The Family Man Review: We’ve Really Missed You Manoj Bajpayee

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The Family Man Review: We’ve Really Missed You Manoj Bajpayee

Illustration: Robin Chakraborty

In the seventh episode of the Amazon Prime series The Family Man, a near-tortured but yet to be disheartened Manoj Bajpayee stands alongside his commanding officer (Gul Panag) at Srinagar’s Lal Chowk. “It’s oppression in the name of security. Hum mein aur unme farak hi kya hai,” Panag says in a soothing, calm tone. It’s a quiet, yet rare moment of perceptive clarity that has become elusive in the cinema of today. The Family Man, billed as a story of a man in two boats at the same time, both of which he must keep from sinking, is riotously funny and tense. Incredibly, it manages to meld both those extremities of emotion into the same hardware. The Family Man is slick, fast, and in the hands of the peerless Manoj Bajpayee a delightful watch. 

Bajpayee plays Srikant Tiwari, a middle-age analyst with the Threat and Surveillance Cell (TASC) of the National Investigative Agency (NIA). As an agent, Tiwari tackles high-stake crimes like bombings and terror attacks. As a husband, he struggles to keep things together in a household that perpetually demands more. Be his beat-up Santro or the inability to afford expensive meals, Tiwari is besotted by real-world problems, despite helming a seemingly unreal job. The series begins with the arrest of two terror suspects off the coast of Kochi. The arrests and subsequent hospitalisation of the two starts a sequence of events that have the look of something big, something “worse than 26/11”. 

Tiwari is aided by the incredibly funny JK (Sharib Hashmi) who lifts even the tensest scenes with a glare or a smirk. The two share excellent chemistry and have some hilarious, off-handed conversations. Tiwari and Co must race against time to identify an eventuality they can hardly foresee. But while the series shows both facets of Tiwari’s life, it is, quite incredibly, his domestic obligations, the requirement to play father and husband that seem to be more challenging. Underpaid, overworked, and labelled a loser, Tiwari must himself subvert his heroism, the extant risk he takes with his life every day he steps out to work. It makes for fascinating insights, but most endearingly, it makes for a bitter, puzzled, and hypocritical Bajpayee.

While he tries to boss over his children and teach them “good eating habits” and “good language”, Tiwari persistently drinks, lies, swears, and is seen eating food off the street, especially vada paos. He begins to suspect his wife, played by the delightfully tender Priyamani, of having an affair. For a man sworn to protect the country, Tiwari, conflictingly, uses his devices to hack into his daughter’s phone and track his wife’s whereabouts. A hilarious sequence sees him follow his wife to a plush restaurant where the alcohol is too expensive for him and JK to even pay for. It’s this imbalance, this disproportionately divided land that Tiwari lives on, that serves some delectable, raw dialogue. At one end, Tiwari is a hero, but can’t claim to be one. At the other, he is a loser and tired evidently of being labelled so. 

Bajpayee plays Srikant Tiwari, a middle-age analyst with the Threat and Surveillance Cell (TASC) of the National Investigative Agency (NIA).

Amazon Studios/D2R Films

The Family Man is both Barry (HBO) and Jack Ryan (Amazon Prime), a contrast that sounds absurd but has to the credit of the show’s creators and writers come to exist without as much as a glitch. Then there’s the scale of the show. The Family Man isn’t just content on being a psychological profile of its protagonist. It throws its net, far and wide, from Kashmir to Kerala, via Balochistan. The landscapes, the aerial shots make for stunning imagery. In terms of direction, the series raises the stakes on the relatively humbler outings by OTT platforms in India. A pulsating 13-minute one-take shootout in a hospital is executed with exquisite command and authenticity. The show’s entry into Kashmir is handled deftly, finding sure footing between beauty and the necessity to not get lost in it.

Beyond the many threads and the twists, the series handles controversial subjects with great sensitivity. In one scene, a Muslim man is assaulted inside a theatre for not standing up for the national anthem; in another a police officer does not hesitate to brand Muslim students “anti-nationals”. A subplot also involves TASC mistaking a couple of student activists as terrorists. But time and again, The Family Man makes us see the problem with racial profiling. By the end there are bloody men on both sides, indistinct, good and bad alike. In Kashmir, the show holds its tongue, by allowing the locals some precious, elusive agency. It may feel surreal, but that is because the creators make the unlikely attempt to contextualise something we refuse to engage with in anything besides rhetoric. 

Everything said and done, it’s Bajpayee’s presence on the show, his limitless reserves of acting prowess that pretty much overshadow everything else. At his peak, he can even make staring at a computer the most gripping piece of entertainment. From achieving the ludicrous, to impossibly communicating the subtlest of emotions, Bajpayee is unrivalled. In one scene, he chases a suspect by riding pillion with a woman on a scooter after he tells her “woh mera mangal sutra leke bhaga hai”. It’s deliriously outlandish, a gimmick only Bajpayee could make seem legible, charmingly normal. The Family Man is a bafflingly good mix of humour and action, all set up inside the closet of a middle-class family that is gradually unravelling along its seams. In Bajpayee, it has a maverick, a colossus of acting, who can make buying vegetables or fixing a cupboard seem as stressful and threatening as hunting terrorists. The former, more so.