Serious Men Movie Review: A poignant riff on ambitions and dreams
Nawazuddin Siddiqui hustles his way through Sudhir Mishra’s slick adaptation
Serious Men ends a small if persistent tradition in Hindi film. Attempting to enlist a child prodigy for an advertising campaign, a politician makes the invariable comparison to Sachin Tendulkar. “Sachin represents excellence,” she explains. “Just like your boy Adi.” The point is well taken, though Ayyan, the boy’s father, looks unimpressed. He stares on and never cracks a smile. Sachin, for him, just won’t cut it.
In fact, it’s only when names like Ambedkar and Einstein are dropped that Ayyan (Nawazuddin Siddiqui) perks up. A ‘second generation’ Dalit immigrant in Mumbai, the man harbours big dreams for his son, so big that he doesn’t mind bending the rules a little. Adi (Aakshath Das) flummoxes his classmates and teachers with his fast-ticking brain. “Your son is a genius,” everyone repeats around the boy. Little do they know that it’s Ayyan passing him his lines, communicating via a bluetooth device rigged to his ear. The con — both father and son are convinced —will pull them out of their rut.
Adapted from Manu Joseph’s satirical novel, Sudhir Mishra’s film seethes with underdog anger. Instead of big outbursts, screenwriter Bhavesh Mandalia underlines the small indignities men like Ayyan face. His boss at the research institute, Acharya (M Nassar), is a Brahmin scientist obsessed with collecting space microbes. He’s always shutting the door on his PA, calling him ‘moron’, ‘imbecile’ and ‘knobhead’. Ayyan, in turn, labels his superiors ‘serious men’. When Acharya walks back on a primary school recommendation for Adi, Ayyan swears revenge. “Merit is everything,” he hisses to a janitor on the way out, but his mind is made.
Cast: Nawazuddin Siddiqui, Aakshath Das, Nassar, Indira Tiwari, Shweta Basu Prasad, Sanjay Narvekar
Director: Sudhir Mishra
Streaming on: Netflix (from October 2)
As Adi’s popularity spreads, a community leader and his daughter come calling. The duo is pushing a lucrative redevelopment project for their chawl (the film is backdropped on the BDD settlements in Worli, Mumbai). Ayyan, reluctant at first, enrolls himself and Adi into the scheme, converting their newfound standing into signed agreements. It’s the first sign that he will go to any length to get ahead. Later, he slips away to threaten a little girl who comes upon their secret, a scene made creepier by Nawazuddin’s icy manner and the food packet he presses into her hand.
At other places, too, the film resists the corniness that can seep into a story like this. Ayyan having a change of heart after Adi collapses on stage is, granted, a bit mawkish. But the rest of the film is fixedly bitter: the scene where Oja, Ayyan’s wife, calls him out on his selfishness, saying she was better off marrying a pimp, is rarely glimpsed in a film on children. Indira Tiwari is brilliant in the part, fencing calmly and assuredly with Nawazuddin’s cocksure crook. The rest of the cast deserves praise, especially Sanjay Narvekar as the politician (It’s also touching to note that Vaastav’s Dedh Phutiya is now laying high-rises).
The whimsical details — Acharya’s hunt for alien microbes, the fish tank Adi stares at in school — don’t add up to much. There is, however, one intriguing thread. At a talent show, Ayyan is upset by the sight of young kids paraded as clowns. When Oja reminds him he’s doing the same, Ayyan responds in the negative. “My son is a true genius,” he insists angrily. It could well be that Ayyan, so hell bent on his scheme, has reached a point of self-delusion. In his desperate bid to fool the world, he has convinced himself of his own lie. This is also echoed in Adi, a young boy who’s gotten so attached to fame and stardom that he can hardly let go.
There’s a shot in Serious Men almost identical to one in Sacred Games. Ayyan, like gangster Ganesh Gaitonde, rests his head back and looks up. The light beats down as he smiles broadly at the camera, a lone teardrop escaping the corner of his eye. In both scenes, it’s characters letting out a final sigh, and Nawazuddin lends them both grace and dignity. A true genius — must we say?