Director – Sudhir Mishra
Cast – Nawazuddin Siddiqui, Aakshath Das, Shweta Basu Prasad, Nasser, Indira Tiwari
While Netflix India has been busy projecting Radhika Apte as some sort of mascot, it should really have been paying attention to Nawazuddin Siddiqui, an actor who has consistently delivered top-tier content for the streamer. His latest, Serious Men, completes a hat-trick of Netflix hits for the actor, after Sacred Games and Raat Akeli Hai. More of this, please.
Based on a novel by Manu Joseph, the film tells the story of Ayyan Mani, a Dalit personal assistant to a Brahmin scientist. After a lifetime of being called names such as ‘moron’ and ‘imbecile’, he decides to channel his anger at the world by conning it. Ayyan begins a journey of upward social mobility by convincing everybody that his 10-year-old son is, in fact, a genius.
Watch the Serious Men trailer here
It’s interesting to observe how director Sudhir Mishra’s perception of the common man has changed since Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro in 1983. While the two protagonists of that film were naive do-gooders with modest ambitions, the following four decades have made the common man angrier, it would seem, deserving of an equally enraged movie.
Ayyan is a complicated fellow. On one hand, his fury is justified — he has been systematically oppressed by a nation that would prefer he remain at his socio-economic station — but on the other, he is hard to like. Serious Men is, in many ways, a jail-break movie. Ayyan is trapped in the metaphorical prison of Mumbai, the towering high-rises surrounding his chawl like bars on a cell.
As wickedly funny as the film is, and as perversely enjoyable Ayyan’s schemes are to watch, Serious Men would not have worked if there had not been a collective rage directed at the establishment. It’s a movie that captures what it is like to live in India, circa 2020. It’s a time capsule that, like so many satirical movies that were released in the post-Emergency era, captures the mood of the nation.
This is a stunning film, one of those rare experiences where it seems as if every department — costumes, sound, lighting — is in a jazz-like groove. This is ironic, considering how the film is also about how everybody these days seems to exist in echo-chambers.
While bigger stars boast about physical transformations and surviving six-month boot camps, Nawaz effortlessly slips into his characters without so much as a change in hairstyle. How he is able to seemingly alter his physical stature, simply through body language, continues to baffle me. Here is a man who is neither diminutive nor imposing, but through sheer performance can convincingly pull off both.
Serious Men gives Nawaz the opportunity to exercise both the submissive and the dominant aspects of Ayyan’s personality. That’s the thing about class structures — you’re rarely at the top or at the bottom. There is always someone above you, waiting to pounce, and someone below, prepared to be pounced at.
It takes four generations, Ayyan sermonizes to his wife in an early scene, for a man to summit the social ladder. He tells her that they belong to the second generation, which he likes to call ‘2G’. It is a generation that is incapable of having a good time. Their child will belong to the third generation — highly educated and capable of pondering life’s bigger questions, like why some condoms have dots on them. And his child, Ayyan’s grandchild, will have nothing to work for, and indeed, no reason to work.
But the odds, Ayyan realises, are stacked against him. Society has set up roadblocks around every corner for men like Ayyan, almost deliberately, it seems. And so, Ayyan figures, he must take short cuts. Why must he play by the rules of a system that values neither him nor his son?
Serious Men is also a critique of the broken Indian education system, as rote as the curriculum it prescribes, and a takedown of that age-old Indian tendency of parents projecting their unfulfilled dreams upon their children. After a point, it seems like Ayyan isn’t continuing his grand con for the sake of his son’s future, but to vent out his own frustrations. It’s a tricky tightrope to walk. One false step and Ayyan becomes irredeemable.
But Mishra and his team of four writers don’t put a foot wrong. In an industry that routinely finds it difficult to produce tonally consistent films, and often views poverty through a romanticised lens, Serious Men is sharp from start to finish.