Trolls vs Tandav

Pop Culture

Trolls vs Tandav

Illustration: Shruti Yatam

Today saw the release of the Saif Ali Khan-starrer Tandav on Amazon Prime Video. It was the first major webseries to release in 2021, and given the controversies that have dogged new releases last year, was entering dangerous waters. Unfortunately for the cast and crew of Tandav, the online mob was waiting with pitchforks sharpened, and the series had not been streaming for even a day before accusations of it being “Hinduphobic” surfaced online. Judging by the social media ruckus, Tandav’s greatest transgression is casting a Muslim actor in the role of Shiva, a student politician, who also appears as the diety in one scene. Mohammed Zeeshan Ayub, the actor in question, has been the subject of trolling online, especially since he has been vocal about the state of affairs in the country, joining anti-CAA protests last year and standing by the farmers in Delhi now.

The controversy centres around a clip from the show, where Ayub plays a stage performer appearing as Lord Shiva. That much is obvious even from viewing the clip without context, but even so, there appear to many aggrieved people who believe that the makers were attempting to show the deity himself in a flippant light. And not only is the use of Shiva on-screen misinterpreted by those accusing Tandav of offending religious sentiments, but they also seem to have a huge problem with the actor’s religious identity. Not only is Ayub a Muslim, so is the series’ director, Ali Abbas Zafar. In an indicator of how polarised social media is becoming, the Tandav haters believe that Muslim artists are unable or unwilling to depict Hindu deities in good faith.

Last year, both Amazon Prime Video and Netflix invited the ire of ultraconservatives because of the content on their shows, leading to calls to boycott the platforms. Netflix’s A Suitable Boy and Prime’s Paatal Lok both invited similar accusations of “Hinduphobia”. While the former had Hindu nationalists outraging over a “love jihad” kiss, Paatal Lok was accused of glorifying “beef eating”.

The Tandav haters believe that Muslim artists are unable or unwilling to depict Hindu deities in good faith.

The atmosphere of tolerance that allows artists to freely create is no longer as vibrant, and with government censorship of online platforms a looming prospect, reactions like the one Tandav elicited from trolls paint a picture of how stifling that might be.

Along with the controversy over the religious beliefs of the cast and crew, a secondary problem that right-wingers had with Tandav was its sympathetic portrayal of a fictional university apparently modelled on the real-life Jawaharlal Nehru University. JNU’s reputation for student politics and activism makes it a favourite bogeyman of conservatives, and so the way Tandav chose to fold those power dynamics into its narrative made pro-establishment social media users uncomfortable.

Sadly, hate-filled trolls refuse to separate fact from fiction and it’s becoming an almost regular part of a web series’ life cycle to be faced with calls for a boycott on social media soon after its release.

What the makers of Tandav presumably set out to do was give audiences a thriller that painted a picture of the underbelly of Indian politics. But the reactionary, intolerant response a section of the audience had to the series illuminated the ugly side of Indian society instead.