Indian society, which is plagued by caste discrimination, is often triggered by emotional and sentimental issues. The prevailing unscientific and irrational formal education system is unable to foresee and resolve such issues. While it is easy to mock, deep exploration of human experience reveals that informal education has instigated more students and youth to stand against the oppressive system. Cinema is also one type of informal educational tools in modernistic society where generations of people often get socialized and de-socialized to grasp the undercurrents that exist in society. It exposes the mindset of society because the issues dealt with dramatically in cinema are actually rooted in the reality prevailing in society. In other words, cinema is a reflection of society even if it is omitting or excluding the issues based on caste discrimination, which is a reflection in itself.
Such unified projection of Indian society through cinema was shattered to pieces because of the entry of new Dalit directors of films like ‘Fandry’ (2013) and ‘Pariyerum Perumal’ (2018) covering their own spaces, which was mostly absent since the 1950s and onwards. This earlier cinema endeavored to form the false consciousness of unity in diversity, which is nothing but a perpetuation of brahminical values through different media houses and also imposing them on the non-brahmanical consciousness. In the past decade or so, these brahminical values have become a matter of investigation in cinema due to the entry of humanistic values initiated by the anti-caste tradition in India.
In this context, Tandav – an Amazon web series directed by Ali Abbas Zafar, attracted the attention of the cinema lover in specific and others in general not because of its big starcast but the controversy surrounding it. The controversy revolved around two issues, firstly, for allegedly hurting the religious sentiments of so called Hindus and for being anti-dalit. In this regard, the brahminical forces activated their political agenda in the form of a FIR registered in Hazratganj, UP that inspired two brahminical activists of the right wing political party, one of whom has urged people to boycott the web series and the other has filed a complaint against the whole Tandav team with the I&B ministry. This communal color might have extended the watcher list from thousands to lakhs.
Such interpretation and reactions from the side of brahminical forces compel many like me to write and expose the hidden intentions behind this communal agenda and also drive me to explore the cinematic content of this web series. In fact, Tandav is not the only web series that erupted in controversy but some others like Paatal Lok (2020), Sacred Games (2019), Mirzapur (2018) and Leila (2017) have also been equally disturbing for some people due to their subjective feelings relating to their faiths, castes and religions. However, the Tandav web series has been chosen in particular by the brahminical forces to mobilize the religious sentiments of people, especially to disrupt the present farmer protest and also to set the political agenda, which the brahminical forces could not achieve through above mentioned web series. It also indicates that the brahminical political force BJP might be losing ground among the farmers community.
This web series is completely based on the grappling for power among influential members of a political party for becoming the Prime Minister of India. It reveals how caste, family, extra-marital affairs, and political dynasties are inter-linked in the gamut of achieving political power. Although it is a fictional political drama, it portrays realistic issues in a dramatic way so that the people of India could connect them with past events that occurred during several years of brahminical political rule under the BJP. The lead character roles serve to show how the elite not only sustain their socio-politically powerful status but also how they maintain their privileges as power to control the subaltern groups of society.
Tandav indicates that for the upper caste political elites, power is a supreme end and often achieved through improper means to maintain their caste oriented political and social hegemony. In this process, political murders, victimizing Muslims, degrading dalits, media politics, grasping the advantages of the social background of individuals and politicizing the personal and social relationship, are all normative in the game of politics. Samar Pratap Singh (played by Saif Ali Khan) is shown to be an over-ambitious, dominating young rightist leader belonging to Brahmin Varna who wishes to become Prime Minister of India even by murdering his father but does not succeed due to internal competition and indifference of the party members.
This web series also indicates that opportunism is another shade of politics to grasp political power but not in a positive manner. Shiva Shekhar (Mohammad Zeeshan Ayyub) is a student of VNU (Vivekanand National University) who wishes to become IAS and at the same time, is shown to be an influential student leader who speaks against discrimination, exploitation, poverty and promotes human rights through a leftist orientation. His socialization in leftist orientation provides hope to the farmers and he emerges as a young leader of the farmers’ protest.
As part of the power game, it also depicted how a farmers protest is strategically portrayed as a terrorist plot by the brahminical forces, with the murder of two Muslim youth in the name of terrorism, so that the farmers protest could become illegitimate in the constitutional framework and brahminical capitalists could grab the land of poor famers under the project of special economic zones (SEZ). These scenes in the series resemble the ongoing farmers protest where the brahminical ruling party (BJP) is seeking to misguide the people of India by projecting the farmers protest as an outfit of Khalistan which is to be considered anti-national in nature or as being sustained by having strong linkages with leftist organizations.
The whole series revolves around the ideological conflicts between leftist and rightist orientations, but Samar Paratap Singh, who has lost an opportunity to become PM, finds a new hope in the emerging leftist leader Shiva Shekhar, also a savarna. Pratap Singh looks at Shiva Shekhar as Chandragupta who could fight against King Nanda for his sake. When Gurupal Chauhan (role played by Sunil Grover), a murderer and committed slave who is ready to go to any lengths to serve his brahminical master, informs him about Shiva’s leftist commitment, Samar says in a satirical manner ‘left se right hone me waqt kitna lagta hai’ (it hardly takes time to go from being leftist to rightist).
The scenes related to student politics in Tandav bring to mind JNU student politics and also the rise of a leftist leader like Kanhaiya Kumar whose subtle stands against reservations could be seen in writings of dalits on different forums. It is agonizing that no one from the media was interested in dalit life narratives comprised of all types of exclusion and discrimination. This claim I can validate from my involvement in JNU student politics with Phule Ambedkarite orientation for nearly one decade and also my close affiliation with some present members of the Phule Ambedkarite organization called BAPSA (Birsa Ambedkar Phule Students Association). This web series shows how the leftist organization struggles against the brahminical party of Samar Pratap Singh for providing justice to farmers and Muslim students. Thus, it would refresh the memories of Indian people relating to incidents of 9th February, 2016 in JNU and sedition charges against students belonging to leftist and ultra-leftist organizations. But the imperative riddle arises why the premier institution was defamed by the brahminical forces, despite it having diversities based on cultural, regional, language and castes where students from savarna background along with a significant representation of marginalized sections could be found?
The electronic and print media presented news of the JNU incident of 2016 around the Afzal Guru tribute ceremonies (which was completely opposed by the rightist student wing called ABVP) and labelled JNU as a den of anti-national activity. The media portrayed this incident as a tussle between nationalists and anti-nationalists. In another sense, media discourse constructed a struggle between two ideologies called leftist and rightist. But from the Phule-Ambedkarite perspective, these two savarna alignments could be fixed into the framework of liberal brahmanism and traditional brahmanism respectively in the Indian context due to their caste privileges and strategic programme to suppress the legacy of the anti-caste movement.
Firstly, the institutional murder of Rohith Vemula, a student of Hyderabad Central University, on 17th January, 2016, triggered and traumatized the entire Phule-Ambedkarite community consciousness in India and world. Mobilizing for social justice, Phule Ambedkarite activists all over India registered their assertion and protest in the form of long rallies. At this time, the attention of Indian people was strategically diverted towards the JNU incident by the Brahminical forces including leftist and rightist organizations to fulfill their selfish motive of sustaining political power at any cost. Secondly, the internal factor within the JNU campus was suppressed by the all Brahminical students’ organizations and their parent political-nonpolitical organizations. It was a well-known fact in JNU that Afzal Guru tribute ceremonies were initiated in 2001, continued while I was a JNU student and continued even after 2010. But it was surprising that nobody took any objection to it till 2016 – why?
To answer this question, rather than looking at external factors, there are some internal factors which would provide us a full picture. The root cause of this change must be attributed to the change in the demography of the student community. Roughly speaking, before the implementation of OBC reservation in JNU, the student union hardly had any representation of students from the marginalized communities. The savarna student community from left to right including Gandhiwadis were the dominating factor and perpetuating their hegemony without any hindrance.
The implementation of OBC reservation, which Dr. Ambedkar often considered representation, increased their numbers significantly in JNU campus. As a result of it, a new grouping of students emerged in the form of the All India Bahujan Student Forum (AIBSF) and later as the Birsa Ambedkar Phule Students Association (BAPSA), which took the lead on the ground prepared by the lower caste students comprised of OBC, MBC, SC (dalit) and ST. The backward caste student organization created a legacy to challenge the established savarna political organization and also became a threat to both the leftist and rightist student organizations. The new discourse emerged with cultural symbols like Mahisasura and many others, that were called demons from the perspective of brahminical forces, but were reclaimed as heroes by the AIBSF & BAPSA. Hence, there was an urgent need for the leftist and rightist student wing to wipe out the legacy of these two organizations. The rightist student wing was aware about the rising anti-brahminical consciousness among the backward caste students especially the OBCs. At the same time, the left, despite winning the JNU elections with small margins, was losing its roots among the lower caste students like OBCs and some dalits.
In this political gimmick and to sustain their cultural hegemony on the lower caste students, the rightist student wing in campus focused their target on the leftists by framing them with the legacy of lower caste student organizations– AIBSF & BAPSA– and leftists, being opportunists, remained silent and did not speak out to detach themselves from this legacy. This very act of rightists saved the leftist organization by creating a false discourse before the Nation to sideline the Phule-Ambedkarite organization and its ideology. It can be imagined how sidelining of the leftist organization would have created a tussle between two fronts, that is, rightist ideology vs. Phule Ambedkarite ideology, casteist mind vs. anti-casteist mind, brahmanism vs. non-brahmanism, in which the sufferers of caste system would have become real voice of Bahujan students to challenge the Savarna students on the issues of poverty, gender discrimination, caste atrocities, unemployment, etc.
It was often the strategy of left and right organizations not to provide a single opportunity to generate liberal and independent spaces for Phule Ambedkarite ideology in the university campus and also outside the campus. The whole web series of Tandav is nothing but a struggle between leftist and rightist savarna parties or students to achieve political power by misleading the innocent masses at ground level. It implies that there is no difference between right and left, in fact, both are part and parcel of the same brahminical culture to rule the Bahujan people of this country.
This web series emphatically focuses on the injustice faced by Muslim students and how some dalits, despite their loyalty to a fundamentalist party like BJP, would be treated in a belittling manner and often insulted by savarna people based on their own superior status. In fact, the director and scriptwriter forget to expose, intentionally or unintentionally, that in a stooge or chamcha age, it is not possible to get respect and dignity within the savarna or brahminical party whether it is leftist or rightist. Here, the director tried to show the plight of dalits in two situations. In one of the scenes, Devkinand (role played by Tigmanshu Dhulia), who has been Prime Minister twice and is supposed to become the PM for a third time, insults Kailash (Anup Soni), a dalit, on the basis of his caste background because the castiest mind is unable to stay free of the notion of superiority sanctioned by brahminical culture and traditions.
Similarly, in another scene, Prof. Jigar (Dino Morea) warns his wife, who wants to divorce him, that when a man from the lower castes dates a woman from the higher castes, all he’s doing is exacting revenge for atrocities spanning centuries on that one single woman. This statement in the series has actually stirred up emotions leading to allegations of being anti-dalit and a demand from side of the brahminical party to ban the series and punish the makers under law. From this, it is crystal clear that brahminical forces wish to create a rift between dalits and Muslims in general. The rationality and reason behind it is their anti-caste and anti-brahminical stands, to counter which the brahminical forces are tirelessly making efforts to merge dalits with them.
If we observe this scene critically, we would realize that such narratives actually spring up from the savarna caste men and not from dalits. There is no doubt that such a narrative exists among the savarna community at larger extent to prevent savarna women from marrying dalit men, especially such men or women who have a Phule Ambedkarite orientation in the public sphere. The director might have given this flavor to bridge the issue with Muslim community injustice and to attract dalits for their TRP. It also reflects the strategy of the web series to divert the dalit towards the leftist oriented ideology as savior of dalits unlike Muslims. On the other hand, it also omitted to exhibit that Hindu mobilization is not just meant to marginalize the Muslim community but also a plot to maintain the caste system in India.
We cannot expect these aspects to be captured in this web series due to their lack of vision to understand the caste system or privileged position which restricts them from voices of the Phule Ambedkarite perspective. Therefore, we may conclude by saying that the cinematic picturization in Tandav actually wishes to portray the leftists as saviors of all suppressed and oppressed communities which is nothing but a formation of false consciousness among the so-called educated and innocent masses.
I am very thankful to Dr. Suresh Babu, Assistant professor, Zakir Husain Centre for Educational Studies, JNU, Mr. Naren Gedam- a activist of Social Education Movement, Maharashtra, Mr. Chetan Meshram, an activist of National Network of Buddhist Youth, Mr. Rahul Sonpimple- a former Presidential Candidate of BAPSA, JNU and Mr. Mayur Kudupale, a former student of TISS, Mumbai. Without their suggestions, I could not have completed this piece.
Ajay Choudhary is working as Assistant Professor, P.G.Department of Sociology, Hislop College, Nagpur. He has completed his MA, MPhil and Phd (recently submitted) in Sociology, from Center of Study of Social System/ School of Social Sciences (CSSS/SSS), JNU. He has presented various research papers in National and International conferences and seminars.