Serious Men, the debut novel of journalist Manu Joseph, was published a decade ago in a different, less raucous India. Joseph’s smartly cheeky take on the two “serious men” of his imagination – Arvind Acharya, a Brahmin scientist, and Ayyan Mani, his Dalit personal assistant – is unsentimental but also a sympathetic insider’s view of our grand divides. Joseph’s story and narrative provided, unintentionally or intentionally, a counterview to the platitude about India as a country of contradictions and opposites. The novel stripped the idea that India lives in several centuries at the same time and shows why these polarities can play out dangerously in human lives.

Director Sudhir Mishra is a right fit for this India story. Mishra directs the screen adaptation for Netflix without frills and obsessing about form and style. Through a linear narrative, Mishra allows the intersecting fates of the two protagonists to show us how human-made hierarchies built around caste and social status can fuel savage battles within and outside of us. Writers Bhavesh Mandalia and Abhijit Khuman craft a simple, chronological structure for the story with overlapping layers about class subversion, intellectual ambition, the limits of fame and greed, the weight of caste baggage and courage and vulnerability.

Indira Tiwari, Aakshath Das and Nawazuddin Siddiqui in Serious Men (2020). Courtesy Bombay Fables/Cineraas Entertainment/Netflix.

Ayyan (Nawazuddin Siddiqui) is at the mercy of his boss, the formidable scientist Arvind (Nassar) who has worked for decades at the Indian Institute of Science in Mumbai, bullying his way through plum grants for an ongoing project about stratospheric microbes. None of his colleagues is convinced that Arvind’s theory deserves much attention or support. Ayyan intently eavesdrops on every meeting and conversation and, through small subterfuges and annoying questions, manages to invite Arvind’s ire. Is there a purpose behind this antagonism? Arvind’s anger towards Ayyan is loud, almost abusive, and Ayyan nurtures a simmering gripe.

Ayyan lives in the BBD chawls in Mumbai – which have few windows for opportunities and as much history as Dharavi – with his wife Oja (Indira Tiwari) and 11-year-old son Adi (Aakshath Das). Ayyan feeds Adi scientific knowledge in small capsules and sets in motion a plan to convince the world that the boy is a child prodigy and genius. Will Ayyan be exposed, and will Arvind come to his rescue? On the other hand, will Ayan’s guile save Arvind from ignominy?

In Joseph’s novel, the world of science is as monolithic and oppressive as any corporation or government machinery. But there is also the promise that science, when used the right way, is one of humanity’s greatest hopes to cross artificial barriers and find solutions to its problems. In the film, the focus is on Ayyan’s journey with his son. There is no catharsis and only compromise, catalysed by a brilliant climactic moment at an art gallery. The scene beautifully crystallises what Serious Men is about – no matter how close they are physically, for a Brahmin, and in extension, all born to privilege, the lens to view creativity, is vastly different from what it is to a Dalit.

Nassar in Serious Men (2020). Courtesy Bombay Fables/Cineraas Entertainment/Netflix.

Mishra does not explore the relationship between Arvind and Oparna, a resourceful and clever scientist much younger than him, who is awed by him. Except for one scene, we don’t see the power equation inherent in a sexual relationship inside this massive structure that tightly guards many secrets. In fact, compared to Ayyan’s world, filled with little deceits and far-reaching consequences, Arvind, Oparna and their colleagues get broad strokes. Because of this disproportionate attention to chawl life, science and its votaries almost come across as villains because only the privileged have real access to its chambers.

As the young boy, first in raptures and then disintegrating in turmoil, Aakshath Das is convincing. Indira Tiwari effectively plays the steely and bottled-up Oja. Even with a limited arc, Nassar fulfills his character’s purpose in the story – to make the grand insecurities of powerful men repulsive and riveting at the same time.

Few Hindi film actors in the last 20 years have made the common Indian hero role as aspirational for performers as has Nawazuddin Siddiqui. His physicality, which includes the intensity of his versatile face, increases his ability to get under the skin of characters from this milieu. He has shown this mettle in many roles before, and he does it in Serious Men. In Ayyan, we see the existential and moral dilemmas of a man who has risen beyond his social circumstances and found gainful employment. The role is yet another example of how well Siddiqui can play the invisible man who thrives in chawls and nukkads and make a resounding case for him.

Serious Men (2020).

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