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Bandish Bandits does not give its female characters the space or the arcs they deserve. However its portrayal of egoistic, toxic men destroying the lives of others around them, is spot on.
I found out about Bandish Bandits via an interview of Naseeruddin Shah, with Anupama Chopra, in which he spoke about how his character was an egoistic man, who destroyed the peace of everyone around him. Always an admirer of his acting, I was intrigued, and checked out the trailer for the series, which further got me interested, because it seemed to depict the familiar push and pull between tradition and modernity, framed within the context of music.
It didn’t hurt at all that the music for the series is composed by Shankar, Ehsaan and Loy – in fact, their music turned out to be the most enjoyable part of the series.
This review contains spoilers
Ritwik Bhowmik plays Radhe, a young man, who aims to follow in the footsteps of his illustrious grandfather and guru, Pandit Radhemohan Rathod (a fantastic performance by Naseeruddin Shah), and become a well renowned classical singer who will take forward the legacy of the Rathod gharana. Pandit Radhemohan is the typical patriarch – requiring perfect discipline and compliance from his family members, even as he stifles their freedom and self-expression.
Shreya Chaudhary plays Tamanna, an up and coming pop singer, determined to achieve her dream of working with international pop star Queen Ellie. Unfortunately, her recent songs have all flopped, and she is looking for new inspiration that will help her achieve her dream, and spite her demanding and overbearing mother.
How their separate worlds collide, and how they help each other, is the core of the series. There are other sub plots as well, the most important one being that of Digvijay (Atul Kulkarni), Pandit Rathod’s son from an earlier marriage, trying to reclaim the gharana from his father, and restore its original name –the Bikaneri gharana.
Radhe’s story – his struggle to reach for his dreams even as he tries to do his duty towards his family, and towards the woman he loves, often in ways that are at odds with each other is brilliantly portrayed. The love story between Tamanna and Radhe, even though not entirely convincing, is still enjoyable.
The beautiful sets, the fabulous, soul stirring music – especially the classical/folk pieces, are brilliant, and draw the viewer in.
What I really enjoyed is the absence of any violence/rape scenes etc. that are shoehorned into most series/movies today, with a view to making them ‘gritty’, ‘realistic’, or ‘progressive.’ Bandish Bandits thankfully, aims to be none of those. Rather, it has a slight fairy tale quality that allows the viewer to just sit back and enjoy.
The fact that the series is ‘light’, however, does not mean that it does not explore deeper themes. Most of the conflicts in the series for example, stem from the fact that Naseeruddin Shah’s character is an egotistical man. The effects of his toxicity are felt on every single character, including Tamanna, who isn’t even related to him!
The lives of all his sons (and grandson) are a mess in different ways, because of the boundaries he imposes on them. His interference and stubborn insistence on having things his way, means that they suffer deep losses – of their identities, and of people who mean a lot to them.
Perhaps the person most deeply affected by his patriarchal outlook and need to be numero uno always, is his daughter-in-law, Mohini, played by Sheeba Chaddha. A well placed flashback reveals that she is actually the better artist. She had defeated him in a singing contest 26 years ago. For that he ‘punishes’ her by separating her from the man she loves, manipulating her into marrying his son, and making her give up her music by exacting a promise that she will only be a good daughter-in-law, wife and mother. There isn’t a clearer depiction on screen, of how marriage is intentionally used as a weapon to trap a woman into a life of bondage.
One hopes that after the revelation of her true talent, Mohini will finally get the acknowledgement she deserves. Unfortunately, beyond a ‘Karate Kid’ type montage, wherein she trains Radhe for a singing contest, by making him dance, sweep the floor, cut vegetables and wash clothes, she really doesn’t get any recognition as his ‘guru’. Ultimately, it is Pandit Radhemohan’s blessings and approval that matter.
Similarly, Tamanna’s character is supposedly 50% of this show, but her arc is not written with as much care as Radhe’s, and is often dropped to make space for his story. For example, a big deal is made about how she cannot sing live, and of how she trains to do so with Radhe’s help. However, when the payoff for that should come, the story suddenly changes direction and what should be her moment of glory is taken away, to focus on Radhe’s conflict with his grandfather.
It also doesn’t help that the story leans too heavily on stereotypes to portray its female characters. For example, Tamanna, being a ‘city’ girl, is shown to be ignorant and disrespectful of classical music. This is truly sad, because such a portrayal is unnecessary and only serves to further harmful biases against ‘the modern girl’.
There is also a strong sense of ‘male saviourism’ running through it. None of the female characters get the space they deserve, and their storylines exist only to support Radhe’s arc, who is repeatedly centered as the ‘hero’.
That, for me, is one of the biggest flaws of Bandish Bandits. I sincerely hope that in future seasons (if any) the makers will focus on giving the women equally strong and independent arcs. On the whole, Bandish Bandits is watchable, if only for Naseeruddin Shah’s brilliant performance, and for its music, which is the true star.
Top image is a composite of stills from the series
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