Review: 'Tanaav' Reveals the True Costs of Conflict

The series dismantles the homogeneity of the two warring camps. Not all Indian officers are alike — neither are the militants.

Many political dramas hinge on ideological judgements: good and evil. But the SonyLIV series Tanaav, a remake of the Israeli drama Fauda, evokes intrigue and explodes suspense not through statements but questions: how and why. It removes the obvious moral hints and just commits to a two-pronged story — of people caught in both sides of the strife — allowing the audiences to decide. Unlike ‘neutral’ or ‘safe’ filmmaking, this egalitarian storytelling style doesn’t lack a voice. It simply observes an exceptional conflict not through tight-fisted ideologues but malleable and contradictory and flawed figures.

For someone who hasn’t watched Fauda, my mental antenna attuned to signals the moment I saw Tanaav’s setting: Kashmir, 2017. Directed by Sudhir Mishra and Sachin Krishn, the 12-part series can be summed up in a line: The Indian Special Task Group sniffing the trails of a militant, Umar Riaz (Sumit Kaul), considered long dead. The logline is itself not remarkable. We’ve seen state-militant tussles many times before.

But unlike simplistic political dramas, Tanaav doesn’t tell the story of symbols but people. Take its protagonist, Kabir (Manav Vij). Sharp, reckless and cruel, he’s a Kashmiri himself. A sly narrative choice like this persists across characters and subplots, eluding our preconceived notions of a story. The makers often cross-cut between the officers and militants — covering both their missions and personal lives — giving their portrayals rare perspectives and depths.

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Something else stands out in the first few episodes: Arbaaz Khan’s acting — the equivalent of a bhut jolokia in an ice cream cake. Playing Kabir’s boss, Vikrant, he produces such a jarring performance that it often disrupts the story’s rhythm. In extreme cases, other talented actors, such as Vij, underperform in his presence. Khan’s inclusion is a mystifying choice because, as evident from recent Hindi web shows, we don’t have a dearth, but an abundance, of acting talent. Tanaav features an impressive cast (Rajat Kapoor, Shashank Arora, Ekta Kaul, Sumit, Vij, among others), but some performers in peripheral roles struggle in intense dramatic scenes. Other letdowns — such as clichéd santoor strains dominating the background score and a lack of sustained searing tension — make the first four episodes uneven.  

But it slowly gets better. Khan’s role recedes. The background score becomes tense, energetic, clipped. Stakes escalate — the ticking bomb scenes swell and stretch. The story gets tighter; themes turn expansive. While revealing the protagonists’ schemes and deceits, the directors also examine the psychological profiles of the main players and the regular people. Nothing is, in fact, ‘regular’ in Tanaav. The long conflict in the heavily-militarised state has made ordinary Kashmiris anxious mission statements — or, in some cases, informal spies.

When a local professor, Mushtak (Mushtak Kak), returns home, after tipping an Indian officer (Kapoor) off, people gather around him and cast suspicious glances. Someone paints “traitor” on a wall near his home. A student spits on him. The paranoia runs deep even otherwise. People snitch on one another unprovoked. Sometimes the lack of trust materialises in more obvious and intimate contexts, such as Kabir’s wife (Sukhmani Sadana) cheating on him with his colleague (Amit Gaur). Or Kabir falling for a Kashmiri doctor, Farah (Ekta Kaul), who (of course) doesn’t know his real identity.

Tanaav’s panoramic sweep keeps unveiling the conflict’s true costs. Whether it’s the officers or the militants, almost everyone has lost someone — unleashing a violent domino effect. Kabir’s brother-in-law, Danish (Arryaman Seth), also an officer, shoots Asif, Umar’s brother. Asif’s wife, seeking revenge, blows up a café, unintentionally killing Danish’s girlfriend. A hysterical Danish storms into Umar’s hideout; he gets captured. Kabir conceives a risky plan — flouting all protocols — to avenge his own loss.

Many times, it’s difficult to distinguish the officers from the militants, as both sides look desperate, mad and sociopathic. Some manipulations are so casual that they don’t even seem remarkable. Consider Malik’s (Kapoor) conversations with Umar’s wife (Waluscha De Sousa), where he promises medical help to her daughter and a safe passage for them to Abu Dhabi. Wanting to hurt Umar in any way possible, Malik embodies a ‘caring’ façade, appearing different from the fanatic militant.

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The supporting cast, too, makes Tanaav richer and complex. That’s so because the series dismantles the homogeneity of the two warring camps. Not all Indian officers are alike — neither are the militants. Despite their ideologies, they belong to no one but themselves. Farah wants a free state, too, but she rejects her cousin Junaid’s (Arora) bloodthirst. Some, like the officer played by Satyadeep Misra, are plain tired and want to return home. If Kabir’s violent intent splits the Indian officers — some accompany him, some don’t — then Umar’s mission is often undercut by Idris (Mir Sarwar), the chief of Harkat-ul-Mujahideen.

Even better, Tanaav’s characters change. Umar’s henchman, Junaid, first looks like a typical follower, devoted to his leader and the cause. But then, in the subsequent episodes, as his master deviates from his projected image, he starts to become his own person. Easily the most fascinating character in the series, Junaid finds an impressive performer in Arora. He infuses his role with a unique intensity — a contradictory mix of nonchalance and anxiety, alertness and brain-washed haze — keeping us hooked. Which is why the climactic note — culminating in Junaid’s transformation — feels powerful, logical, and satisfying.

But in the classic Tanaav style, we get another denouement, another character transformation: Kabir’s. Like his nemesis, the officer can barely recognise his past life. Like Junaid, Kabir has won some, lost some. Or maybe not. Because triumphs and defeats affect people — not ghosts.