Serious Men movie cast: Nawazuddin Siddiqui, Nassar, Indira Tiwari, Aakshath Das, Shweta Basu Prasad, Sanjay Narvekar
Serious Men movie director: Sudhir Mishra
Serious Men movie rating: Three stars
Based on Manu Joseph’s novel of the same name, Sudhir Mishra’s adaptation of Serious Men is a bitingly sharp, satirical look at Aspirational India.
Ayyan Mani, a Tamil Dalit who lives in a Mumbai slum with his wife and son, represents a here-and-now Indian who wants a better life, and will do anything he can in order to achieve it, even if the things he does may not pass a strict moral or ethical metric. But when the chips were stacked against you generations before you were born, what is right, and what is wrong? The answers, in this thought-provoking film, lie somewhere in between.
Ayyan (Nawaz) is a personal assistant to an overbearing astronomer Acharya (Nassar). The harder the former tries to please his Brahmin boss, the more obnoxious is the latter’s behaviour: to be called a moron and an idiot, in his hearing, is something Ayyan is used to, and he does what others would have in his position—swallow his pride, smile unctuously, and scurry off to do the boss’s bidding.
But there’s something else that Ayyan is doing, as we discover. Creating a weapon of destruction in the shape of his genius school-going son Adi (Das), who slays rote-loving teachers and patronising principals with his astonishing math-solving skills. Good education can help create a well-rounded individual; it can also, if that individual is lucky enough to find an enabling environment, help break class and caste barriers. Ayyan brings an extra edge to this mix because he knows that to play the victim card with the right degree of canny belligerence in the right place can take you far indeed.
Will Adi’s astonishing skills, attracting the attention of the media in search of quick sensation (Slumchild! Poverty! Lower caste! Underprivileged! Prodigy!) and smart politicians building their Dalit base, take the family out of their contained-in-the-chawl life? It would appear that all is on course, till something happens, and the serious men begin dismantling the building blocks they had begun handing out.
Once the secret Ayyan has harboured all these years about Adi is out, he tries desperately to contain the damage. But he hasn’t taken into account the damage that’s been done to the young boy, who starts wilting under pressure. What’s noteworthy about Serious Men is that it refuses to salvage its characters, and their bundle of lies, whether it is Ayyan, or Acharya whose work on ‘alien microbes’ is based on exaggerations and falsehood.
Nawaz is very good, channelling Ayyan’s seething rage into something we can empathise with; the tender passion he exhibits with Tiwari rounds off his character. Das, as Adi, is perfect, and the real star of the movie. The most effective parts of the film are between these three; the rest, which include those in the research institute where Ayyan works, and in the party office of the politician father-and-daughter duo (Narvekar and Prasad) are somewhat woolly, even though the actors all fit their parts well.
This is Mishra back in form. He is one of the few Hindi film directors who understands politics, and at his best, has been able to spin winning yarns around the politics of the day (Hazaaron Khwahishein Aisi). His 1992 Dharavi, also set in the slums, and an automatic comparison, was more about a man eking out an existence. Serious Men allows its slum-dweller the new-age quality of ambition, and gives him the wiles to see that if the goodies we take for granted are not his, then a snatch-grab is the only way out. Ayyan Mani is the real serious man of his tale.
Serious Men will begin streaming on Netflix from October 2.