Not much worked for me as the first episode of Bandish Bandits concluded. There was, of course, the stunning title sequence that’s a visual-rich fest, covering golden-coated sand with stunning aerial shots of India’s Blue City, Jodhpur, that fly over the Mehrangarh Fort, before gliding over the city center, or some Raghu Rai-influenced shots that pepper the folksy title song (Cinematographer Sriram Ganapathy in top form). There was also the joy of watching Naseeruddin Shah on a TV show (more about him in a bit). Plus, of course, the rest of the cast (more about them in another bit too) and the fact that Shankar Ehsaan Loy were composing for the very first time on streaming mode. And yet, the story moved at a pace that didn’t move me. The characters failed to connect, and it was as if things were on auto-mode. Describing the overall experience as bland would be mot juste.
But a couple of episodes into the series — directed by Anand Tiwari (co-writing with Adhir Bhat, Amritpal Singh Bindra, and Lara Chandni) — there was something that made me begin to care for the Rathod gharana (lineage) in Jodhpur, and all those who orbit in its musical system. Because Bandish Bandits draws you in with its unmistakable hook of traditional versus modern, the scansorial, sacrificial ascent of musical prowess versus the highway stardom of software auto-tuned microwaved offering. And in doing so, highlights the very real-life struggles that Indian classical music proponents, performers, and practitioners face in this attention-deficit world of Insta photos and two-minute fast food.
Thus are you introduced to Radhe Rathod (a winsome, likable, and pure Ritwik Bhowmik) and his constant endeavor to impress his grandfather (musically, of course) Pandit Radhemohan Rathod (Shah) to get him to tie the sacred thread in a ritual called the Ganda-Bandhan, thus ensuring that Radhe becomes the next-gen propagator and transmitter of the Rathod gharana. But the strict, purist, and no-nonsense grandpa will have none of it, waiting for his grandson to prove his metal and mettle in the arduous path to musical realization. None of this impresses young Radhe’s father, Rajendra (Rajesh Tailang in a superbly sulking, troubled performance), who’s haunted and hounded by the grubstakes that the local bank’s thrown his way, and now is demanding their money back. Else, the Rathod mansion walks the deathly plank of mortgage seizure. Rajendra’s wife and Radhe’s mother, the quiet, silent, and supportive Mohini (played with expressive, pained, and emotive eyes by the superb Sheeba Chaddha) knows more than she lets in about the family history or her own past. Plus there’s Rajendra’s brother, Devendra, who, at first blush, seems like a regular free-loader, but as the story unfolds, has his own quashed dreams that he strings on a mournful fiddle that’s his patent — and hope — for his pain. Devendra’s played with a quiet, self-effacing likeability by Amit Mistry; and towards the end of the series, his scene with Shah, where the latter’s taken a vow of silence, touches you with the surety of a long-forgotten pudding flavor.
Into these dusty, decadent lives storms the flashy, brash youth and pop icon Tamanna (Shreya Chaudhry, whose bratty, superficial act slowly touches you as her internal emotional faults emerge), her performance in Jodhpur the entry point for Radhe and her to meet. Tamanna has her own familial baggage, which is also one of the story’s weakest points, handing in tropes of an over the top loving pop Rituraj Singh and a high falutin, estranged mother (Meghna Malik) who runs a glitzy media empire, but whose editorial meetings have the depth of kindergarten kids planning for their next get-together. Both Radhe and Tamanna have well-meaning friends — Rahul Kumar as Kabir and Kunaal Roy Kapur as Arghya — whose shoulders and tongues are burdened with all the expletives in the series. To be fair to both of them, they carry off their roles with chutzpah, even if some of their angles are troubling. Kabir’s exposing of a girl who has a sleazy leaked video is double-standard, yet terribly mirroring a cracked societal view; while Kapur’s channelizing the South Mumbai agent lingo is hilarious, even if sometimes discomfiting for a series whose key strength is rooted in traditional dignity.
The inevitable romance between Radhe and Tamanna is part-contrivance, part-Abhimaan jealousy, but Ajay Sharma’s superbly edited see-sawing between modern and traditional music pieces are delightfully done. Into this mosaic walks Digvijay, a playback singer of repute, and Atul Kulkarni plays him with elegant flamboyance and classy manipulation. The scenes between him and Naseeruddin Shah are a treat: the former part-caring part-simmering with anger, while Shah carries off his part with an act that’s incandescent in its brilliance. The senior actor reminded me of my uncle, the late Pandit D.B. Harindra, a well-known Hindustani classical singer and teacher in Bangalore, almost as if extracting his demeanor and gravitas from such learned souls. Shah stoops, frowns in concentration as if parsing every note, the gatekeeper of his gharana’s purity, and the musical bars they inflect on. My uncle knew nothing more than his music, composing his own raagas and notes, forgetting family, friends, and foes in the single-strung pursuit of a never-ending practice. Pandit Rathore is him and human like all of us. Flawed. Imperfect. And yet, unlike most of us, rendering God’s own pristine notes.
And, despite its shortcomings, making Bandish Bandits a must-watch is the outstanding soundtrack by Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy. The trio composes a richly decorated, scintillating album, scoring high especially when they delve into their Indian classical side. The Viraha number, sung with heartbreaking depth by Shankar Mahadevan, and enacted perfectly by Atul Kulkarni is a highlight. If the series’ opening is vilambit (slow tempo), the final episode is a hypnotic drut (fast tempo), all directed towards a superb Sangeet Samrat competition. That’s when you realize that when singers of yore such as Tansen sang Raag Malhar, the rain that wet the landscape could have just been the tears in the listeners’ eyes.Movie data powered by IMDb. All images owned by the producers.
Bandish Bandits is streaming on Amazon Prime and is rated U/A (Parental Guidance for children below the age of 12 years) for expletive-laced dialogues and a sensual scene .
Director Anand Tiwari Time ~ 30min
Writers Anand Tiwari, Adhir Bhat, Amritpal Singh Bindra, and Lara Chandni
Stars Naseeruddin Shah, Atul Kulkarni, Ritwik Bhowmik, Shreya Chaudhry, Rajesh Tailang, Sheeba Chaddha
Genres Drama, Musical, Romance