Creators: Raj Nidimoru, Krishna D.K.
Directors: Suparn Varma, Raj Nidimoru, Krishna D.K.
Writers: Raj-D.K., Suman Kumar
Cast: Manoj Bajpayee, Priyamani, Sharib Hashmi, Samantha Akkineni, Ashlesha Thakur, Vedant Sinha, Ravindra Vijay
Cinematography: Cameron Eric Bryson
Editor: Sumeet Kotian
Streaming on: Amazon Prime Video
A nationalist and a patriot walk into a bar. The nationalist gets drunk and declares the bar his new country. The patriot gets drunk and declares the country his new family. The Family Man is an exceptional anti-superhero franchise that – in the language of their bar brawl – prosecutes the culture responsible for driving the two tipplers to the bottle. Its genre subversions and tonal shifts reflect the moods of an inebriated power struggle in which, no matter who wins, everyone loses. The brawl of Season 1 featured Islamic extremists crossing swords with the Indian security establishment. It ended in a cliffhanger, where the tension of a Lonavala hotel room rivaled that of a deadly nerve-gas attack at a Delhi chemical plant.
The second season is fuller, darker, funnier and wiser. It also learns from the teething problems of its predecessor – evidence of which emerges in a breathtaking final episode, where multiple threads converge with rhythmic clarity. The season takes off shortly after the Delhi incident, with a wounded TASC (Threat Analysis and Surveillance Cell) wing now facing the threat of a brand new South Asian nemesis. The drunken patriot is the same. Manoj Bajpayee returns as Srikant Tiwari, a middle-class secret agent who treats his home as a job – complete with a performative personality – and his job as a homecoming. But the drunken nationalist wears a different face. Undercover Sri Lankan Tamil Rajalakshmi a.k.a Raji (Samantha Akkineni) lurks the lanes of South India waiting – not unlike Srikant – for ‘orders from above’. The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) is not explicitly named, but suggested through the existence of a rebel separatist outfit in exile. Led by a London-based chief named Bhaskaran, Raji and the rebels spend the nine episodes planning a political assassination. The Jaffna shadow looms large over the central conflict, and to the makers’ credit, the show doesn’t shy away from revising the odds of history.
The bar brawl of The Family Man 2 is gin-soaked and gloriously conceived. It’s also surprisingly grown-up, featuring scenes of profound internal turmoil between the show-stopping moments. At points, it’s hard to tell one cultural identity from the other – an illusion mirrored by the protagonist’s titular struggle between the professional and the personal. This inherent vulnerability of the story is what sets this “sequel” apart, in terms of both engagement and entertainment. Srikant was a negligent father and husband in the first season. But he was sure of his work: an unwavering sense of duty aligned with a military idea of patriotism. The failure to ‘preserve’ his family infused in him an intuitive hunger to excel at his job: his love for country was merely collateral damage. It’s why Moosa, the antagonist, saw Srikant as the other side of the same coin – loyalty for both was not a genuine trait but a last-ditch escape.
But Season 2 opens with Srikant working in a dry corporate office. The politicized fallout of the Delhi attack seems to have disillusioned the Man, who has since decided to win back his Family. Srikant has remodeled himself – his conversations are peppered with English, he sounds upbeat, and he is consciously addressing his fractured marriage. But a lie remains his only truth. A distant wife, coupled with an obnoxious young boss, forces Srikant to ditch his 2.0 version. Sick of sporting a ‘Western’ facade, the foul-mouthed spy relapses and rejoins TASC in a huff – but without resolving his disenchantment as a government servant. Consequently, the journey is more complex: Sri slowly finds that his motivation is derived not from the desire to protect his country anymore so much as a desperation to relocate this desire. He is only driven by an adrenaline rush, by an everyman urge to mean something more than formal shirts and modest salaries. As a result, we often see Sri and his allies confronting the moral ambiguity of their roles. We hear questions like: Is all this worth it? Do we make a difference? Government policy decides the revolutionaries from the terrorists, no? Are we protecting a politician or a position?
This awakening – to the star-crossed duality of being a commander in battle but a footsoldier of war – is laced with a melancholy that Bajpayee has owned before. The Sri in Season 2 is his own burning Lanka, bringing to mind the actor’s haunting doomed-dacoit turn in Abhishek Chaubey’s Sonchiriya. His humour is a consequence of his surroundings, but there’s a cynical existentialism about Srikant here that determines the gaze of the series. The single-mindedness of Raji makes for a worthy contrast: Akkineni plays her with such feral focus and agility that her mission becomes an intoxicating cocktail of revenge, justice and honour. One might sense that drifting patriots like Sri almost envy crazed nationalists like Raji and Bhaskaran – specifically for how they lend ‘family’ a collective connotation rather than an individual one. It’s perhaps why the titles of most episodes apply to both sides. For instance, the first one – “Exile” – is about Srikant away from the force as well as the simmering rebels in hiding. “Martyrs” features a key TASC member’s death as well as a rebel’s capture. “Vendetta” settles a personal score between Srikant and the remnants of Mission Zulfiqar (who’re seamlessly integrated into the premise), but also represents the rebels’ vision.
This is where the writing of The Family Man 2 walks a fine tightrope. When the camera is on a person, he or she becomes the hero of their own story. Everyone is right to feel wronged. Raji, a sleeper cell, is introduced in an episode that depicts her as a victim of sexual harassment. You want her to defeat the misogyny of every setting she’s in, even when she’s being chased by the Indians. Ditto for India’s Prime Minister Basu (an uncanny Seema Biswas) – a pointed stand-in for Bengal CM Mamata Banerjee – whose ego displaces a roomful of male subordinates. Ditto for Srikant’s teen daughter Dhriti, who is recklessly reacting to the emotional fatigue of a broken family. It says something, then, that the only humans who don’t feel like a hero are those burdened with being one. The series takes this idea and sprints with it.
In a lesser screenplay, TASC might have joined forces with the rebels to fight the familiar apathy of their employers. (Ek Tha Tiger 2? Phir Bhi Dil Hai Hindustani 2?). But The Family Man 2 stays rooted in the bureaucratic truth of our times. There are no shortcuts. When the police come across a suspicious location, half an episode is centered on their mundane wait for a search warrant. An injured cop is not found “by chance” on the side of a highway; his phone is first tracked down to the man who steals it before the petty thief leads the authorities to the spot. In the process, the series strives to remind us that the gatekeepers of a culture often morph into the pawns they are hired to protect: servile, flawed and besieged with procedural guilt. The only false note features a veteran ex-militant whom Srikant simply cold-calls when his investigation reaches a dead end. It’s too convenient a device, but also upends the espionage-thriller trope with deadpan precision.
The fluid film-making of The Family Man 2 aids its textural ambition. Srikant’s ‘family’ members – Priyamani as the beleaguered wife, a spirited Ashlesha Thakur as the defiant daughter, Sharib Hashmi as the unruly Maharashtrian colleague – lead a stellar supporting cast. The actors playing the Chennai cops, namely Ravindra Vijay as Muthu and Devadarshini as Umayal, elevate the series beyond the sly bantering of the North-South divide. The soundscape, too, is exquisitely detailed. For instance, the first bullet in a late-night stand-off at a Mumbai colony triggers an incessant crescendo of dog-barking. Every ‘location’ has its own ambient design: Sri’s apartment is dotted with the buzz of traffic, the Chennai TASC room sways between the bustle of chairs and soothing transistor music, and the electro-synth background score provides a Civil-War-era glint to the LTTE-powered plot. A ‘good’ rebel in exile is named Deepan, a nod to Jacques Audiard’s Cannes-winning drama about an ex-tiger seeking refuge in France.
Cameron Eric Bryson’s cinematography, in particular, turns visual grammar into a definitive element of the series. It allows the creators to not just repeat the Season 1 trademark of two audacious single-take combat sequences, but also place them in a way that both heightens the viewing experience and amplifies the narrative. What appeared as a novel we-are-not-messing-around gimmick in the first half of Season 1 is now an astute measure of audience perception. Midway through, with no sign of the technical wizardry, I stopped anticipating the set-pieces. After all, it’s not magic if you expect it. Almost on cue, the second half of Season 2 opens with a frenetic one-take shootout at a remote police station. But it’s the second one – on an abandoned airstrip – that really got my juices flowing. The timing is so clever that the realization of the shot happening is akin to hearing your favourite WWE wrestler’s theme music disrupt the dying seconds of Monday Night Raw.
As the camera slid between bullets, haystacks, cars and explosions without breaking stride, I couldn’t help but notice the carefully choreographed bodies. The thrill of watching long takes is rooted in the fear of the craft collapsing. A tiny misstep seems just around the corner. There is lyrical symmetry to be found, then, in a shot that involves warriors who move with the tenacity of humans afraid to fail. The stakes – both on and off screen – are sky-high. Their success is incidental, and only happens to be the difference between life and death. The Family Man 2 nails this big picture through the vacuum of several smaller ones. It transforms irony into an artform. Nationalists and patriots can keep walking into bars. But only in the voice of creators like Raj & DK does this joke last long enough to raise the bar.