Directors: Raj Nidimoru & Krishna D.K.
Cast: Manoj Bajpayee, Sharib Hashmi, Priyamani, Neeraj Madhav
Streaming on: Amazon Prime Video
In The Family Man, Manoj Bajpayee plays Srikant Tiwari, an undercover analyst in the Threat Analysis and Surveillance Cell (TASC) of the National Investigative Agency (NIA). He has solved cases and headed secret missions. His latest begins with a gang of Malayali ISIS recruits apprehended off the Kochi coast. He suspects they're onto something big. One of the posters rightly shows him with a gun in one hand…and a bag of vegetables in the other.
The gun side of the 10-episode series is punctuated by two standout action sequences – both night-time single-take scenes that start inside vehicles before expanding into suspenseful shootouts. The shots aren't gimmicks; there is a circularity to them, because the hunters in one become the hunted in the next. The first one involves TASC agents thwarting a potential terrorist attack, after which the camera follows the only survivor into an abandoned mill compound. The second one is a superbly choreographed 13-minute take that involves terrorists breaking into a secure hospital, key character deaths spanning multiple floors and even hand-to-hand combat. The remarkable aspect about the 'gun side' of the show is channelled through these two scenes – both lead to important plot points, the action is far from stylish, and it's more adrenaline and nerves than suave suit-wearing assassins.
Yet, it's the 'bag of vegetables' side of the show that presents its most nerve-wracking sequence. Srikant is away in Afghanistan tailing a crucial lead – but his journey is intercut with events unfolding at his modest Chembur home. His wife Suchi (a quietly dignified Priyamani) is in danger of straying on a work trip, his daughter sneaks out to a wild party, while the son, home alone, locates the father's hidden gun in the house. The tension is thick, mainly because this is the closest the "Family" comes to meeting the "Man". This conceit – what we call 'double-life' is the spy-movie genre – feels far more real in The Family Man, largely due to Bajpayee's perceptive performance, but also a two-paced narrative with the kind of instinctive lingo (by Stree dialogue-writer Sumit Arora) that compliments the actor's inherent everyman-ness. One side of the narrative thrives on physical pace, and the other, on slow-burning emotional pace.
Note that Bajpayee, one of Hindi cinema's finest, is characterized by a perpetual look of wry exasperation on his face – almost as if he were an artist surrounded by so much mediocrity that he is forced to suppress his talent. This 'look' – of explosive ordinariness – is what makes the darkest of circumstances appear funny when his characters react to them. Even the chastest of Hindi cuss words sound heartfelt, lyrical almost, when they come from his mouth.
What this show cleverly does is fashion a protagonist with exactly the same predicament as the actor. Sri is a middle-class man – men like him love coming home after an average workday and inflating their status by boasting about office at the dinner table. But Srikant doesn't have that luxury. His position must remain confidential; his family thinks he is just an over-loyal government servant who pushes files all day. As a result, Sri must pretend to be an ordinary 'loser' for them. Lies are woven into the very fabric of his relationship with them. He is essentially a storyteller by nature, which perhaps explains why he's so adept at making up lofty tales about dead mothers and suicidal colleagues when put on the spot. His reality is an alibi. This turns Sri into a typically hypocritical patriot, the kind woke millennials tend to detest – he never practices what he preaches, scolds his kids for swearing but swears like a sailor at work, taunts their junk-food habits but can't live without his own vada-pavs, cigarettes and quarter-bar sessions. His red-alert calls interrupt what would otherwise be considered serious family matters – a school-principal meeting, a health checkup, a son's birthday party.
But Sri is denied of the most primal instinct of Indian masculinity: validation. You can sense that he is aching to condescend on the civilians he protects – especially in a scene where his tipsy brother taunts him for chasing nationalism over money. In this context, Bajpayee excels in a lovely moment: He saves his daughter from being suspended by heroically driving away a BMC officer from her school. This is the first time Sri can actually display his coolness – he 'performs' it with glee, and then listens like an excited child when the daughter narrates it to her mother the next morning. He is being praised, at long last. For a split second, we see glimpses of the swagger otherwise limited to the TASC headquarters.
So much of Bajpayee's understanding of Sri informs his chemistry with the supporting actors: Sharib Hashmi, in his best role since Filmistaan, is excellent as Sri's very Maharashtrian sidekick. Neeraj Madhav in particular, as Moosa, the jittery Malayali engineer captured by the force, does an impressive job with the ambiguous body language of his character. In him, perhaps Sri senses a kindred soul – life, for both, is the ultimate stage. Not everything works though: Some of the Balochistan-ISIS portions featuring a Pakistani agent are a bit clumsy. The 'non-Indian' character writing looks out of depth, and the actors, fairly theatrical.
But it's in the smaller – and uncompromising – details of The Family Man that we sense how director-duo Raj & Krish (Shor in the City, Go Goa Gone, Happy Ending) can transcend their 'quirky' reputation if given the leeway.
But it's in the smaller – and uncompromising – details of The Family Man that we sense how director-duo Raj & D.K. (Shor in the City, Go Goa Gone, Happy Ending) can transcend their 'quirky' reputation if given the leeway. Take the end credit music: Each episode is rounded off with indie rock tracks whose regionality reflects the cultural theme of that episode. In a way, it suggests that these are perhaps the tracks that the featured characters listen to in their spare time. For instance, hard-rock songs by Kerala band Thaikkudam Bridge round off last shots of Moosa engaging the plot. The comparatively urban first few episodes are rounded off by titles like Banjara and Khudi (by a Delhi band). The Srinagar episodes are followed by rejigged Kashmiri folk songs. The first and last episodes are the only ones featuring the original Family Man song ("Dega Jaan").
Moreover, Sri's redemption arc as an agent is scripted in a way that directly integrates the current-ness of our fragile socio-political landscape into the show. One episode ends with a Muslim college boy being beaten up for not standing during the pre-movie national anthem. Another begins with two Muslim meat transporters being lynched by violent Hindu cow activists. A subplot involves the accidental killing of innocent 'terrorist-like' protestors. News channels feature bigoted politicians slandering the minorities. Sri's Kashmiri colleague (Gul Panag) speaks about how the army uses politics as an excuse to shut down basic freedoms (internet, phone lines) of the locals – all this while waiting morosely at a checkpost.
It's this penchant to slip in serious discourse during the most casual moments that makes The Family Man a persuasive reflection of everyday life despite being a "spy series". Towards the end, after two terrorists quietly press a few buttons, one of them wonders if this is all there is to their whole mission: "It feels like we didn't do much; an explosion or two would have helped". His line pretty much sums up a show that engages precisely because it – and its human hero – commonizes the terms of engagement. Sure, the spy saves the day…but who will save him at night?