Serious Men: Nawazuddin’s Furious And Fabulous Film Is One of the Finest of 2020

Nawazuddin Siddiqui completes a hat trick of Netflix hits. His latest, a sharp satire directed by Sudhir Mishra, is one of the finest movies of the year

While Netflix India has been busy projecting Radhika Apte as some kind of mascot, it really should have paid attention to Nawazuddin Siddiqui, an actor who has consistently delivered top-level streamer content. His latest, Serious Men, is completing a hat trick of Netflix hits for the actor, after the Sacred Games and Raat Akeli Hai. More of this, please.

Based on Manu Joseph's novel, the film tells the story of Ayyan Mani, Dalit's personal assistant to a Brahmin scientist. After a lifetime of being called names such as 'moron' and 'imbecile,' he tries to channel his rage through the world by conniving it. Ayyan begins a journey of upward social mobility by convincing others that his 10-year-old son is, in fact, a genius.

It's fascinating to see how director Sudhir Mishra's view of the common man has changed since Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro in 1983. Although the two protagonists of the film were innocent do-gooders with modest aspirations, the four decades that followed made the average man angrier, it would seem, worthy of an equally enraging film.

Ayyan is a really complicated person. On the one hand, his indignation is justified — he was routinely marginalized by a nation that would prefer to stay at his socio-economic station — but, on the other, he's hard to like. Serious Men is, in many ways, a jail-breaking movie. Ayyan is stuck in the metaphorical jail of Mumbai, a soaring high-rise that surrounds his jackal like bars on a cage.

As evilly amusing as the film is, and as perversely entertaining as Ayyan's schemes are to watch, Serious Men would not have succeeded if there had not been a fit of collective anger aimed at the establishment. It's a film that captures what it's like to live in India, about 2020. It's a time capsule that, like so many satirical movies released in the post-emergency period, captures the mood of the country.

This is a beautiful show, one of those rare experiences where it seems like every department — the costumes, the music, the lighting — is in a jazz-like groove. Ironically, given how the film is about how everybody appears to be in the echo-chambers these days.

While larger stars boast about physical changes and completing six-month boot camps, Nawaz transitions seamlessly into his characters without a hairstyle shift. How he appears to be able to change his physical height, purely by body language, continues to baffle me. Here's a guy who's neither diminutive nor intimidating, but who's able to pull them out persuasively.

Serious Men give Nawaz the opportunity to practice both the submissive and the dominant dimensions of Ayyan 's personality. That's the thing about class structures — you're seldom at the top or the bottom. There's always someone above you waiting to pounce, and someone below, ready to pounce.

It takes four generations, Ayyan preaches to his wife at an early point, to a man to the top of a social ladder. He tells her they belong to the second generation, which he likes to call '2G.' It's a generation that's unable to have a good time. Their child will belong to the third generation — highly educated and capable of pondering life's bigger questions, like why some condoms have dots on them. And his child, Ayyan's grandchild, will have nothing to work for, and indeed, no reason to work.

But the odds are stacked against him, Ayyan knows. Society has put up roadblocks around every corner for men like Ayyan, it seems almost purposely. And so, Ayyan figures, he's got to take short cuts. Why does he have to abide by the rules of a system that values neither him nor his son?

Serious Men is also a critic of the broken Indian education system, as rote as the curriculum it prescribes, and of the age-old Indian propensity for parents to project their unfulfilled dreams upon their children. After a moment, it seems that Ayyan is not continuing his grand con for the sake of the future of his son, but is venting out his own frustrations. It's a tricky tightrope to walk across. A false move and Ayyan become irredeemable.

But Mishra and his team of four writers don't put a foot wrong. In an industry that routinely finds it difficult to produce tonally consistent films, and often views poverty through a romanticised lens, Serious Men is sharp from start to finish.

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