‘The Family Man’ review: Lyin’ Eyes

“I can’t eat this cake! Is it eggless?” protests his mother.

Poker-faced, one eye-brow raised, he puts the plate in her hands and tells her to eat, looking elsewhere as if he wishes he was there (elsewhere), nodding vaguely and answering her question about the non-existence of the dairy wonder. Move over, Jack Ryan. Srikant Tiwari is here in India. (With caveats.)

An everyday man, Srikant is a senior analyst in the Threat Analysis and Surveillance Cell (T.A.S.C.), an under-the-radar agency that predicts, intercepts, and thwarts threats that impinge on the vast impossibility that is India. The office is housed in one of those old buildings in South Mumbai. And to drive home the point about its financial funding or painful attempt to stay out of sight—or both—the office can’t be reached via the lift carriage; the button for the fourth floor is marked “Out of order”. Which means Tiwari, his buddy agent Talpade (Sharib Hashmi, superb and underplayed) and other employees trudge their way upwards from the third floor. It could also be T.A.S.C.’s management’s (played nicely by Pawan Chopra and Dalip Tahil) way of keeping its employees fit.

Manoj Bajpayee: walking into office, not knowing…

But financially fit Tiwari isn’t, and as the series unspools, even ‘family man’ seems a misnomer to describe him.  It’s precisely this struggle between work and home that’s absolute fun in The Family Man that’s streaming on Amazon Prime. Writer Suman Kumar and directors Raj Nidimoru and Krishna D.K. have a ball when it comes to drawing out familial bouts to strike a been-there-said-that déjà vu chord in you. And Manoj Bajpayee as Tiwari is the scintillating highlight of their enterprise. He’s rip-roaringly good, as if almost flummoxed by why his wife, Suchitra (Priyamani) would expect him to do all the things expected of a father and a husband. For, he’s too busy pushing files for the country’s security to take care of  niggling domestic matters. (That’s his story for her. You and I know better. And more.) Suchi’s fed up, and his children—Atharv and Dhriti, played with superb acuity by Vedant Sinha and Mehak Thakur—are either looking to hand off pearls of wisdom and look the other way for ice cream, or just roll their eyes in knowing wisdom. They’re the Insta-gen, and nothing—not even the threat of withdrawing the already obsolete iPod from their lives—will put the fear of God in them. They’re perceptive, they’re impossible. The trouble is, they’re also right.

Priyamani: metamorphosis mom.

Priyamani’s role, on the other hand, follows a more difficult arc of a green-grass widow. Suchi is frustrated that Sri doesn’t handle things in the family, and as a quasi-protest, takes up a job in a start-up with long-time teaching colleague Arvind (Sharad Kelkar, smooth and effective). As this sub-plot begins to unfold, there’s a superb scene between Bajpayee and Priyamani, a drunk husband trying to invert his responsibilities into guilt, and then refracting it back to the wife, hoping she’ll absorb some of it. (Spoiler: fat chance.)

Sharad Kelkar and Priyamani: look where our emojis got us.

Overarching all of this is a terrorist plot that opens right in the beginning and is a zinger for the first six episodes. There’s some tight cat-and-mouse at play here and there’s Kashmir, Pakistan, an ISI man Sameer (Darshan Kumaar, looking surprisingly as stiff as the Pakistani army chief’s drink in a scene where they discuss an upcoming deadly mission), a suspected terrorist-in-the-garb-of-student Kareem (Abrar Qazi), his girlfriend Jonali (Sanyukta Timsina) who doesn’t know what he’s up to; and to top it all, there’s two captured terrorists in a hospital in Mumbai, one of who—Moosa (Neeraj Madhav, simply terrific)—is caught between all of this when all he wants to do is simply be with his mother.

So long as its story stays in Mumbai, The Family Man is sheer joy. It’s as its canvas spreads bigger and wider, to Balochistan, Pakistan, and Kashmir, that the plot becomes diluted, the characters more tropes than menacing, and it seems a little drawn out. In that sense, the penultimate episode seems a quick patch to reach the end of season, where Jonali’s role, the uncovering of the plot, and everything else that’s patched in, isn’t tight. Even the action here seems forced, unlike, say, the breathlessly shot hospital sequence in episode 6. Surprisingly, even Gul Panag’s role as Tiwari’s CO in Kashmir is underdone, almost as if added as an afterthought.

Gul Panag and Manoj Bajpayee share more than just a chai.

Which is just the daunting task that looms ahead of writer Suman Kumar and the directors Raj-DK. Much like their character struggling to find a balance, they’ll need to figure out how to find an equilibrium between the terror angle and the complex family dynamics that’s more morphing trigonometry than equations. How does The Family Man doesn’t end being a 24? Or a Jack Ryan? Which is why, even though the season end is a terrific cliff-hanger, I’d have loved it if the pressure gasket had blown off some of the roiling relationships instead, even though the bad guys get a bloody Coen Brothers’-ish treatment that’s grippingly done.

Sharib Hashmi and Shreya Dhanwanthary face some tense moments.

Because The Family Man is a delight in its minutiae. It’s the sly glances and gestures. It’s in the scene where Hashmi’s Talpade comes with two cups of tea, and hands one over to the new recruit, Zoya (a very effective Shreya Dhanwanthary), unmindful of Bajpayee’s Tiwari reflexively reaching out for one cup, and then realizing he’s being ignored. It’s in the dent in Tiwari’s car. It’s how Talpade’s left paying the bill every time. It’s Talpade, Tiwari, and Pasha (Kishore Kumar G.) sharing a smoke in a door frame, and then later sharing a drink and ruminating about their guilt. It’s in the hilarious take of Hindi as the national language. It’s in extracting the worrying leitmotifs of today and presenting them without filters—the beef killings and the national anthem defiance stand out. It’s in a dig on how emojis are the new dashboard to evaluate if a relationship’s becoming serious. It’s in the sly digs at new India and surgical strikes. It’s in the writer’s dig at software companies packaging conferences as boot camps. It’s in the parallel inquiry by Tiwari and the terrorist of their respective drivers as they’re being driven to their destinations in Kashmir, “How’s the situation now?”, and the answers they get. It’s in Sumit Arora‘s dialogues: “The truth is separate, country’s safety is separate”.

Mapping their strategy.

Plus, Ketan Sodha‘s background score is a knock-out. He keeps it modern, synthesized, and tons of fun. It’s also hauntingly moving in a Pink Floyd-meets-Kraftwerk-ish way, as in the scenes when Tiwari’s wracked with guilt. And it is Manoj Bajpayee who strings it all together, much like his character—strung out, wracked by pangs of guilt and shots of duty calls. His eyes are furtive, body language never relaxed (except for once, when he puts his head on Gul Panag’s shoulder and lets out a laugh). His performance is a massively deceptive one. It helps that unlike other spy thrillers, his directors don’t bother with what’s on his screen. They’re interested in what’s going on inside his mind. And what’s going on there is subterranean, his lying eyes a furtive mask to hide matters of national security and interests. It’s also why you can’t tell if there’s egg in that cake.

The Family Man (2019– ) on IMDb Movie data powered by IMDb. All images owned by the producers.

The Family Man is rated A (Restricted to adults) for violence, mild nudity, and profanity.

The Family Man
Directors Raj Nidimoru and Krishna D.K.  Time~ 45 min
Writers Suman Kumar, Raj Nidimoru, Krishna D.K.
Stars Manoj Bajpayee, Sharib Hashmi, Neeraj Madhav, Priyamani, Gul Panag
Genres  Action, Comedy, Drama