By Tatsam Mukherjee Oct. 02, 2020
Based on Manu Joseph’s 2010 novel of the same name, Serious Men follows a Dalit man’s “great plan” to overcome his lack of generational privilege. Nawazuddin Siddique is effortless – his entire filmography is strewn with companion pieces to the Sudhir Mishra movie.
Ayyan Mani has a lot on his mind. The voice-over in Sudhir Mishra’s Serious Men begins with Mani (Nawazuddin Siddiqui, instantly recognisable) describing his favourite song and, as the mind is wont to, switches straight to his grandfather’s untimely “demise” inside a train compartment full of brahmins, the sheer arbitrary nature of life, his wife’s post-coital ritual to increase her chances at conceiving, to his clerical job at the National Institute of Fundamental Research (NIFR).
Like many of Mumbai’s hustler minions will attest to, there’s no seeming end to Mani’s train of thought, especially as someone who has arguably spent a better part of his life punching above his weight. A man living and breathing on the socio-economic fringes of society – he seems to be constantly looking at his own life under a microscope, wondering about his place in society, and his many unfulfilled desires. His musings might seem disconnected at first, but it’s this overactive imagination that sets the tone for Mani’s “great plan”.
Serious Men is based on Manu Joseph’s 2010 novel of the same name, where a Dalit man comes up with an ingenious plan to overcome his lack of generational privilege – just like the novel, Mishra’s film is vocal about its caste politics. Even and especially in a metropolis like Mumbai. Mani is no migrant labourer waging wars against a rigged system. However, learning from the year spent absorbing the pretentious jargon spouted by the many “upper-caste” scientists at NIFR, he devises his way up the hierarchy of the Indian society, trying to bridge the gap for his son and the generations to come.
In a scene at the office of his son’s school, he’s asked about his surname and where his people “belong”. As a response, Mani bluntly identifies himself as a shudra, only to be shushed and told, “Brother! Caste is a thing of the past, isn’t it?” It’s a line straight up from a country in denial, too blind to look beyond “merit”, and take into account multiple generations of subjugation.
Caste creates psychology
Mani, a resident of BDD chawl stuck in a dead-end clerical job, is constantly thinking of ways to move up the food chain. His relentless pursuit of a better life, is further fuelled by being in Mumbai, a place many romanticise as a hot-bed of “overnight success”. Mani’s one ambition in life is making a success of his son Adi (Aakshath Das) and projecting him as a “genius”. The child is taught to scream, “I can’t deal with primitive minds like you!” if he finds himself in a spot where he doesn’t know the answer to something. Mani has worked out that arrogance is often considered a by-product of genius, and the world worships what it doesn’t fully understand.
In spite of the familiar milieu, it’s Nawazuddin Siddiqui who delivers some of the film’s best acting moments.
So determined is Mani to avenge the disadvantages meted out to his forefathers, that he goes around harping about Adi’s genius IQ, turning his son into a celebrity within the chawl. So overjoyed are those around him to find this “success story” in their midst, that Mani finds himself struggling to keep pace with the lies coming out of his mouth. From a “star student” in school, Adi soon becomes the face of a redevelopment project in the chawl.
Joseph’s reputation as a columnist might bear question marks in recent years, but nobody can deny the stinging humour in his first novel, and the story of “modern” India’s sophisticated classism, emanating from deep-rooted casteism. And Mishra, who understands how human beings are inherently political creatures, is the perfect filmmaker to take ideas about merit and privilege further (even if some of the film’s secondary characters are a touch one-note).
Mishra also briefly touches upon the warped world of child celebrities, when he enters the backstage of a reality show for kids. We see a young girl barking orders at her mother for bringing the wrong smoothie, and another young boy being force-fed burgers probably because being “chubby” is his USP of being on the show. It’s borderline cruelty, but it’s also fuelled by real-world desires. The scene allows Mani a moment of introspection, how he’s turned his son’s life into a reality show as well.
Satire as commentary
For all its bravery, Serious Men also often risks treading the convenient path. Like there isn’t enough time spent telling us how Mani coaches Adi to sell his superficial intelligence. It’s a long con, so it requires some smarts too. Adi’s facade falls after the most rudimentary form of cross-questioning. Did nobody in those numerous TV interviews notice a single slip-up? Or maybe, it’s a comment on how us Indians won’t blink twice before believing outlandish stories, like a Ganesha idol drinking milk.
Even with a broad satirical tone around a Dalit anti-hero at the centre, it’s hard not to be moved by the cynicism at the core of Serious Men.
Mishra also often treads the path of “telling” rather than showing. Like a fiendishly smart moment towards the end, when Adi comes clean on stage… Mishra cannot resist but make someone say “kitna humble hai!” before the audience breaks into applause. Some lines might read okay in an Indian novel in English, but rarely make for decent dialogue.
In spite of the familiar milieu, it’s Nawazuddin Siddiqui who delivers some of the film’s best acting moments. Like when a neighbour threatens to spill the secret in front of the entire slum dweller community, Siddiqui’s Mani taps into a primal rage. Anyone who has known desperation in any form, will understand this rage. In the next scene, though, the two sit beside one another sharing a drink. Siddiqui’’s filmography is littered with companion pieces to his role as Ayyan Mani, where he plays the “outsider” trying to find a foothold in Mumbai’s chaos. Indira Tiwari, as Adi’s mother, Oja, is effective. Aakshath Das as Adi is adequate for his scenes as the motor-mouth kid, but where he really shines are the more nuanced moments in the film.
Even with a broad satirical tone around a Dalit anti-hero at the centre, it’s hard not to be moved by the cynicism at the core of Serious Men. The world, after all, is a stage – and it is always unequal.
Tatsam Mukherjee has been a film journalist since 2016. He likes watching sports, dissing Novak Djokovic, and spending an unreasonable amount of time going through Thesaurus.com