Serious Men Movie Review: My favourite men; seriously

Updated: 01 October, 2020 08:19 IST | Mayank Shekhar | Mumbai

Serious Men is based on the novel of the same name, by Manu Joseph - in my opinion, the most unpredictable, therefore original, writer/columnist around.

A still from Serious Men
A still from Serious Men

Serious Men
On: Netflix
Director: Sudhir Mishra
Cast: Nawazuddin Siddiqui, Aakshath Dasi

The science in Serious Men revolves around the possibility of microbes existing beyond the atmosphere. Which could prove, one, that there is life outside earth. And that these microbes in fact are life-threatening to humans, the origin of which has baffled medical science thus far.

You see Indian TV news crews deeply interested/excited about all of this — standing outside the science institute etc, covering the story. And this is the sci-fi portion of the movie, actually. Given that there are indeed life-threatening microbes attacking humans, as we speak, while Indian news television is currently obsessed with recreational smoking habits of movie-stars!

That's life as we know it. No, don't wanna say truth's stranger than fiction and all. But for the fact that certain kinda fiction does make sense of truth better than others. This film is one of them.

At the core of it, is a Bombay/BDD chawl man of Tamilian descent, Ayyan Mani, working as a private assistant (PA) to a scientist (Nassar), at what sounds like the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research.

This Mani man, like there's the first-generation rich, is first-generation educated — pinning his hopes on his next generation, to scale the wall of wealth, and whatever else. In a way that it would seem like an act of love/care — if you don't recognise the obvious narcissism, which is really what all overbearing nurturing is!

Lifting his child like Simba against sunlight that doesn't exist, he's determined to make the world anoint his boy a genius. Now I'm not going to reveal much about this kid character — but the boy (Aakshath Das) playing him, so wholly unaffected on screen, does seem like a wonder performer of sorts!

Between these central parts, and a fine ensemble (Mani's wife, Indira Tiwari, in particular), plays out a reasonably tight, neatly shot, two-hour film, nimbly touching on subjects as diverse as passionate parenting, to Dalit politics — that's no different from all other politics, playing out simultaneously.

The die is cast, or caste, from birth. As are certain aspects of the movie — the fact that this is a subtle, mature satire, rather than LOL comedy of manners (would've enjoyed some of the latter too). That in all its overt simplicity, this is also a complex story — about failure, first; and on the underclass, only later.

The minor advisory being that you're better off entering this, without preconceived expectations of a set-up/pay-off from a suspense-thriller — about a father, his boss, media, other hawks, and the son. The plot is just a device to see a film also for what it's trying to say.

Which, to my mind, is summed up best in the minute/moment where Ayyan Mani models his chawl's Ganpati idol on the Statue of Liberty. Quick to take offense, a fellow dweller deems this as blasphemy. Soon as that guy spells out his concern, Ayyan blasts the shit out of him — mixing his own response with nari shakti, desh bhakti, Rani Laxmibai, walking away unscathed, silencing the crowd at the same time.

Watch the trailer Serious Men:

His son delivers a similar bombast on stuff even he doesn't understand. But because he's loud, he looks convincing, and the crowd is convinced. Look at Ayyan's boy closely — in a suit jacket, well-groomed/gelled hair, wearing square-rimmed glasses… Looks like that nut-job television anchor, who behaves no differently from the President of America. It's all the same: 'Hyper-bol ki lab azaad hain tere!'

Punning on Faiz, because this is a Sudhir Mishra film, whose most loved title still remains the one inspired by Ghalib, Hazaaron Khwahishein Aisi (2005). In what seems like a rather prescient filmography — he made Dharavi (1993), 15 years before Slumdog Millionaire; Bombay gangsta rapchik, Iss Raat Ki Subah Nahin (1996), before Satya (1998); more recently, Inkaar (2013) on workplace sexual dynamics/harassment, half a decade before #MeToo…

I could see Serious Men almost like a psychological treatise of the times. The hero isn't apologetic about his class/caste. He wears it on his sleeve, instead. The world around isn't so easily segregated between old/new-world predators and preys, either. It's all frickin' mixed up. Ambition's a bitch. The only way to get to the top is to work your way around it.

The film is based on the novel of the same name, by Manu Joseph — in my opinion, the most unpredictable, therefore original, writer/columnist around. That originality of take/thought/worldview surely seeps into this movie.

I remember the book primarily as an internalised, urban workplace drama — about a boss, sleeping with a female colleague, another fellow sandwiched between, and petty politics surrounding it all. Had left me deeply disturbed — almost mirroring my own work life at the time!

Although one would've liked even more of it, this outdoorsy, gentle script (by Bhavesh Mandalia) bears much swag. Chiefly, because Nawazuddin Siddiqui essays Ayyan Mani, on whom the film version is entirely based.

Nawaz (Sacred Games; most recently, Raat Akeli Hai) is possibly the best thing to happen to Netflix, outside America — since Narcos, maybe. You can so get used to him.

Yet, this is an absolutely new Nawaz — even from The Lunchbox, which could well have been a similar Bombay character.

Do treat this checklist as a professional disclaimer —Nawaz, Joseph, Mishra… These are absolutely my favourite men — all in one frickin' film. Could I possibly be "unbiased/objective", as it were? Guess not. Did consider not reviewing at all! But that would be taking oneself as seriously as the men Ayyan Mani surveys!

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First Published: 01 October, 2020 07:01 IST

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