Playing now: ‘Tandav’ and the Indian state’s dance of death on fiction

The easily offended are up in arms against the Amazon Prime series for ‘hurting religious sentiments’. If only they were as upset about real social issues.

ByRajyasree Sen
Playing now: ‘Tandav’ and the Indian state’s dance of death on fiction
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We all thought 2021 would be a better year – the virus would miraculously disappear, women would stop being treated as chattel and sexual objects in India, Indians would develop a thick skin, we’d stop misusing the law for political gain and to curb free speech, and comedians would stop being arrested for doing their job and we’d also have better political dramas scripted by Indian filmmakers. It’s fair to say that our hopes have been dashed on all these fronts.

I am going to steer clear of the gruesome rapes that have been reported in just the last couple of days, which neither the women and child development minister nor the prime minister or the chief minister of the state has condemned. The sexual abuse of women is hardly a matter of national concern after all.

It seems the only matters that do upset our MPs and political leaders and parties are not what happens in real life. They’re keen connoisseurs of the media and entertainment. Which explains why as of last afternoon, former Tripura governor Tathagata Roy has lodged a police complaint in Kolkata against Bengali actor, Saayoni Ghosh for posting a photo on Twitter, which he says hurt his “religious beliefs”. The image was shared by Ghosh on her Twitter handle in 2015, and showed a Shivling used for an AIDS awareness advertisement. I’m glad to see Roy has put his free time to good use by trawling the Twitter feed of female stars and going through tweets from half a decade ago.

That we are an easily hurt lot is no surprise. Pretty much everything offends us. If a woman is shown in a happy inter-religious marriage in a commercial or if a little child is shown being friendly to another child of a different faith, it’s highly upsetting. Cases are filed against the offensive party for showing communal harmony, social media is rallied to troll film makers, artistes are threatened – till they abjectly apologise and agree to withdraw whatever content has upset the offended parties.

On January 1, the easily offended not finding anything to watch on OTT platforms, decided to focus on stand-up comedy instead. A case was filed against comedian Munawar Faruqui and he was arrested in Indore for allegedly making objectionable remarks about Hindu deities at a show which had taken place a fortnight earlier. Faruqui and five others were arrested on January 1 at a show in Indore on the basis of a complaint by Eklavya Gaud, the son of BJP legislator Malini Gaud. It has now transpired that there is no evidence to back this charge and he never made any such comments. Yet, Faruqui and the others have still not been given bail.

Again, full points to the thin-skinned legal-savvy Indian for consistency. And for not discriminating between religions or communities. We feel all gods and goddesses must always be protected, from the scourge of the creative arts. In 1989, the Rajiv Gandhi government famously banned Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses for supposedly attacking Islam. Twenty years later, there were protests at the Jaipur Literature Festival because Rushdie has been invited to speak there by video – not even in person – leading to the session being cancelled. Similarly, Taslima Nasreen wasn’t allowed to release her book Nirbashan (The Exile) because a Muslim group — the All India Minority Forum — accused her of “insulting Islam”. Such a Long Journey by Rohinton Mistry, shortlisted for the Booker Prize, was dropped from the University of Mumbai’s English syllabus in 2010 after Bal Thackeray’s family claimed that it contained “derogatory” remarks about Maharashtrians. In 1988, The Polyester Prince: The Rise of Dhirubhai Ambani by Hamish McDonald was banned after the Ambanis threatened legal action, saying it was defamatory.

Sadly, since no one reads anymore and fiction is clearly relegated to Rupi Kaur’s utterings, the easily offended have turned to watching content on OTT platforms. The latest piece of content to ruffle their feathers and also help display their prowess when it comes to misuse of the law is Amazon’s new political drama, Tandav.

Tandav is not a show about Saif Ali Khan’s dancing skills. It is about the dance of death that is Indian politics. This is no West Wing or House Of Cards, or even Yuva. But it is an entertaining watch that has some resonance in real life. My only criticism of the show is that logic is an alien concept to the show’s writers.

So what is this offensive show about?

There’s a ruling party which has been in power for three terms, there’s a matriarch who pampers her useless son and wants him to get the defence ministry even though his only skillset is snorting cocaine, there is a clear reference to the many extramarital consorts our politicians keep and who are known to wield power in political corridors, there’s fratricide, the buying and trading of political allies, the media-political nexus, the misuse of political position to give romantic partners plum posts – and then there is a parallel storyline of student politics at a university in the Capital, and the creation and rise of a political leader and the fomenting of political protests at the university level by political leaders with vested interests.

Has the portrayal of the seamy politicking of established political parties upset our thin-skinned politicians and their cheerleaders? Don’t be silly. What they’re upset about is something that takes up barely three minutes of one episode – a college play about Shiva which is so irrelevant to the storyline that the writers must be flattered that someone was paying attention. There is also the case of one of the protagonists, the student leader, being named Shiva Shekhar who then makes a few quips as the mythical figure, Shiva. It’s all very meta.

Like most college plays, even this one is terribly written. If anything, colleges should sign a letter of protest against this depiction of student theatre.

There is another factor, though. Both the lead actors are Muslim. Saif plays Samar Pratap, Mohammad Zeeshan Ayub plays Shiva Shekhar – I’m surprised god didn’t make my fingers fall off for keying in those words. And to top it off, Ali Abbas Zafar is the director. An unholy trinity if ever there was one.

Are the easily offended in our political parties taking umbrage to how political wheeling and dealing is portrayed in the show? Or how cabinet portfolios are doled out? No, even our political parties know they shouldn’t outrage over the truth.

But a fictional play within a fiction series about a mythological god – now that, that is blasphemy.

There is currently a call to censor the play-within-a-show segment and to boycott the show itself. Because the gods will forgive all our sins if we just stop watching so much online content. This would be amusing if it wasn’t so ridiculous. That in a country flowing over with crimes – sexual, corporate, political – our law and order machinery and politicians have nothing better to spend their time on than monitoring fictional content on a streaming platform is pathetic. We are a nanny state if ever there was one – the government wants to monitor who female citizens can marry, if you’re in Madhya Pradesh and a working woman then the government wants to monitor your whereabouts, and now they want to monitor what fictional programming we can or cannot watch.

Of course, our political parties would say they are above such petty censorship, but as I write this, BJP leader Manoj Kotak has written to the information and broadcasting minister, Prakash Javadekar, seeking a ban on the series for allegedly ridiculing Hindu deities. Another party leader, Ram Kadam, has filed a complaint at Mumbai's Ghatkopar police station asking that “strict action should be taken against the actor, director and producer of the web series”. A criminal complaint has been filed in a court against the web series, alleging that it incites communal disharmony and hurts sentiments of Hindus. Another FIR has been registered in Lucknow against Amazon Prime’s India head of original content, Aparna Purohit, and against the show’s director, Ali Abbas Zafar, and writer Gaurav Solanki at Lucknow's Hazratganj police station.

The I&B ministry has summoned Amazon Prime Video officials in India in connection with the controversy around the web series. Those named in the FIR in Lucknow have been booked for promoting enmity between different groups on grounds of religion, race, place of birth; for causing destruction, damage, or defilement to a place of worship or an object held sacred; for forgery for purpose of harming reputation; for making statements conducive to public mischief, with intent to threaten the unity, integrity, security or sovereignty of India, or to strike terror in the people or any section of the people.

The slew of cases and FIRs and calls for boycott have resulted in the cast and crew finally extending an unconditional apology saying they “had no intention to hurt sentiments of any religion”.

This will warm the cockles of one of the mediators between the gods and the devout, Mahant Paramhans Das of Tapasvi Chhavni in Ayodhya, who has demanded a ban on the web series and action against the actors. He has been quoted as asking, “The web series insults Lord Ram and Lord Shiva. It insults Hindu religion. I want to ask Muslim clerics how they would have reacted had their religion been targeted. They issue fatwas at every occasion, why are they quiet now?”

Who knows, maybe this is what will bring all religious leaders and faiths together? Their common intolerance.

PS: I highly recommend you watch Tandav on Amazon Prime.

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