In the new Netflix film, Serious Men, Nawazuddin Siddiqui plays Ayyan Mani, a Dalit slum-dweller whose anger at the system, and subsequent dreams of a better life, hinge on having a genius child. His son spouts theories about photosynthesis at school, is dubbed ‘Junior Abdul Kalam’ by reporters and is nominated for the Guiness Book of World Records. Do things seem just a little too good to be true?
Directed by Sudhir Mishra, the film is an adaptation of Manu Joseph’s novel of the same name, which was released 10 years ago and won the Hindu Best Fiction Award. Joseph talks about how Netflix came on board, what it’s like to hand over your work to another creative entity and why he decided not to write the film’s script himself:
The book was released in 2010 and given its popularity, I’m guessing that there must have been many offers to adapt it in the years since. Can you tell me what those early conversations were like?
You’re right. In the past ten years, every now and then I would be approached by a filmmaker. Some of them were even successful and influential and I realised how difficult it was even for them to find the funds. Also, I was never going to sell the rights cheap – that made those initial ventures difficult. We may forget this but until recently, a film meant something that was released in theatres. So the filmmakers who wanted to convert Serious Men into a film did worry whether the story had a broad appeal, and they feared if scientific arguments could ever be filmed.
Then, about three years ago I got a mail from a former journalist, Sejal Shah. She said she loved the book and as she had turned filmmaker and she wanted to buy the rights. By then I was used to being approached for the rights. I thought we would have some good chats and then one day the chats would stop and at the end of it all there would be no movie. But Sejal was someone who could see things through. She teamed up with the screenwriter, Bhavesh Mandalia, who was clear about how he saw the film version. I told them right at the start that films which try to be too faithful to the book a are usually doomed. I understood it was a different medium.
How did Netflix and Sudhir Mishra come on board? What made them the right choice for the project?
Sejal and Bhavesh approached Sudhir Mishra to add intellectual heft to what was then a commercial film. When Sudhir agreed to direct it, the film was still meant for theatrical release and the struggle was on to find a good moneybag. Two studios too were interested and talks were on. But then Netflix started building its Indian content and suddenly, one day, Serious Men was being financed by the platform. And if I say, ‘All of us lived happily ever after’ Sejal will throw a shoe at me. I was a close observer of the whole project and I realised everything about making a movie is a struggle; every day there was a new problem. One thing in life I would never want to be is film producer. I would love to write and direct a movie, but producing is a very different sort of talent.
How hard is it to give away something you’ve worked on to another creative voice? Were you anxious about how the film would shape up?
It’s strange: I’m the sort of writer who doesn’t like anyone else adding a comma to my copy even in a journalistic piece. But I was not a pain at all when I had to give away the film rights. Maybe because I knew my readers would understand that a film is a different creation from the book; or maybe because I’ve kept all the non-Hindi rights. I think I’ll make my own version of Serious Men one day, maybe in Tamil.
You’ve co-written a screenplay before, for Love Khichdi (2009). What did that experience teach you about the difference between what works in a book vs what works onscreen?
Anything is possible in a novel; but that is not the case in a film. A film is a more practical expression of a story; so it is much simpler than a novel. When you remove a whole thought process of a character — that is the movie. It’s weird because a novel almost entirely exists to tell you what is going on inside the minds of people while that is the one thing a film doesn’t tell you well.
Given your previous experience, did you consider writing the screenplay for Serious Men too?
At the time when Sejal Shah picked up the rights of the book it was meant to be a commercial film for theatrical release and I thought: Maybe I will screw it up for Sejal if I insist on writing the film. And then when it became a Netflix film I did not want to create any trouble and I thought Bhavesh had a good mind to bring the novel to life. So even though I was very tempted to write the film I stayed out.
Is there something you’re most excited for people to see?
I’m very curious to know if people will like the central character, Ayyan Mani. In the book I had enough ways to make you like him. But in a film he is more naked.