bandish bandits

The poster for “Bandish Bandits.” (Weber Shandwick/Amazon Prime Video Photo)

The serial “Bandish Bandits” is a pioneering effort in more ways than one: for one, it is the first web series that focuses on music, that too, Indian classical music. Secondly and more important, it brings back the importance of music in a feature (and what are web series but extended films?) in Indian popular storytelling. And this is done with the praiseworthy incentive to the youth to realize that classical Indian music can be “very cool,” while also showing that modern songs can be pleasant and ear-friendly even if catchy and with relatively light lyrics, with contemporary lingo that also employs English and colloquial content.

The story is simple. Radhe (Ritwik Bhowmik) is the musical heir and future shining star of the Rathod Gharana of Jaipur, whose patriarch is Pandit Radhemohan Rathod (Naseeruddin Shah). Radhe is his grandson and is devoted to both the music and his grandfather.

In Indian classical music, the guru officially accepts someone as a disciple with a ritual, and both Radhe’s father (Rajesh Tailang) and uncle (Amit Mistry) have failed the exacting requirements of accomplishment and dedication that would make them eligible. Radhe, after a tortuous phase, does get elevated to that status.

But what is life without hurdles? He meets pop sensation and live performer Tamanna (Shreya Chaudhary), who has to design a few “hit songs” to fulfill her dream of performing alongside international pop sensation Queen Elli. She is floored by Radhe, and he also likes her live (ly) performance. Soon their affection becomes mutual, and she also offers big money to perform alongside her. This helps as the family is under severe debt. But due to his family, Radhe must do it secretly, anonymously.

Soon, Radhe becomes a national sensation as the singer “Masked Man” along with Tamanna and the duo is called Bandish Bandits. But how long can a secret remain one?  How long can Radhe keep his big truth away from his family? Then there is the secret of Pandit Rathore’s elder son (from an earlier musician wife) and ex-disciple Digvijay (Atul Kulkarni), who is a brilliant artiste but has a open approach, and is estranged from him and represents the Bikaner Gharana. He craves to be adopted, but also wants to avenge the wrong done to his mother.

As trouble looms large from many sides for Pandit Rathod, Radhe and the family, skeletons keep tumbling out of the Rathod closet. A competition between Digvijay and Radhe will be the clincher for the family’s future. Within this narrative will come the subtle look at the highs and lows and pluses and minuses of both Indian classical and modern music, and their effects also on the temperaments of their proponents.

The last episode is the typical cliffhanger kind (this time by musical series standards) with several issues unresolved. As usual, it could have been modified, while keeping the gates open for the next season, because it leaves us unfulfilled.

Nevertheless, an all-round excellence pervades this otherwise delightful, entertaining and substantial series that has the potential to spawn similar series where Indian classical music can be a pivot. The writing is of a high standard throughout, and that makes Tamanna’s friend Arghya (Kunaal Roy Kapur)’s expletive- and sex-laden lines only a light contrast to the rich, prevailing content rather than be the normal outrageously repulsive kind.

“Bandish Bandits” explores every aspect of the lives of Indian classical musicians—like their immense stature in the eyes of aficionados, the incredible dedication to their art, their dependence for a decent living on grants and royal favors, the irrelevance of everything other than music, the orthodoxy versus the liberals, and the social hypocrisy sometimes ingrained in the musicians.

It also highlights the aspects that modern musicians depend upon, like their insecurities, their craving to create hits rather than doing great work, their undervaluing their own selves and yet the fame and money that comes—vis-a-vis traditional music creators—so easily. Thankfully, the disdain for each other;s schools of music is replaced by respect.

The characters are all interestingly sketched, arrestingly human, from the eager-to-please Radhe, the autocratic Pandit Rathod, the mercurial and insecure Tamanna, the wily Digvijay, Radhe’s submissive mother Mohini (Sheeba Chaddha) and meek father (Rajesh Tailang) and uncle (Amit Mistry), Radhe’s would-be fiancé Sandhya (Tridha Choudhury), the local king Rajaji (Dilip Shanker), Radhe’s loyal buddy Kabir (Rahul Kumar) and the very interesting and forthright Arghya (Kunaal Roy Kapur).

All this leads to a high caliber of performances, especially from Shreya, Rajesh Tailang, Amit Mistry, Kunaal Roy Kapur, Rahul Kumar and Naseeruddin Shah. However, Atul Kulkarni and Ritwik Bhowmik steal the show completely along with Sheeba Chaddha—they are magnificent. Kulkarni and Bhowmik get the musician’s body language note-perfect—pun intended.

The last three episodes (each one is around 40 minutes) are high-voltage, and technically, especially in the camerawork (Sriram Ganapathy), the series scores very high. Anand Tiwari’s direction is a complete surprise, and why his comic genius is so good in his outside work is now evident—he has an amazing sense of script and filmmaking as well.

Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy’s music is outstanding, and “Virah,” “Labb Par Aaye” and the two-version “Garaj Garaj” are especially classic. The lyrics are superb, especially Sameer Samant’s work in the tracks just mentioned. As for the vocals, they are of high order, especially Shankar’s own contribution in “Virah” that deserves nothing less than a National award, though sadly no such award exists for singing a song in a web series.

In these days of shallow entertainment and hollow music, “Bandish Bandits” is nothing less than a passionate expression of a missionary zeal to uplift the audiences. Of all ages.

Rating: ****

Produced by: Amritpal Singh Bindra & Payal Sachdev

Directed by: Anand Tiwari

Written by: Adhir Bhat, Amritpal Singh Bindra, Lara Ahsan Chandni & Anand Tiwari

Music: Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy

Starring: Naseeruddin Shah, Atul Kulkarni, Rivik Bhowmik, Shreya Chaudhary, Sheeba Chaddha, Rajesh Tailang, Amit Mistry, Kunaal Roy Kapur, Rahul Kumar, Dilip Shankar, Rituraj Singh, Shashi Kiran, Meghna Malik, Tridha Choudhury, Sanjay Nath, Priyanka Arya and others

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