Reality TV shows in India figured out their way to an audience and emotional jackpot along the way. Their contestants, when it all began, came from the ‘burbs and upper-middle class. Be it a dance or singing competition, or a mega quiz show, the spectrum of participants was limited to our view of plurality: PLU (people like us). Butsomewhere along the line, some smart TV exec cracked the code: reserve a quota for that cleaved societal lower base whose raison d’être is to struggle to make it through the end of the day to garner sustenance on the family plate and haul their weary bones to begin again the next day. Suddenly our screens — and eyes — were flooded with the vision of what lay beneath our comfy, insulated lives. Sacrifices, shattered dreams, and tragedy, all rolled into before or after a song as judges sniffled, hitting the buzzer to open the gates for these talented, hitherto unseen strugglers into the next round. The TV channels grabbed eyeballs which in turn grabbed hankies, and we sobbed as the channels sprinted their way to the bank.
That such reality shows, albeit in an inverted avatar, play out in everyday lives is brought to the fore like a tight, smart, and smarting slap in director Sudhir Mishra’s Serious Men. Based on Manu Joseph’s novel and written by Abhijeet Khuman, Bhavesh Mandalia, Nikhil Nair, and Niren Bhatt, the movie opens to Ayyan Mani (Nawazuddin Siddiqui) conceiving, with his wife Oja (Indira Tiwari), of the next-gen, even as his voice-over sets the context for what’ll be its encompassing arch: the exploitation, discrimination, and deep-rooted systemic structure and politics of caste. Ayyan’s a personal assistant to arrogant scientist and director Arvind Acharya at the National Institute of Fundamental Research (NIFR, and a snook at the hierarchies in TIFR and other such hallowed research institutes ?) —Nassar, superb, bringing the upper caste superiority to his act and demeanor, his character’s knowledge as deep as his shallow understanding and treatment of his assistant and anyone else who’s below him: in rank and caste. For him, that’s a spin to his own demarcated caste system.
Full of smarts and blink-and-you-miss satire: Ayyan tampering with a quote on reservation attributed to Arivunambi Ghatak — melding a Tamilian name with that of a famous Bengali filmmaker — replacing that fusion noun with a famous economist, it’s a sly dig at manipulating the narration. And that’s precisely what Ayyan is good at. Controlling the narrative. And it is this street-smart talent that Ayyan brings into play for his own son Adi Mani (Aakshath Das) to beat the system that’s jailed him in a slum dwelling all his life, which he wants to break free from for Adi’s sake.
It is this manipulative streak that’s a terrific spotlight on the very nature of our societal system and parenting choices. Aspirational parents create their own reality shows, pushing their children into a circus that’s a hamster on the wheel cable TV. Plus, if you’re born into a lower caste section — Dalit, in Ayyan and his family’s instance — the die’s loaded with equipollent and opposite force. There’s reservation that’ll get you a job as the one Ayyan has, but Ayyan wants more out of life for his family and himself. And helping him achieve that is his half-crust of phrases that he’s acquired from being a fly-on-the-wall in NIFR, listening to Acharya’s rants and ravings about gravity, space, and alien microbes. In a delicious touch of irony, anything that Ayyan says that’s closely related to science is dipped in arrogance and disdain for his listeners — be it his colleagues, wife, son, or us. That’s thanks to the pejorative boss he reports to. In another satirical bite that leaves its marks on Ayyan and his family is that in his warped system, chucking away humility and carrying the bag of brashness is the way to survive and beat back the naysayers. And that high-handed tone exactly what Adi picks on.
In forwarding his dispersed quotes and knowledge to the unknowing and wanting, Ayyan props Adi as a prodigy that quickly grabs the attention of the local Dalit politician Keshav Dhavre and his educated-abroad daughter Anuja (Sanjay Navrekar and Shweta Basu Prasad, both terrific) who set in spin their own system-within-system game. That Anuja has her own past trauma gives her the strength to wield a stick with brute force is another insight into director Mishra’s character spin.
As the politics and morals (or the lack of) at the NIFR (Acharya’s run-in with his bête noire, Namboodari, played by Uday Mahesh, is the tipping point for all), the slum, and between Ayyan and Adi and the politicos begin to get intertwined, Manu Joseph’s sparkling clarity that’s evident in his columns bubbles like good champagne, rising to meet you and then delivering a swimmingly spritzy experience. That India’s brightest and mature minds aren’t insulated from deceit and shenanigans (Vidhi Chitalia as Oparna Sengupta the smart, younger shoulder for Nassar’s Acharya, playing her role in another discriminatory gender system that runs parallel or superimposed on the caste track — and that’s not the only time the movie looks at women’s stories; the other one involves money, greed, and exploited women), and that who they inspire awe and hate in equal measure in, follow the same path, points to director Mishra’s never-ending mirrors within mirrors structure.
Serious Men cloaks itself in quick-footed dialogues with doses of cynicism, Karel Antonín’s thoughtful score, and Alexander Surkala’s quietly framed cinematography; and then, come the tipping point, breaks your heart as its machinations rip asunder tender minds and hearts, and the rot of rote and educational fraud spills out of its guts. Aakshath Das as Adi is top-notch, the actor carrying the burden of his character with all the strength of an overloaded, tearing-at-the-seams schoolbag. And when he breaks, he opens a flood of anxiety and concern inside of you. Indira Tiwari as Oja is beautifully raw and uninhibited in her act, making her character an integral part of the story, even if she isn’t part of the mainframe.
The cast is superb all around (casting director Mukesh Chhabra gets it pin-point accurate), butNawazuddin Siddiqui shows why he is, in such projects, the last man standing after Irrfan Khan’s untimely exit. Absolutely natural, dry like gunpowder, and exploding when the last straw is lit — his scene confronting Adi’s classmate’s father in the slum is powerful and moving, his voice breaking and yet trying to retain control — he’s the driver and the teacher for this tell-tale of a movie. What he teaches and learns is this: that no matter howsoever much you’re in control of a narrative that involves the system, the immutable latter’s gotten something extra hidden in its sleeve that covers its upper hand. And that when it comes to funds for survival, your chances are much better as an alien microbe in outer space than as an earthling dweller in a crammed slum.Movie data powered by IMDb. All images owned by the producers.
Serious Men is streaming on Netflix and is rated A (For adults only) for some sensual scenes and language. These primitive mouths, I tell you.
Director Sudhir Mishra Time 1h 54min
Writers Abhijeet Khuman, Bhavesh Mandalia, Nikhil Nair, Niren Bhatt, Manu Joseph (based on novel by)
Stars Nawazuddin Siddiqui, Aakshath Das, Indira Tiwari, Nassar
Genres Comedy, Drama