Sudhir Mishra’s new film Serious Men revolves around Ayyan Mani (Nawazuddin Siddiqui), a personal assistant at a scientific research facility in Mumbai. Ayyan plans an elaborate scheme to falsely portray his son Adi (Aakshath Das) as a prodigy to improve the boy’s prospects.
Key characters include Ayyan’s wife (Indira Tiwari), his boss Acharya (Nassar) and Shweta Basu Prasad as a politician. The Netflix original film will be out on October 2.
Serious Men is adapted from Manu Joseph’s 2010 novel of the same name. In the novel, Ayyan Mani is a Dalit from Tamil Nadu. His Brahmin boss Acharya antagonises his colleagues with his contrarian views on science while pursuing an affair with his assistant. The key themes include Ayyan’s observations about Brahminism and Acharya’s questioning of conventional scientific beliefs.
The screen adaptation plays out as a father-son story, with key events serving as a “metaphor that goes beyond caste politics”, Mishra told Scroll.in. “The movie is gentler than the book and its cruelty is not there. Acharya exists in the movie inasmuch as he affects Ayyan. The background characters of the novel are there, but their stories are only hinted at.”
Siddiqui said that although he formed a “personal connection” with Ayyan, he could not connect with his methods. “Ayyan had the angst about seeing where his father and forefathers came from,” Siddiqui told Scroll.in. “He is educated and he wants his son to take a leap, thinking my son will do what I couldn’t. Having come from a small village myself, I also dreamed of such a two-generation leap in my life. But I couldn’t connect to the way Ayyan goes about it, trying to win by hook or by crook.” Excerpts from an interview.
Sudhir, what attracted you to ‘Serious Men’?
The father-son relationship, and how parents decide things for children. It’s very Indian. And how education is a way out of poverty in India, a lot like football in Brazil. I was drawn to the background of Ayyan Mani, how he sees life, how he thinks for his child, what he learns from Acharya, how he hates him and yet admires him. The dynamic between the scientist and the clerk was interesting. What is the failure in our ideas of education and science is where the film reaches in the end.
How does the film compare with Manu Joseph’s book?
Screenwriter Bhavesh Mandalia and producer Sejal Shah came to me with the book, asking if I would make the movie. I had read the book before, but not with the intention to make it. I read it again, and realised how scary it is to transform a great book into a movie.
Books work on their own merits. Turning a book into a movie is to turn the abstract into concrete. Movies should have action, less ambiguity. So we took only the aspects we liked and never tried to mimic the book. Throughout all this, Manu Joseph was kept abreast of our progress. He participated in our process of taking the movie away from the book.
The film owes a lot to the book and cannot exist without it. I cannot enter Manu Joseph’s head and make a movie. I have to make my own film. I had never made a film on a book before, and I think after this, I have become a better filmmaker.
Manu loved that we were moving away from the book. He was with us during the shoot. None of that author-director war or stunts you hear of happened. We like each other a lot. He was our Tamil consultant.
Was Nawazuddin Siddiqui your first choice for Ayyan?
Yes. I thought of him and finalised him much before the first draft was completed. In fact, Manu tells me that when he reads the book, he only thinks of Nawaz as Ayyan.
Nawazuddin, many of your best roles, such as ‘Gangs of Wasseypur’, ‘Thackeray’, ‘Manto’ and even ‘Kick’ involve conspicuous dialogue delivery. How do you avoid sounding the same?
Whenever one of my dialogues became a hit, my performance was always loose in that scene, be it in Kick or Gangs of Wasseypur.
In the Gangs of Wasseypur scene in which my ‘Baap ka, dada ka, sabka badla lega re tera Faizal’ dialogue comes, my acting is the worst ever. I honestly cannot go back and look at the scene anymore. I feel ashamed.
Frankly speaking, neither I nor the writer know which dialogue will become famous. I only try my best to focus on the soul of character. I am totally against getting trapped in a star image, but somehow certain dialogues become famous, perhaps because people connect to the idea in them.
Sudhir, how did you picture Nawazuddin Siddiqui as a Dalit Tamilian in Mumbai?
Well, his backstory is that his father brought him to Bombay, when he was very young. He slowly transformed, became a Mumbaikar. Caste doesn’t play that much of a role in a metropolis. Sure, you remember your past, but you take in a lot from where you are, and you become one of many.
Of course, Ayyan has the angst and the anger, but he is not bogged down by it. Using that anger, he creates a view of the future. He is not playing victim. He wants his child to escape to a world where leisure is a fundamental right.
He is an interesting character. He has an instinctive understanding of things beyond his social and economic bearings, quite the soaker of information and knowledge.
How did you see the character of Adi, and why did you cast Aakshath Das in the role?
Adi is a boy who is being asked to perform in a way that’s not natural to him. So he is a bit lost. He is becoming robotic under the pressure. But he is still a child, so that shows up in moments. He has a softness, his own genius and brilliance, and he is somebody in his own right.
Casting is an act of writing. You choose the actor who adds to the role. We found the boy in Chennai. He is beautiful. We were not just looking for innocence, but somewhere the actor should’ve been able to perform.
Aakshath wanted to work hard. You could only talk to him like he’s an actor, not a child. He taught me so much about directing. You direct a kid, you become a different filmmaker.
What do you have to say if ‘Serious Men’ is criticised for portraying a Dalit as a conman?
I don’t think he [Ayyan] is a conman. He is a passionate man who understands his reality, and he knows one needs a leg-up to move in this world. He has seen the world of the serious men, and he realises in an instinctive way that Acharya is right.
Most people cannot comprehend at what level Acharya operates. Acharya is like, let me do a scam in the name of science, although it’s not a scam, but if he tells the truth, people won’t be able to handle the truth. What Ayyan does is imitate him.
The book was published in 2010. The screen adaptation is out a decade later, when there is far greater Dalit consciousness in the mainstream. How is the movie relevant today?
As a human story, it works anyway. When I come in, I bring my influences. I cannot not think of Bicycle Thieves while tackling a story like this. I cannot not think of Satyajit Ray, Guru Dutt, Jiri Menzel. These become material for me to deal with the ideas of the book.
I know I may disappoint the extreme radical Left with this movie. For instance, Hazaaron Khwaishein Aisi disappointed the extreme Left. It’s funny how people see it as a Left movie, but the radical Left hated it. You can’t please them all. I can only make a film based on my intrinsic beliefs.
I saw the characters as humans and not representatives of blocs. I am not just representing the Brahmins. That’s a sociological view of the world, but that’s not a filmmaker or an artist’s view.