Caste is India's original sin, just as slavery and the racism that came with it, is the US's. The ripple effects of those seeds sown long back, a few centuries ago in one case and a few millennia ago in the other, reverberate even today. Caste pervades every aspect of Indian life, from marriage to educational access to jobs to often times literally life and death. Those of us privileged enough to not even notice it as part of our daily existence, cannot even begin to comprehend the outsize influence it, whether that "it" is caste in India or race in the US, has on the people who inhabit it, live it, breathe it and experience it daily.
Serious Men, based on Manu Joseph's 2010 book of the same name, premiered last week on Netflix. It's the story of a Tamil Dalit man Ayyan Mani (Nawazuddin Siddiqui) living in a Mumbai chawl while working at a scientific research institute as assistant to a renowned scientist. He is a street smart guy with enough English skills and chutzpah to aspire to a better station in life than what has been assigned to him at birth by virtue of his caste. As he explains to his pregnant wife Oja (Indira Tiwari) while lounging poolside illicitly at a five star hotel, compared to his father he is 2G. He wants their to-be born son to be 3G so that in turn his kids can become 4G, the definition of which is that they should be able to enjoy their wealth frivolously splashing in a hotel pool. According to him, it takes four generations for the average Joe to get to that stage of careless and carefree affluence. When he sees the same barriers to upward mobility being thrown up to his young son Adi (Aakshath Das), he decides to take matters into his own hands by proving his kid is a child prodigy. That begins an ever increasing spiral that exposes not only societal fault lines and upper class hypocrisy, but also the heavy burden placed on kids by parents vicariously trying to live their dreams thru them.
At a running time just under 2 hours, Serious Men gets its message across with a minimum of distraction, although there are still some tangents and subplots such as that involving a politician and his daughter that could have been made crisper. Directed by Sudhir Mishra who began as a scriptwriter in one of Hindi cinema's finest black comedy satire films Jaane Bhi Do Yaaron (1983), and then became a director making movies like Chameli (2003) and Hazaaron Khwaishein Aisi (2005), it has his signature touch of sympathy for the downtrodden, but here he doesn't put them on a pedestal making poverty a virtue. Rather he shows them to be scrappy and be willing to do what it takes to get ahead, just like the educated higher ups who do the same, albeit in a more sophisticated and subtle manner. The scene where the minister listens to a scientific presentation with zero interest and makes banal religious references to the scientists who have to bite their lip in order to get funding is a telling commentary on that contemporary debate. Any resemblance to various astrological predictions and building of temples that will miraculously put an end to the current pandemic are purely coincidental.
Nawazuddin as Ayyan brings his trademark earnestness to the role. He can switch from sincere and loving to angry and dishonest in a flash as the situation demands. It is a much more layered character than the ones he is famous for, which are gangsters like Faisal in Gangs of Wasseypur (2012) or Gaitonde in Sacred Games (2018), who have a vocabulary where sentences are a string of cuss words punctuated by a regular word for the sake of grammar. It's been a long journey before Wasseypur put him in the national spotlight with his "baap ka, daada ka, bhai ka, sab ka badla lega tera Faisal" - the dialogue line that is for Indian millennials what "main aaj bhi phekey huey paisey nahi uthata" or "mere paas maa hai" or "kitney aadmi the" is for boomers and Gen X. He started in bit roles as the informer in Sarfarosh (1999) and the pickpocket in Munna Bhai M.B.B.S (2003) and it's a hoot to see him now in those roles when one gets a glimpse of them. In this one too, when his son who gets bitten by the fame bug tries to compare himself to Shah Rukh Khan on social media, his acerbic put down "aukaat me reh" is hilarious and cuts to the chase and the bone. The young actor playing his son has also done a great job balancing childhood vulnerability and playing to the gallery.
The line about aukaat, though said in a light hearted context, is actually the heart of the movie. It questions what it means to be assigned a label at birth that one has no control over, and whether one has the means and support structure, or according to many even today, even the right, to overcome it or stay within their aukaat. The serious men of the title is the pejorative term that Ayyan uses to describe the higher ups spending their time on what he caustically calls, in one of the most colorful turns of phrase as, chutiyastic things like space microbes, while he is trying to get the basics like school admissions down here on Earth. It's for all this that Serious Men deserves a serious look.
October 10, 2020