Director: Sudhir Mishra
Writers: Niren Bhatt, Abhijeet Khuman, Bhavesh Mandalia, Nikhil Nair
Cast: Nawazuddin Siddiqui, Indira Tiwari, Aakshath Das
Cinematographer: Alexander Surkala
Editor: Atanu Mukherjee
Streaming on: Netflix
"Underdog" is a term invented by storytellers to romanticize strife. It is inherently derisive, reducing human condition to a narrative concept. It is also only used by those in a position of privilege – emotional, economic, intellectual, cultural – to describe those who are not. In a way, it's an all-purpose slur. Cinema further stigmatizes the term by limiting its occupants to compassionate arcs: heroism, redemption, defiance, victory. This gaze demands wish-fulfillment over realism, blood over flesh and blood – like Roman Kings pitting slaves against lions in the hope of a feel-good ending. But Sudhir Mishra's Serious Men, based on Manu Joseph's satirical 2010 novel, is a "feel-bad underdog" film. Its protagonist is an underdog who decides to exploit the world's sympathetic perception of an underdog. As a result, he plays both the storyteller and the story. He plays both the villain (of faith) and the hero (of fate). Think Bong Joon-ho's Parasite but with Mumbai as the glass home.
Ayyan Mani (Nawazuddin Siddiqui) is a Dalit man all too aware that his "status" is a hashtag to the English-speaking elite of urban India. So he sets out to make this hashtag trend: He cons the world into believing that his 10-year-old son, Adi, is a mathematical prodigy. Most child artists are trained to perform on stage, but Adi's entire life is a performance. He is tutored in the art of whataboutery ("I can't deal with primitive minds like you"). He is championed as a slumdog hope: his Instagram handle is AdiMani_ShuddhDalit. He is a walking encyclopedia of random factoids and phrases. Everyone wants a piece of the young underdog. The audacity of this hustle raises the question: When most marginalized groups are conditioned to lash out at their oppressors, why is the father, Ayyan, so different? Why is his plan so cerebral? Why does his personality evoke the bitterness of a man who has spent his life scrolling through – and trolling – the Twitter timelines of armchair liberals.
The answer, of course, is in the film's wry setting. The lowly but sassy Ayyan Mani has spent years observing the idiosyncrasies of Brahmin elitism. He works at the epicenter of upper-caste supremacy – the National Institute of Fundamental Research – as a personal assistant to Dr. Acharya (Nassar), a celebrated Tamilian scientist. Ayyan understands their double standards. He understands that their eccentricities are often a smokescreen for failure. He understands that when arrogance isn't understood, it's called genius. Everything about Ayyan leads us to believe that he is a prototypical father from hell who searches for his lost dreams through his son – and that his son is his favourite project.
But what distinguishes Ayyan is the fact that Indian society – its deep-set prejudices and pretensions – is his real project; Adi is just a medium, a social experiment, for him to mock the grammar of privilege. For instance, Adi is conceived on the night his father ponders about a song whose lyrics he never understood ("Such songs suit every situation"). Adi's birth, too, occurs while his father is busy scamming the staff of a 7-star hotel. A crucial scene concerning Adi's future takes place in an art gallery: a space that's notoriously filled with people who thoughtfully scratch their chins to adore things beyond their level of comprehension. In many ways, it reflects the effect Adi – Ayyan's flawed work of art – has on the public. They want to celebrate him, not for what he stands for but for what it says about them if they don't.
So many of Nawazuddin Siddiqui's roles hinge on an inbuilt inferiority complex – his characters' sardonic vibes often hide a madness that comes from needing to earn their spaces. In Serious Men, Siddiqui combines all his Mumbais of ambition
The filmmaking reiterates this. When we see Adi early on, he is presented in the form of a 'genius trope'. He dreamily looks out the classroom window, lost in thought, then marvels at the fish in an aquarium – while the flowy background score evokes the image of a beautiful mind. It's how we tend to imagine gifted people because of the stories we see. It's almost as if the father's storytelling is so airtight that he briefly tricks the film into aiding his con. There are however some unsubtle visual metaphors – the incessant Ambedkar cutaways, the dark and white pigeons in a cage, Ayyan tutoring Adi while we see them reflected (against the sky) in muddy puddles.
But some of the film's best scenes feature Ayyan's sarcastic scrutiny of his surroundings. He speaks in broken Tamil to piss off his boss, describes their bureaucratic quirks ("they call money 'funds'") in a dismissive tone, and gossips about their affairs with the peons. He narrates to us in a conspiratorial voice, urging us to chuckle at them like he does. You can almost sense him rolling his eyes and breaking the fourth wall while sitting in a self-righteous school principal's office. At one point, he casually psycho-analyzes a man who is contemplating suicide: He has come here to jump because he wants to figure out the "meaning of life". Yet his teasing isn't spiteful, it's a front for envy – like the adolescent boy who resorts to making fun of the girl he likes. He derides them because he cannot be them.
Serious Men has the meta advantage of relying on a child who is already performing through the lens of an adult
A lot of the subtext is unfilmable, but here's where the performances come in. It's always tricky with child-centric films, especially because young characters are written by adults who approximate the feeling of youth. But Serious Men has the meta advantage of relying on a child who is already performing through the lens of an adult. Adi is meant to sound stilted and unnatural; he has literally memorized his lines. Aakshath Das is tailor-made for the role. As is Nawazuddin Siddiqui. So many of Siddiqui's roles hinge on an inbuilt inferiority complex – his characters' sardonic vibes often hide a madness that comes from needing to earn their spaces. In Serious Men, Siddiqui combines all his Mumbais of ambition – and teases our reading of them. At the Institute, he is The Lunchbox. As a father and big-city migrant, he is equal parts Photograph and Miss Lovely. As an orator, he is part Thackeray and part Krantiveer's Nana Patekar. In a scene on a terrace overlooking the city, he gently threatens someone to preserve Adi's secret. His shark-circling is Raman Raghav 2.0 here, and we expect the worst, which in turn amplifies the suspense of the moment. (The rainfall that follows is unnecessary, but Sudhir Mishra is known to overstate a metropolis).
Ayyan is also the spiritual cousin of Raghubir Yadav's memorable debut in Massey Sahib – a clerk in British India so desperate to impress his Colonial rulers that he comes unhinged with his methods. Even when Serious Men resolves its conflict too easily, Siddiqui's turn urges us to embrace the psychological fragility of the premise. It carries the ambiguity of a man who might also be using his Dalit identity – and the lack of fair opportunity – as an excuse to justify his lack of talent. And it reminds us that, if "underdog" is a term invented by storytellers to romanticize strife, "privilege" is a condition used by stories to trivialize life.
Serious Men releases on Netflix India on October 2.