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Tandav: A Study in Tokenism and Appropriation

In what way should art respond to reality? We sometimes view art as a privileged, protected space untouched by real-life concerns. Other times, we emphasise that art cannot be an entity removed from the times it finds itself in. With culture gravitating to reward artists for doing impactful work, the latter opinion seems to have gained more credence. Many recent films, songs, and artworks have their creators consciously portraying their world’s politics in their art. However, have their motivations stemmed from genuine care or convenient opportunism?

For instance, commentary on political movements within a film, is not inherently good. While some have genuinely attempted to reflect on the various people’s movements playing out around us, others have tried to capitalise on these. The attempt to profit from these resistances against oppression leads to tokenistic representations of politics, which is crucial for us to understand in all its complexities. These representations are reductive in that they usually wash away every nuance involved in what they opportunistically represent. And so, every portrayal of political reality must not be equally revered or revered at all. Appropriation of this reality to “sell” (cinema is, apart from everything else, almost always tied to commercial concerns) one’s “product” is a practice that must then be recognised and critiqued. The previous sentence’s double quotes can easily be removed if talking about a recent billboard advertising Uber’s supposed anti-racist stance

Tandav, the recent Dimple Kapadia and Saif Ali Khan led production, has picked up and represented the farmers’ and students’ protests, callously injecting these as adjuncts into its main plot: party politics where morally bankrupt politicians play with power and lives. Glamourized villains take centre stage while genuine political concerns become ways to reinforce these characters’ attributes. The very first scene makes this sufficiently clear: a farmers’ protest is brutally quashed by the intervention of a ruling party henchman. The show begins with this character, called Gurpal Singh. The shots of farmers and students protesting against state injustice are fleeting; cliches related to the over-emphasised immorality of party politics spouted by Gurpal Singh, nicknamed “yamraj” by equally immoral policemen, are given more weight. 

And this is only the beginning because the entire show hinges on its antihero persona, Saif Ali Khan’s Samar Pratap Singh, and his violent political “game”. The show has not made any unconventional choices: the main plot is just another political-party drama, combined with the time-tested genres of crime and mystery. Its representation of the students’ movement and arrests under UAPA is restricted to crude analogies embodied in “VNU” and its student leader Shiva and the hasty back-story of another student activist, Sana. The Shiva subplot is again mainly related to student party politics, which is merely another element of Samar’s manoeuvring. Samar’s importance to this show’s world is central; it ends as it begins, focus on its “yamraj-like” personas. Samar makes a shocking decision away from direct power, announcing that he’s now enjoying the “game”. Filled with countless subplots, each that seems to do less justice to the real-life story it attempts to mirror, the show feels suffocated by its own opportunistic gall.  

Tragedy has been used as a commercial tactic in cinema before too. In Uri, death and tragedy seem to function to set up a quintessential heroic representation of recent events, again with the glamorised main character at its centre. Here too, actual political nuances (related to the Army in Uri) have been completely sidelined. But this is not just a decision to ensure commercial success. It has implicit ideological implications too.

When political movements are represented and used in the way they are in Tandav, the viewer finds themselves (at least from a superficial viewing) distanced from the underlying causes of the political unrest replicated in the show. Tandav obsessively pretends to be a “political” piece, but it in fact, de-politicises crucial people’s movements by subordinating them to its salacious and extremely narrowly political (party) plot. And suppose the viewers find themselves reading the various tweets and opinions related to the show’s controversy. In that case, they find themselves even further removed from the actual problem at hand. A hollow attempt to profit by depoliticising people’s politics is made to appear (ironically through this controversy) as if it is a daring critique of religious domination. 

The show uses religious imagery for some of its characters and themes, but this remains simplistic. Remarks like “Kaam saare non-veg karta hai, hai vegetarian” and the names of the lead student politician (Shiva) and his party (the titular Tandav), and the political murder of two young Muslim protestors (again glossed over and never mentioned again) constitute the extent of what it sees as critique focused on religion. 

Despite its efforts to appear politically conscious, Tandav has successfully avoided any real contact with ongoing political movements. Renowned actors fill its cast, and the typicality of its basic storyline attempts to disguise itself using reductive parallels of reality. Art, undoubtedly, is not free of commercial realities. Still, we need to be responsible as viewers and consumers of these films and shows, and consider how, not just if, the overtly political is portrayed. 

Experience Further: In this song, as in many of Hozier’s, art plays out the unity of the personal and the political. Neither overshadows the other. The political is always present in all works of art, but only some do justice to the lives and realities they represent. This song borrows from one type of religious vocabulary to verbalize the very truths this language often tries to erase. “We were born sick, you heard them say it,” claims the singing voice, and ends up singing of injustice, love, and humanity in its four mere and significant minutes.

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About Us

Anant Shah

Anant Shah- Founder

Anant Shah (just as his Instagram bio says) has always been interested in connecting people though their different cultures. He is drawn to this goal, given his background of a family of artists, as well as his work at several different organisations such as the People Tree with Orijit Sen, The Conflictorium in Ahmedabad and The UN (AIDS) Communications and Global Advocacy Team in Geneva. As a graduate of History and International relations at Ashoka University, he co-founded and set up the Ashoka Literature festival in 2019. Longing to increase this critical discourse on contemporary and traditional Indian Cultures he finally decided to start InCulture.

Kartik Sundar- Founder

Kartik Sundar loves nothing more than opining on cultural content. An avid writer for many publications, the decision to start one of his own came from recognizing a substantive lack of critical discourse around Indian culture today. He graduated Ashoka University with a degree in History & International Relations and wishes to complete further education with a focus on media and cultural studies.

Who We Are

We at inCulture are looking to shed light on what we see as an emerging new Indian culture as well as paying dues to the traditions that have been integral in shaping the current space. We want to try and create a space where critical reflection on cultural events, individuals, works of art, or practices can be fostered. Rather than exist as a cultural news outlet that merely serves as a bulletin board for the latest releases, inCulture will look to curate multi-medium pieces that seek to inform readers about aspects of our culture that make you think beyond an immediate reaction. In particular, we strive to look critically at Indian culture by investigating it under four distinct categories – film & theatre, music, spaces, and society.


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