Sudhir Mishra’s Netflix original ‘Serious Men’, starring Nawazuddin Siddiqui and based on Manu Joseph’s book, is a tale of middle-class Indian aspirations and the price a family pays for it 

Standing before a packed audience, sharing the stage with influential politicians and a daunting microphone set at the centre of the stage, Adi struggles to deliver his speech in the midst of tears rushing down his cheeks. He forgets his line, tears flowing, words evading his memory. At this moment, the young bespectacled boy cries out for his mother, who is seated among the audience.

Up to this point in Sudhir Mishra’s latest film ‘Serious Men,’ the 10-year-old Adi is portrayed as a young prodigy, a genius who seems to have as many answers about the complexity of the universe, as he does questions. However, it is only towards the last leg of the film, that the audience gets to see Adi (played by Aakshath Das) for what he is – a young child who is forced to forgo his childhood innocence early on to fulfil a dream his father saw for the family. 

Novel adaptation

‘Serious Men’ that was released on Netflix on Friday is based on Manu Joseph’s 2010 novel by the same name. It is the story of a Dalit father who dreams high for his son, determined to not let the world treat his son the way his family was treated for generations. It is the story of a Dalit family who refuses to be silenced and stepped upon by the systemic oppression inherent in the hierarchical society they live in. 

Nawazuddin Siddiqui plays Ayyan Mani, Adi’s father who works as a personal assistant to Dr Arvind Acharya (played by Nassar), a Brahmin scientist at a premier research institute in Mumbai. Ayyan is a Tamilian brought up in Mumbai, is ambitious, but also a realistic man. 

At work where his superiors all invariably belong to the upper caste, his superiors seldom treat him with respect; his presence is limited to the background of their fast-paced, scientific world. Ayyan hardly complains about being shoved into the background, rather he carefully grasps the scientific jargons that are thrown around at the institute. 

He’s an ‘imbecile’, a ‘moron’ for his superiors, and to him, they are the serious men. He resents the systems that drive his entire life and that of his ancestors and the generations to come, but he is a man with a plan.

When his own son turns out to be a slow learner at school, Ayyan decides to create a genius out of this young child, a pretence he trains his son to keep up. Adi faithfully parrots the clever-sounding lines his father picks up at work and teaches him at night. Fame follows Adi around; he is a prodigy, a local star, an excellent student who is way ahead of his peers and teachers. 

Seeing caste 

Ayyan is driven by his aspirations to escape the caste hierarchies that set him at the bottom of the ladder. At the beginning of the movie, he narrates the story of his grandfather’s passing, which sets the tone of the film. A manual scavenger, his grandfather was tricked into believing that he had boarded the upper-class compartment on a train. 

The ‘crime’ was so grave, that the old illiterate man had a heart attack having realised that he’d overstepped. Years later, Ayyan narrates this story with empathy for the old man, but also devoid of sentiments. 

Ayyan’s Dalit identity is in the foreground of the movie, reflecting on everything from his living conditions, his access to work, and education for his own child. The scene in which an upper-caste official gets uncomfortable when Ayyan brings up his caste is both comical and ironic, poking into the idea of false equality we seem to boast about.

Ayyan lives with his wife Oja (Indira Tiwari) and son Adi in a one-room apartment in a forgotten neighbourhood. So when an unexpected glory comes Adi’s way, Ayyan decides to take it. Banking on Adi’s popularity, Dalit politician Keshav Dhawre (played by Sanjay Narvekar) and his soon-to-be politician daughter Anuja (played by Shweta Basu Prasad) make a mascot out of the boy for their ambitious redevelopment project of Ayyan’s neighbourhood, one that has been consistently ignored by politicians up until then. 

Tower of lies

Everything is in place until it all crumbles one day when Adi in his childhood innocence confides in his friend that his entire genius image had been a pretence. The tower of lies begins to tumble down one after the other, exposing a father who carries the weight of his own deprived childhood, trying to ensure that his son doesn’t have to lead the same life. 

Ayyan’s lies are shown in comparison to that Dr Acharya himself commits by forging scientific data to advance funding for his ambitious project. Without openly commenting on the rightness and wrongness of the lies these two men build, the writers let one choose if and ever one of the lies is unpardonable than the other. 

Childhood 

‘Serious Men’ is equally Adi’s film as it is Ayyan’s. At the centre of Ayyan’s aspirations is a child who did not dream the same things as his father, who does not see the world as his father does. Eventually, we see a young boy who is pulled down by the pressure of keeping up the genius pretence to protect his father’s secret. Aakshath Das delivers a moving performance as a young boy battling to put up a show to save his father’s face. He is in a constant fight with his own abilities, weighed down by the guilt that he is not the genius his father wants him to be. 

At the end of the film, when Adi and Ayyan walk towards the sea in a village far away from what they know as home, everything seems normal. Oja announces that Adi is getting better, doing considerably well in school. 

But will the father-son duo ever stop dreaming? 

— Megha Varier is a freelance writer
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