Potential spoilers ahead for ‘The Family Man’.
He is out to save the nation, but can he save his marriage? The question matters deeply in the new Amazon Prime Video web series The Family Man, in which an intelligence officer investigates a terrorist conspiracy even as relations with his wife reach Arctic levels.
Srikant and Suchitra are already over when we meet them. Srikant (Manoj Bajpayee) is an undercover agent in Mumbai who is passing himself off as a government file-pusher. His daughter and son hold him in deep contempt, and his college lecturer wife Suchitra (Priyamani) is close to the point of not caring. There are early signs of the soured marriage – the lack of intimacy between Srikant and Suchitra, their inability to communicate, and the precociousness of their children, who speak rudely, make unreasonable demands, and appear on the verge of delinquency.
Suchitra has better chemistry with her dishy colleague Arvind (Sharad Kelkar), who persuades her to switch jobs and join his new start-up. Arvind is of deeper voice and better comportment than Srikant, so no blame can be attached to Suchitra’s decision to re-examine her vows.
The crumbling marriage proves to be more absorbing than the convoluted geopolitical game that drives the plot. Srikant catches the whiff of an Islamist terrorist conspiracy code-named “Operation Zulfiqar”, which is being orchestrated from “somewhere in Balochistan” by an ISIS terrorist and Pakistani agents and carried out by locals. One of the men pleads his innocence and says he misses his mommy, and Srikant plays along.
A bunch of political-minded Muslim college students appear to be connected to the conspiracy too. “Privacy is a myth, just like democracy,” Srikant intones without the slightest irony, and he sanctions surveillance of the students. Cameras rigged in their hostel rooms without their knowledge appear to provide some clues, but since the first season stretches to 10 episodes and ends on a cliffhanger, Srikant has a long way to go before he unravels the truth.
The Family Man is the most ambitious project yet of Raj and DK, the duo behind the films Go Goa Gone and A Gentleman and the screenplay of 2018’s big hit Stree. The series, which Raj and DK have written with Suman Kumar, has generous lashings of the glib humour for which the filmmakers are known. There are moments in the early episodes when it appears that Raj and DK are sending up the tradecraft genre and not taking this terrorist-hunting business too seriously. Srikant and his team, which includes Talpade (Sharib Hashmi), Pasha (Kishore) and Zoya (Shreya Dhanwanthary), miss major clues and bungle even basic safety protocols. A dreaded terrorist dies an easy death in hospital, and nobody seems any the wiser.
It is sometimes hard to tell whether Srikant is being serious or sardonic. Manoj Bajpayee’s ability to suggest both states initially keeps The Family Man in a midway zone between muscular nationalist thriller and a True Lies-style spoof.
Things get grown-up – and consequently sluggish – after Srikant is sent off to Kashmir. Ostensibly a punishment posting, this is an opportunity for Srikant to further investigate Operation Zulfiqar and flirt with his commanding officer Saloni (Gul Panag), who happens to be an old flame. Boys are always boys in The Family Man. Talpade gives Zoya the once-over when she joins the team, and volunteers to give her “a tour”, which is about as lurid as it sounds.
Saloni puts the leering Srikant in place, and the joke is on him in other ways too. Back home in Mumbai, Suchitra and Arvind find a rhythm missing in her marriage.
Like most Indian web shows, The Family Man is three episodes too long. The long-form treatment works against the handling of the terrorist plot, which takes forever to be resolved and then comes together in a rush. The attempts to explain the roots of Islamist terrorism and the Kashmir autonomy movement come off as naive and ill-informed. Although the series was made before the current crisis in Kashmir, its exploration of militancy in the state only ends up justifying the Centre’s most recent remorselessness.
Lip service is similarly paid to the idea that terrorists are not born but created by circumstances. Ambiguity is introduced, only to be negated by events. Statements that the greater good is important and national safety is needed to boost the economy end up as justifications for the deaths of innocents. Characters who appear to have legitimate motives for their actions are exposed as double-dealers, thus confirming the security establishment’s view that the country is seething with anti-nationals who must be kept in check.
The poor characterisation of the terrorists makes most of them interchangeable, but other characters benefit from sharper writing and greater empathy. Bajpayee’s Srikant is an unlikely and often unlikable hero. Srikant isn’t living a double life as much as he is lying to himself, and Bajpayee’s finely tuned acting brings out this idea in powerful ways.
Priyamani turns out a warm and winning performance as the neglected wife who quietly picks herself up and forges her own path. Sharib Hashmi and Sharad Kelkar stand out in the supporting cast, and Neeraj Madhav is impressive among the lot of bearded traitors wishing ill on India.