Nawazuddin Siddiqui: My characters are grey, not dark
Nawazuddin Siddiqui, Sudhir Mishra and M Nassar on the intricate messaging of Serious Men
Adapting Manu Joseph’s 2010 novel, Sudhir Mishra was drawn to the irreverent nature of the work. “The poor in Manu’s world are not boring,” the director notes. “They can have a plan and take control of their lives. They are not just worms crawling and being stomped over. It’s not that kind of a bad art film view of the world.”
The resultant film, Serious Men, was released on Netflix on October 2. Nawazuddin Siddiqui stars as Ayyan Mani, a working-class Dalit immigrant living in Mumbai. Ayyan, whose parents were agricultural labourers from the south, dreams of a better life for his child. He frames his school-going boy as a ‘genius’ and runs an elaborate con involving a local redevelopment project. The character, with his sportive mix of impishness and underdog drive, is a great fit for Nawazuddin, whose own journey as an outsider in Mumbai is well known.
“I like to personalise every character I play,” the actor says. “We all come with dreams of achieving something in life. When we can’t, we try to complete those dreams through our children. Sometimes, in doing so, we end up adopting the wrong ways.”
In the film, Ayyan works as a personal assistant at the ‘National Institute of Fundamental Research’. His boss, Acharya, is a Brahmin scientist probing space microbes in the stratosphere. Their relationship approximates how caste hierarchies operate in the scientific world, and how desperate Ayyan is to subvert the equation.
“I liked that this was a realistic film,” says M Nassar, who plays Acharya. “I’ve come across such characters before. There are lots of Acharyas in Tamil films (laughs). I also liked the subtle way the film discusses caste politics.”
This, Sudhir agrees, was a major note in Manu’s book — as well as the subsequent screenplay by Abhijeet Khuman and Bhavesh Mandalia. “Serious Men takes the issue of caste and makes it into a metaphor,” Sudhir says. “Ayyan is aware of the burden it has placed on him. At the same time, he deals with it in a manner that’s upfront and non-victimised. So, in a way, it is more hopeful. It’s not asking for pity. It’s not about an outsider coming and liberating the downtrodden. It’s about the insider himself grappling with his issues and finding a way out.”
Much of the film was shot at the BDD Chawls in Worli, Mumbai. Erected in 1920, the chawl was converted into a prison during the independence struggle. Later, it was populated by mill workers and state employees belonging to Mumbai’s Ambedkarite community. Just like in the film, the chawl’s residents have been embroiled in a tense eviction battle with the state government. There’s also a wealth of visual contrast mined: Ayyan’s crumbling tenement flat is dwarfed by the rising skyscrapers of Lower Parel.
“It was a lovely experience shooting at BDD Chawl,” Nawazuddin says. “I’ve lived in such places so it didn’t seem out of the ordinary. There’s a kinship I started to feel with the place.”
Nassar, who has shot for films like David and Marjaavan in Mumbai before, says he loves exploring the city. “I like the slum areas of Mumbai. When I walk across those areas, I see genuine happiness in the children living there. If only that happy child is groomed properly, what a wonderful citizen it will become.”
The film’s supporting cast is of note, particularly Sanjay Narvekar as politician Dharve and Indira Tiwari as Oja, Ayyan’s wife. “I remembered Sanjay as Dedh Phutiya in Vaastav,” Sudhir shares. “He’s a wonderful actor and human being. Meeting him, it’s hard to imagine he can play such rough-hewn characters. Indira, too, is a find. She has played Oja with amazing softness and grace.”
Talking about the scene where Ayyan threatens a little girl on the rooftop, Nawaz says it brings out his desperate humanity. “Every character has good and bad qualities. It’s not a ‘dark’ shade but a ‘grey’ shade. We all have our negativities and politics. That’s what makes a film realistic,” the actor concludes.