Language: Hindi (with some Tamil)
Ayyan Mani is an assistant to Arvind Acharya, the arrogant director of a government-run scientific research institute in Mumbai. Mani is a Tamilian who moved to Mumbai as a child, which is the explanation he offers for his bad Tamil. The difference in social standing between the protagonist and his boss is not a factor of class alone " Mani (played by Nawazuddin Siddiqui) is Dalit, and Acharya (M Nasser), a fellow Tamilian, is Brahmin.
"Moron, imbecile, knobhead" " these are the epithets hurled by those in power at Mani and his ilk, irrespective of how much they try to please. As revenge, the "morons" have come up with the term "serious men" for educated people privileged enough to conduct studies on "chutiastic" subjects.
Awareness of the oppression that his family has suffered for generations, resentment towards Acharya and a determination to escape his present life in a cramped one-room tenement with his wife Oja and son Adi are all the motivation Mani needs to act in ways that are no less dishonest than the rackets run by these 'serious men'.
Directed by Sudhir Mishra (Is Raat Ki Subah Nahin, Hazaaron Khwaishein Aisi), Serious Men parallels the games played by individuals from all the strata of society covered in the plot. Adi has a reputation as a child genius, which makes him a magnet for opportunistic politicians and school administrators. Soon he becomes nationally famous. Meanwhile, the media spotlight trained on Dr Acharya's pet project has consequences for everyone concerned.
The film's screenplay by Bhavesh Mandalia and Abhijeet Khuman (additional screenplay credit: Niren Bhatt and Nikhil Nair), is drawn from the novel of the same name by Manu Joseph. At first it is sharp, funny and deliciously irreverent. Mani minces no words about his antagonism towards the haves around him, and the writers make no apologies for his attitude. He is who he is.
Gradually though, despite the humour in the situations portrayed, especially in the satirical take on corruption that knows no social barriers, and despite the entertaining audacity of Mani's strategies, the film reveals its hollow core.
Serious Men uses the word "Dalit" as a mere hook, but makes little distinction between class and caste, thus revealing its poor knowledge of the immutable nature of caste " the whole point of the caste system is that even a Dalit who rises to a position of power and wealth is still deemed contemptible, whereas the social class an individual occupies can and does change depending on their financial status and consequent connections.
In its gripping opening minutes, Serious Men makes all the right noises to establish that it intends to delve into the Dalit experience: Mani tells a story about his grandfather and on the notice board of his institute are the words, "Reservations cannot be the only compensation for treating fellow human beings like animals for the last 3,000 years." That sentence in particular holds out the promise of empathy and a deep examination of caste practices within elite professional circles.
Once Mani's caste identity is underlined though, nothing bad happens to him and his family that would not happen to any poor Indian irrespective of caste. This is in keeping with the view often expressed by the upper-caste urban elite " including those who claim to be liberal " that caste no longer exists "at least among people like us", and that caste and class are synonymous.
Serious Men's narrow understanding of the Dalit reality is rivalled by its problematic gender politics. Three women get reasonably significant screen time in the film: Mani's wife Oja (Indira Tiwari) serves the purpose of being a recipient of his pearls of wisdom, Acharya's colleague Oparna Sengupta (Vidhi Chitalia) is condescendingly written as nothing more than an attractive young woman having an affair with her older male boss, and the politician Anuja (Shweta Basu Prasad) refuses to allow her team to play up her experience of domestic violence in public saying, "¦next time no 'Dalit woman victim card' shit for me, please" " words that would be music to the ears of those who, in the off-screen world, dub any exposÃ© of genuine oppression as "the woman card", "Dalit card" or "playing victim".
As if to warm the hearts of right-wingers, Serious Men even slips in a scene of a nun in a Mumbai school trying to convert a Dalit to Christianity with the lure of special schemes for the underprivileged. This episode furthers the long-running propaganda that schools run by India's Christian minority are hotbeds of conversion (propaganda that fails to explain how then the percentage of Christians in India's population remains stagnant and minuscule).
Serious Men's superficial interpretation of caste, its male gaze and its pointed jab at a religious minority that is viewed with dislike by the current establishment are all disguised as satire that is carefully wrapped in a package of pacey writing, playful music by Karol Antonin and superb acting by Nawazuddin Siddiqui.
The women actors are under-utilised but excellent to the extent that they have space to be so. Nasser is rarely well-used by Hindi films " here for a change he gets a solid role and in response he makes Acharya a nicely evil, non-clichÃ©d jerk. When Siddiqui is in full form, there are not many in Bollywood who can match up to him, but Aakshath Das playing Adi is more than up to the task.
Siddiqui is a treat to watch in Serious Men although he does not look Tamilian from any angle (unlike Tiwari who fits the bill on that front). If you are willing to buy into that deceit then you might, like me, enjoy the thoughtful shades he lends to both the quirky and thoughtful aspects of Mani's character or have a lark listening to the peculiar tone in which he tells a hotel employee that he wants his beer "not extremely chilled, not warm".
This is not to suggest at all that the only issue with Serious Men is its problematic politics. Plotwise, the film rests on a foundation of extreme improbability. Mani manages to dupe experts and ordinary people with a particular scam that remains undiscovered for several years, although the very cornerstone of that con is shaky " with just a moment's thought, it becomes glaringly evident that he could have been easily found out much earlier if even one person had asked an actually tough question or probed further when fobbed off with evasive answers.
Conveniently for the film, no one does.
Serious Men will stream on Netflix from 2 October.