Serious Men
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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

Serious Men, the award-winning novel by Manu Joseph, has some exquisitely cruel observations. Early in the story, the protagonist Ayyan Mani deliberates ‘the secret moustaches of women,” and “the terrible green freshness when they have been newly removed with a thread.” Ayyan himself is described as “a dark, tidy man but somehow inexpensive.”

The book, published in 2010, is an unforgiving satire on contemporary India – a twisted tale of ambition, fraud, caste, class, celebrity, infidelity, politics and paternal love.  Director Sudhir Mishra and writers Bhavesh Mandalia, Abhijeet Khuman, Nikhil Nair and Niren Bhatt, reduce the sting of the book. The result is a drama with a less curdled view of humanity. The film is designed to make you question but not to make you uncomfortable. It veers between sharp and sagging but ultimately Nawazuddin Siddiqui and the terrific child actor Aakshath Das steer the story to a satisfying close.

Ayyan is a fascinating creation. He’s a bright man, keenly aware of his place in the world. He’s the son of a sweeper, living in a chawl, who works at a prestigious science institute. One of Ayyan’s most acerbic conclusions is that it takes four generations to be able to sit by a pool and do nothing. As he explains to his wife – they are 2G – second generation. Educated but unable to enjoy themselves. Their son Adi will be one step ahead with a corporate job and eventually Adi’s children – the fourth generation – will have everything they desire. Ayyan is determined to accelerate this evolution. He teaches himself English and then uses it to penetrate the rarefied spaces of the upper-class, including fancy five-star hotels. Fueled by a desperate desire to be more and have more, Ayyan schemes and furiously manipulates everyone around him – from his neighbor, who is a peon at the institute, to his boss, the venerated space scientist Arvind Acharya, to his 10-year-old son, Adi.

Which doesn’t make Ayyan a villain because everyone else, irrespective of status and wealth, is also hustling. A wily politician and his US-returned daughter use Ayyan and Adi to push through their massive redevelopment project. Acharya wants glory by finding microscopic aliens. Even the principal of Adi’s school, a nun, tries to hard-sell Christianity to the family. Basically, everything is for sale – including suffering. At one point, Adi is posing for cameras, holding a sign that reads: 100 percent Shuddh Dalit. In one of the funniest scenes in the film, Ayyan masterfully plays the caste-card in Adi’s school. He calls himself low caste and when the administrator he is speaking to recoils awkwardly, Ayyan cheekily says: You can’t say it but I can say it. In a single line, he exposes the prejudice being cloaked by civility. It’s deliciously wicked.

Ayyan’s barbed voice-over propels the narrative. His vocabulary, which includes the wonderful fusion word chutiastic, is dazzling but some of the dialogue is awkward

The plot differs significantly from the novel. Acharya’s extramarital affair with a colleague, which was a turning point in the book, is reduced here to a footnote. The ending is changed and characters are added. Not all the alterations work. The weakest is the father-daughter politician duo. She gets a rudimentary backstory but neither has depth. Ayyan’s barbed voice-over propels the narrative. His vocabulary, which includes the wonderful fusion word chutiastic, is dazzling but some of the dialogue is awkward. The emotional core of the film is a lengthy, poignant conversation between Acharya and Ayyan in an art gallery. At the end of which, Acharya says: Your angst is right but your actions are not. Who speaks like that?

Sudhir and his writers bung in twists, which complicate the plot but don’t further the film – I couldn’t figure out the necessity of a thread involving the neighbor and his daughter. But what keeps Serious Men on track is the fraught relationship between Ayyan and Adi. The film veers slightly into Breathe-series territory – how far would you go for your child? The cynical scheming in Manu’s book is replaced by the tortured grief of a father who only wants a better life for his son. And who can grudge him that?

Ayyan is duplicitous and downright awful but Nawazuddin Siddiqui doesn’t allow us to judge him

Especially when he is played with such full-bodied delight by Nawazuddin Siddiqui. Ayyan is duplicitous and downright awful but Nawazuddin doesn’t allow us to judge him. Ayyan is simply a product of the grotesque world we live in. Watch Nawazuddin’s controlled expressions in the art gallery scene, in which he recounts his past. The horror hits home. Aakshath also does the heavy lifting. He doesn’t overplay Adi’s trauma, which makes it more heartbreaking. Nassar effortlessly becomes Acharya, the voice of reason and authority. And Indira Tiwari as Ayyan’s wife Oja, is well-cast. There is a wisdom and weariness on her face – she’s smart enough to understand that her husband isn’t always smart.

Looming large over these characters is the BDD Chawl – 15,000 people crammed into 21 blocks. The chawl is a concrete embodiment of all that traps Ayyan, his family and everyone who lives there – caste, education, money, opportunities. DOP Alexander Surkala captures the claustrophobia of the one-room tenements but he also gives the spaces a dream-like quality. In one scene, Ayyan, frustrated and furious, frees the birds caged on the common terrace of the chawl. But unlike them, he must do much more to take flight.

In Serious Men, Sudhir finds the sweet spot between intricacy, starkness and emotion. I think there is material here for a sequel in which Ayyan Mani runs the world. I have no doubt that he can.

You can watch Serious Men on Netflix India on October 2.

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