From the creators of the hilarious and quirky horror comedy films like Go Goa Gone and Stree, we are given The Family Man on Amazon Prime video, one of India’s very first homegrown web shows of its kind. Raj and DK are a writer-director duo that tread the fine line of films that can otherwise very easily go wrong, but here they don’t. Suman Kumar and Sumit Arora, along with the duo, bring to us this show, first and foremost a story of a middle class man with middle class problems who just happens to be a spy. It is not the James Bond universe. Quite the contrary, in fact and how delightful that is. The show, spread across ten episodes, follows a linear structure and is an action thriller comedy, very close to home a style for the creators and a line they walk so gracefully. A word of caution before you read further, that though I have avoided revealing much of the intricacies of the show, some of what I have written in the following paragraphs could be deemed as “spoilers”.
The show follows a middle class man and his middle class family where he is busy trying to save the world, the country and his own bank balance as an undercover spy. This and more while keeping it all a secret from his wife who feels so distant from him, naturally, that she can’t foresee the grave mistake she will make with a colleague who at first seems only like a helping hand. His children are sassy, snarky and a nightmare, finding their way through a tough adolescence. There are cross-country terrorists and people with political vendettas and a lust for power and money who want to watch the world burn for their own gains. There is friendship, love, loss and redemption. There are old lovers and hopeful endings while many lives are lost and a prophecy of more that could be gone. The pan South Asia feeling is introduced quickly, dusty, sunny terrains as we skip from Mumbai to New Delhi to Baluchistan then Syria and beyond. The cramped, frustrating and ugly reality of life in Mumbai, a Mumbai of heat, poverty, slums and decay, remains a reality and very far from the “city of dreams”. The universe of this spy, Srikant, is established quickly. A small unassuming home that gets by, an educated and tolerant wife, children who can be bribed and who bully the father hilariously. It is a home we all have seen and known before. It is familiar yet offers space for subversion and escalation. Srikant is funny, he loves his family and he loves his job. He is a simple man with simple needs and lives accordingly. It makes you think, could the next guy you meet at the vada pav stall really be a spy? Perhaps.
The show is extremely political in nature. The seriousness of the themes that the show deals range from Islamic terrorism and fundamentalism, mental health issues, violence in India in the name of protecting cows and mob lynching and also the home grown loving tussle between languages like Hindi and Tamil, which are dealt with immense sensitivity and creativity. I especially enjoyed how Srikant from UP has a rigid mother who insists on Hindi with annoyance while feigning sweetness while Suchitra, his wife, is a Tamilian who has a father who with the same attitude champions for Tamil at home. Mixed marriage homes are always the best, aren’t they? One never gets bored. The show also bravely openly talks about menstruation and normalising “periods”. Women bleed once a month for a few days, what’s the big deal, asks Dhriti, Srikant’s daughter, to her father and younger brother who awkwardly fumble with a packet of sanitary napkins in a supermarket. Another scene, where Talpade and Srikant try to decipher if Srikant’s marriage is in danger or not by the virtue of what kind of emojis her male colleague has sent her on text, is hilarious and true of our times. The scene regarding MP Deshpande’s party is a strangely painful one. The confusion created by both sides of the coin, and everyone drawing arms, leads to tragedy round the table.
There are no winners. Communal tensions and the atmosphere of hatred in our society leads to distrust, is the point driven home. The scene post the discovery of MP Deshpande being a target is choreographed with beauty and creates an intense atmosphere of despair. It is when that scene ends, that a convoluted helplessness settled into me. I almost watched the last two minutes of that scene with one eye closed, not because it was gory but because it’s heart wrenching. In the scene immediately after we see Srikant at home, hiding just how terrible his night was, and the treatment meted to him by his wife and the world become so evident. His being middle class and being viewed as a failure in his own eyes becomes apparent. He feels defeated. His pain and frustration at being misunderstood and not appreciated is no longer comedic, but it breaks your heart. The story line that follows Kareem’s girlfriend receiving a text message from her dead boyfriend’s phone that reads “ink”, which then leads her to mostly unravel a large conspiracy behind his wrongful death, is one the more unbelievable and unexciting parts of the story. I felt, while watching the show, that the treatment of that story line remained immature and too far-fetched.
The show tries to position itself neutrally, with a sympathetic gaze towards and against the system. It tries hard to walk an objective line, being critical of all extremities and wrong doings, which is something it is able to achieve to a great extent. To break the monotony and not appear preachy, comedic relief is used in small doses. The show deals with women trying to break away from confined spaces and find their inner selves in the characters of Dhriti and Suchitra, who goof up and change along the way, while in Srikant we have a hard working simple man, who is forced to keep secrets from his family for the sake of his professional duty and how under appreciated, underpaid and undervalued the true backbone of this country is. We are quick to celebrate actors, models and sportspeople and it has become the trend lately to give a little leftover attention to the army when we can spare it, but do we truly value all the people, beyond using them for our jingoism, including the armed forces, because of whom we are able to sleep safely at night? The show throws light on the heartbreaking reality of these matters and how justice is not done in terms of true appreciation, monetary and social, for the people that deserve it.
The humour of his personal life, failing marriage and ill health add to not just this story but to the idea of a subverted spy genre in itself. We do not associate these perceived weaknesses to the men in black usually, but Srikant is just going through it all. His interactions with his doctor and constantly smoking throughout the show when having been told not to is a trope that make one even more sympathetic towards him. Talpade, a little sleazy and mostly sensible, plays an archetypical sidekick who doesn’t have much of a personal storyline in the show and is just the “best friend/ confidant” character, as sidekicks usually are, yet the character is loveable and possess emotional maturity, security and sensitivity that even sometimes Srikant lacks.
One feels for Suchitra, trying to quit a job that doesn’t excite her to pursue a thankless career in business. Her story is the only even remote cliché. She finds excitement in marketing pitches and she blindly lies to her husband without pondering too much on why. Her character is likeable for a minute but monotone and predictable. She felt more like a device than a well-rounded individual. Perhaps, had she made wiser, more independent and honest choices, the point of her character would’ve been clearer. For a wife that complains a lot about communication, she isn’t especially emotionally available nor is she very good at communicating. Her story was the least enjoyable to me. While her story takes unexciting and uninspiring turns, it is Srikant’s journey, which evolves from being just a journey into the depths of Pakistan on an undercover mission to an honest and personal quest for redemption. A journey to right his wrongs and rid him of guilt while fulfilling his duty.
Religious undertones of didactic nature and lessons of morality very early make an appearance and are ridiculed. Dhriti’s strict convent schoolteacher is only the beginning of religious insanity that later takes over the story in the form of Islamic fundamentalism and terrorism along with the homegrown violence of Hindutva. The rhetoric and positioning of Pakistan and certain ideologies from across the border are shown with painful honesty. It is blood boiling, ugly and scary. It drives the point of communal stupidity and insecurity well. It breaks my heart to believe how much joy certain people can feel at the death of another. It is shameful.
The first episode itself establishes quickly the work life dynamic of Zoya, Talpade, Srikant and the various other members of this super secret government organization that fights bad guys. The interrogation scene between a terrorist and Srikant very early on in the show establish how one is to not be fooled by this mans simplicity, but to revel in how talented at his job he truly is. Manoj Bajpayee from the get go owns the screen and wears the characters reality and tensions like a second skin, as do Sharib Hashmi and the others. The same goes for the other cast members of the show, especially the actors playing the bad guys. The good guys are the good guys with conviction but it is the antagonists of the show that really drive the story through the ten episodes and are convincingly terrifying and controlled that my palms were sweating with anxiety. Neeraj Madhav and Shahab Ali are so ruthless as Moosa and Sajid, the ruthless terrorists that it is almost difficult to believe they’re only acting. The growing closeness between a seemingly harmless Moosa and a Christian nurse who looks after him at first seems like a reaffirming reality where we see that love knows no hatred and a hardcore fundamentalist can also be converted to humanism through affection, but boy oh boy, how wrong are we. What seems at first a beautiful love story turns to a nightmare very quickly.
Also, much like Delhi Crime even The Family Man is quick to highlight the shortcomings of the government in providing their workers with the necessary equipment and resources. We have a man attempting to diffuse a bomb with his safety suit torn at the arm. He jokingly comments on it but I cringed at the scene. The first three episodes are slower in comparison to the seven that follow and the writing can at times feel forced, repetitive and explicit, as if everything was being spelt out in big bold letters for the viewers. It is in the first three episodes that the writing falters a little and as a viewer one could easily lose interest, but the following episodes make up for it. In episode four and five that the story picks up pace and the build up begin moving to revelations and conclusions. It is after episode eight that one begins to question everything the story has told us so far. The audience is kept as much in the dark as are the protagonists of the show. The threat of a nerve gas attack on New Delhi gave me personal anxiety and made me sick to my stomach to think of a home I love so much destroyed. What would it mean for our loved ones, to not even know when the end was coming, at the hands of some barbaric delusional monsters who ultimately end themselves in their own hatred?
The tension created in the last episode is palpable, the action choreographed very well. Sajid, Moosa and the drive through the night in a small red car that they take during which occurs a fight sequence unlike most others I’ve seen before. The violence of the fight remains difficult yet cathartic to watch. It is a clear indication that the end is near.
The show ends on a hopeless and terrifying note, making one yearn to see and know what comes next. The show comes full circle and beyond in its ten episodes and I will be waiting with baited breath for whatever is to come next in this cinematic world of terror and normalcy. There has been close to no other work in the Hindi television or film history that has dealt with such a multitude of themes and characters and that too, with such honesty, flawless acting for the most part and intricate writing. The show is worth your time not just as a public service announcement but as first class entertainment. The Family Man is binge worthy and more.
Disclaimer: This article has not been written by Film Companion’s editorial team.