Ayyan Mani (Nawazuddin Siddiqui) is the personal assistant to Arvind Acharya (Nassar), a top scientist at a government research facility in Mumbai. Mani, who was shifted to Mumbai by his father. Ayyan is a Dalit, his boss is a Brahmin. Ayyan is barely educated but Arvind is a multiple degree holding, well-respected pillar of the scientific community. Ayyan realises the value of education and wants his son to become a highly educated man, a scientist just like his boss. And his joy knows no bound when his young son shows signs of being a genius. Ayyan understands the struggles of his forefathers quite well. He knows that even today, nothing much has changed. He isn’t a bonded labourer in his village but is still living in a rented room in a Mumbai chawl. He doesn’t want his son to suffer the same fate and comes up with a con to help uplift their status. The con takes a life on its own and the crux of the film involves Ayyan trying to keep his web of lies intact.
Serious Men is an adaptation of the novel of the same name by Manu Joseph. It’s a sharp satire on the caste politics that plagues every stratum of our society. It takes guts to make a film on caste politics and kudos to director Sudhir Mishra for attempting that. The film doesn’t offer a heavy-handed take on the caste structure. It tells a story by lightly jabbing on different topics and lets the viewer draw his own conclusions. We find a whiteboard at the beginning of the film with the lines, “Reservations cannot be the only compensation for treating fellow human beings like animals for the last 3,000 years,” written on it. Thankfully, the film doesn’t offer a good versus evil melodrama. Rather, it paints everyone and everything with shades of grey. A top scientist tries to cut corners because he’s afraid the government might cut-up his funding. A young politician doesn’t mind taking advantage of a certain situation to make her way among the masses. At the same time, she doesn’t want to play the Dalit-victim card when it comes to her personal life. A school run by Christian management is shown offering incentives to poor parents if they convert. A junior scientist sleeps with her boss because she knows it can lead to advancement and is pragmatic enough to know he’ll never divorce his wife. Everyone wants to get ahead by hook or crook. As one character in the film puts it, caste doesn’t matter if you’re poor. It’s a race between the haves and the have-nots
What does ‘serious men’ mean? Well, as the protagonist explains early in the film, tired of being called moron, imbecile, knobhead by those superior to them, the men serving under such arrogant bosses have come up with the term ‘serious men’ for them. In the film’s context, it implies that the scientists working hard at the institute where Ayyan works are researching ‘chutiastic’ subjects. They’re wasting their time and the government’s money by indulging in research which isn’t going to be beneficial to anybody. The film reasons that the common man has figured out that the biggest cons are run by those in power and he has become aspirational enough, bold enough, as well as cunning enough to carve out a piece of the pie for himself. He sees nothing morally wrong in it because he sees his betters doing the same. Corruption has kind of become the norm.
The film can be said to be a resurrection of sorts for director Sudhir Mishra. It reminds you of his Hazaaron Khwaishein Aisi days when he was at his peak. He has found his edge once again and let’s hope the streak continues. He always had an eye for casting and here too his choices are bang on. While Nawazuddin Siddiqui doesn’t look like a Tamilian from any angle and his Tamil accent is totally atrocious, he does carry the film on his shoulders. You warm up to Ayyan because his angst is the angst of middle-class India. You want him to succeed despite his dishonest ways. Nawaz’s body language, his expressions bring alive the inner fire of his character. The good thing is that child actor Aakshath Das, who plays his son Adi, matches him in every frame they share. The film hinges on the father-son bond and wouldn’t have worked if Aakshath wasn’t upto the task. Both Shweta Basu Prasad, who plays a politician with her heart in the right place and Indira Tiwari, who plays Nawaz’s wife Oja too have done full justice to their roles. Nassar, whom we should see more often in Hindi films, is in fine fettle as well as the scientist who rediscovers his humanity towards the end.
Watch the film for its subtle satire, as also for the realistic performances by the entire cast.
Trailer : Serious Men
Pallabi Dey Purkayastha, September 29, 2020, 4:00 PM IST
STORY: Hailing from a Dalit family, Ayyan Mani (Nawazuddin Siddiqui) wants his only son Adi (Aakshath Das) to have what he didn’t – a life of privilege, opportunities and respect from all strata of society. Upon realising Adi is a child prodigy, Mani starts cashing in on his newfound fame. But is a child this young ready for all that mic-thrusting, caste-based speeches and a scam that his father’s been running? Through this adaptation, director Sudhir Mishra delves into the age-old class distinction prevalent within Indian society. And the themes of haves and have-nots add the quintessential human drama to this relevant piece of cinema.
REVIEW: For as long as he can remember, Korathi-born and Mumbai-bred Ayyan Mani has always been haunted by the story of how his grandfather died in a running train – someone whispered in his ears that he had accidentally boarded the first-class compartment meant only for Brahmins. Sure, Mani is street smart and it is his strong survival instincts that help him climb up the professional ladder: he is the personal assistant to man-of-science Dr. Acharya (Nassar) at the National Institute of Fundamental Research. But being born into a poor farming family in a remote hamlet in Tamil Nadu has its own ramifications – Mani likes his beer ‘not extremely chilled, not warm’ and is obsessed with a life of dough and dignity for his aankhon-ka-tara Adi. Call it sheer luck or a classic case of rags-to-riches at play, Adi turns out to be a genius who has complex chemical formulae at the tip of his tongue. Also, Mani is running a scam on the side while the nation is revelling in the birth of a genius (they call him chota Einstein at one point). If political leaders are willing to pull the family out of its two-by-two kholi among other generosities, then why the con? Based on Manu Joseph’s book by the same name, director Sudhir Mishra’s ‘Serious Men’ is a satire on the stark contrast (or the lack of it) between the rich and educated and the poor and naïve with slight deviation from its original story.
The opening sequence leads us to an unnamed, dingy and poorly-lit chawl in Mumbai with Mani Senior deciphering life with this uninhibited line – “…zindagi bhi aisi hai, complex! Aadmi bematlab hi paida hota hain, marta bhi bematlab hi hai” – and what ensues thereon is absolute madness, coupled with unabashed greed and, of course, nonchalant scheming and scamming. The trope is all too familiar: a man from a marginalised household is hardened by life and all the curveballs he has dodged so far and wants his son to have a better shot at it; we get that. But what sets Sudhir Mishra’s ‘Serious Men’ apart is the way the story is laid out – so out-there and yet so subtle. Other than the atrocities faced by the Dalit community in India, the narrative also brushes its shoulders with the prevalence of ‘pleas’ to embrace Christianity for a better life and the caste card that’s often played within the subjugated communities. It is bold and ironic but no one’s taking any offence because Mishra has inculcated this subtext with the foil of sarcasm wrapped around it. Besides, Nawazuddin Siddiqui has sprinkled Nawazuddin Siddiqui-ness all over the script and the actor sure knows just how to navigate the tricky lanes without rubbing anyone the wrong way. Speaking of which, the lungi-donning actor in this social commentary gets into the skin of Mani as if they are long-lost brothers. While the dialogues maybe easily forgotten, his expressions in the meltdown scenes are a testament to his acting prowess. The child genius Adi aka Aakshath Das is a cocky young man sharing the ultimate secret with his father and, even at such a tender age, he walks shoulder to shoulder with Siddiqui and their twisted accord is palpable. The duo may have lowered the scale of their moral compass but not the God-fearing Indira Tiwari’s Oja; she sort of balances the borderline megalomania out that the other two latch on to. Shweta Basu Prasad’s Anuja is the poster child of oppression (with a crippled leg, burnt marks and a Carnegie Mellon degree) in this dramedy but her role remains under defined and it is criminal not to use a fine actor to her complete potential. The characters essayed by veteran actors Nassar and Sanjay Narvekar (as the local politician and Anuja’s father) do not have much to do in the film other than safeguard their own selfish interests, which they do with aplomb.
Without revealing the twists and turns – all of which are somewhat predictable yet engaging – this movie is packed with surprises and more often than not leaves one scratching their heads (you will know why). Cinematographer Alexander Surkala captures the essence of Mumbai and its dark alleys and juxtaposes the high-rises against the slums at periodic intervals; thank goodness for that! Karel Antonín’s music has this typical deep, artsy ring to it that could never go wrong with a film trying to highlight the biggest ironies of life but towards the end, both the script and its background score tend to derail: dramatic and distracting.
The serious men of our society are the laughing stock in ‘Serious Men’ and though the film reasonably manages to bring to light the conflict between the elite and the easily disposable, it fails to conclude what could have been an excellent social dialogue on a high note. Guess Mishra took too much credence of Siddiqui’s rant on respect, “Public jisko samajhti nahin hain, usko salaam thokti hain; respect karti hain.”