is difficult to root for any of the women in the show. Sana Mir is seen fighting for farmers’ rights as a student leader, but manipulates the professor (Dino Morea) she is sleeping with for money. She doesn’t bat an eyelid before tricking her friends and turning them against one another. She is empowered enough to fight for her wrongfully arrested college mate. But in personal life, she lets herself be blackmailed by corrupt policemen who threaten to arrest her sister for a crime she didn’t commit. The contradictions in her character make it difficult to relate with Sana.
The need for more women writers in Indian cinema/series has been in discussion for a while now. Tandav proves once again that the male gaze continues to perceive women as manipulative molls, who gain power either by association, compromise or blackmail, not because they can prove their worth in a fair contest. This perception towards women is deep seated in the patriarchal psyche, and Tandav reeks of it. Casting multiple women does not lead to gender parity, shifting the gaze to give them real credibility and strength does.