“Life mein 2G se 4G tak pahunchne ke liye, bohot kuch karna padta hai,” says Ayyan Mani to his wife Oja some 15 minutes into Serious Men. He is not wrong. Ayyan Mani, played by the ever-fabulous Nawazuddin Siddiqui, and his wife Oja (Indira Tiwari) have struggled to survive in a system that is built on suppressing the lower caste and class. But Ayyan has dreams; big dreams that will push the oppression up and out, so that his son and future generations can work their way to the top. Directed by Sudhir Mishra, Serious Men is a film inspired by Manu Joseph’s 2010 novel of the same name, and is now available to stream on Netflix. Released on Gandhi Jayanti of this year, Serious Men is an excellent critique of how cancerous the systems of caste and class are to the aspiring middle-class.
Ayyan Mani is the assistant to Acharya, a failing scientist at a government-run research department. Acharya has spent years and huge amounts of money to prove his theory that there is some sort of space microbe that will attack the earth — microscopic aliens. Of course, his research, being most likely false or a scam, is constantly threatened to be de-funded. The pressure of sustaining his science and his livelihood contributes to Acharya’s always horrible mood and the reason behind why he ill-treats his staff, Mani included. Mani has a name for those who treat people like him like shit, who call him names like “idiot,” “knobhead” etc.: Serious Men. Men who have no joys in life and only think about work all the time, in the process treating everyone around them like garbage.
But Ayyan Mani will not allow his son to carry on in his footsteps, being stepped on by higher ranks. No, he wants the best for his son, because he knows it takes 4 generations to really live life in luxury. His son will not be victim to discrimination based on caste, language, religion or any other tool used for oppression. Adi is shown to be a child genius; he spews volumes of photosynthesis and chemistry and maths like a little Einstein, shocking his school teachers and drawing the attention of the media. Everything seems to be looking upward for the Manis, until it’s not. Until we realise that Ayyan’s been forcing Adi to mug up words that “primitive minds” will never understand, and has made him out to be some sort of genius that he is not. Until we realise that Adi is a young, innocent child who has been deprived of a childhood. Until we realise that Adi is victim to a generational system of caste and class-based violence.
Adi, played by Aakshath Das, is supremely skilled and an absolute delight to watch on the big screen. He plays the innocent boy with profound complexity far ahead of his years. Adi proclaims himself to be a genius, but it’s obvious that there’s a sinister secret that’s being hidden. He is a pressure cooker about to erupt at any moment. And when he does, it breaks the audience’s heart, really draws us into the nerve-wracking, tension-fuelled world of the Manis in BDD chawl. Adi’s most heartbreaking moments are those in which his desire to be a child is punished by his need to satisfy his pressurising father. Like when he tells his friend Sayali his secret at a moment of tender childishness, or when he has a meltdown on stage, or towards the end, when his inability to memorise science sends him spiraling on a path of guilt and shame. Moments like these makes the audience want to protect him, to punish Ayyan, to punish the failing education system.
While Nawazuddin Siddiqui and Aakshath Das hold their characters grounded to the story, showing us the very high stakes of being an aspirational middle class, belonging to a lower caste, there are strange loopholes in the narrative. The biggest one being the politician family, the father-daughter duo that feels forced and unnecessary, even. Sanjay Narvekar is Keshav Dhavre, a Dalit neta who, along with his daughter Anuja Dharve (Shweta Basu Prasad), wish to redevelop the BDD chawl. The reasons behind their actions are uncertain; we don’t know if these guys are good politicians or bad, and in a way, this rings true of real-life politicians as well. However, their entry in the film feels forced, convenient for certain scenes or for the need to bring in political power into the plot. They wish to use Adi for their political gain, but their weak backstories make them predictable stock characters.
Ayyan Mani and Oja represent the Tamil community in Mumbai — one that is a highly politicised one. In the 70s, there were political pogroms against Tamils in the city. Language and caste intertwine with highly political results, but it’s difficult for me to believe that the couple is a Tamil one. Nawaz’s Tamil is awkward and not very Marathi-influenced, and while Oja may seem more south Indian, the fact that we don’t see much of her ends up hiding that.
Towards the end of the movie, I was at the edge of my seat. The politicians and Acharya have discovered that Adi is a fraud and Ayyan has been tricking them all along. Adi has a breakdown because of the pressure from his father to mug up science forcefully, and the unbearably high stakes of doing so. Oja is shocked and enraged because she just found out her husband’s years of scheming. The Manis meets Acharya at a gallery and are sitting in front of a photograph of a hunger-stricken mother and son in rural India. This moment is clearly a crucial one, both for the viewer and for the film’s aesthetics, but ended up being as awkward as it was poignant.
At what could be a really splendid cinematic moment, when Ayyan Mani reveals to his boss that he was photographed along with his mother by a white photographer who ended up making millions of dollars out of the poverty and caste oppression that eventually killed Mani’s parents, Acharya’s strange dialogues cut us off. He says “your angst is right but your actions are not.” Such a strange thing to say, to even think of, after looking at a haunting photograph and hearing the horror story behind it by its very model. Acharya behaves absurdly uncharacteristic then, and ends up being the face who saves Adi from forced limelight.
Acharya gives the Manis an out, and they end up in rural Kerala, living the idyllic life of simplicity. Adi and Oja seem happy, but Ayyan’s arrogant, uncomfortable face at the end makes the audience smile and shiver. Another testament to fine acting by Nawazuddin Siddiqui.
Serious Men exposes the plight of “serious” men, but begs the same question that so many Hindi films do: where are the women? Indira Tiwari is striking in her role and I wish there was more of her to see. Oja seems to exist mainly to be Ayyan’s moral compass, or Adi’s source of maternal comfort and family. I wish there was more of her to see. Similarly, Shweta Basu Prasad’s character fits the role of a Dalit female politician who doesn’t let her violent past, or disability, define her — she even says in one scene that she doesn’t want to hear the sob story of a dalit victim of domestic violence. Her character could have been incredible in further pointing out the power of money and politics, but fades away into the background. The women are serious men too, and I wish we got to see more of that.
Serious Men is not just about parental pressure on adolescent children. Its location, BDD chawl, is crucial to representing how lives in Mumbai are intricately woven based on caste, class, religion and language. The politicians are on Ayyan’s side until he can give them what they want; after that, he’s an other, reminding us of the anti-Tamil pogroms of 70s Mumbai. Chawl redevelopment is received with increasing suspicion in the city, especially since its such an economically bipolar space. And the dream of making it in Mumbai, the city of dreams is pursued with a fervent urgency to get away from one’s past, or one’s hometown, in which caste demarcations are explicit. Well, they may be covert in Mumbai, but caste is the unfortunate foundation behind every city system and structure.
Serious Men is sardonic, heartbreaking, absolutely engaging and even makes the audience laugh out loud. Humour is an intelligent tool to drive the point of a film forward, and the dark humour in this movie really has the sinister consequences of caste and class reach us all. Everyone must watch it. The last movie I saw Nawazuddin Siddiqui in was Ghoomketu, and this restored my faith in his role selection. The script is engaging; there is rarely a dull moment. The film moves from interesting to creepy, nerve-wracking to hilarious smoothly. Aakshath Das steals the spotlight.
It is genuinely painful to see Adi under immense pressure and pain, and so many other children who are abused for not receiving high marks or not winning contests. It really does make you question the definition of “child abuse”. There are moments when you despise Ayyan, when you want to view him as an antagonist, but Nawazuddin’s complex understanding of the character will stop you from doing so. You just see him as a person in a world created by Serious Men. And you just see that a serious man is what we all aspire to be.