Once upon a con man

Director Sudhir Mishra and his lead actors talk about the book-to-movie adaptation of Serious Men, the class divide and satire

Nawazuddin Siddiqui’s Ayyan Mani is a Dalit living on the fringes of Mumbai, in a one-room house with his wife and son. He is personal assistant to a decorated and arrogant Brahmin astronomer, Arvind Acharya (played by Nassar). But he isn’t one to let the lack of opportunity he grew up with pass on to the next generation in his family. The upcoming Netflix film, Serious Men, portrays Mani seething and glowing, in turns, with puffed-up ambition and an outrageous scheme to change his family’s fortunes — from “2G to 4G”.

The film is based on Manu Joseph’s début novel (2010) of the same name, where the author dipped into many issues — class, caste, social mobility, and oppression, among other things — and wove them into what director Sudhir Mishra says is a wonderfully-satirical story. “In a strange way, it is a warm, human book, filled with love for its characters with all their idiosyncrasies,” says Mishra, over a video call that includes Siddiqui and Nassar. He says what also hooked him was the fascinating cast: “Mani, Acharya, and Mani’s son, and the whole mad journey they take. When we were shooting, I was reading the book, to be one with Manu in my head.”

True to society

Siddiqui has often played the underdog in Hindi films, the one who makes the most of a raw deal in good and bad ways. A recent example is another Netflix outing, Raat Akeli Hai. In Serious Men, he is in fine form, playing a man with a determined goal who presents his son to the world as a genius. Siddiqui reveals that he agreed to the role because he always wanted to work with Mishra. “When choosing my films, my focus is usually on the director. There are some I want to work with, come what may, and Sudhir is one of them,” Siddiqui reveals, adding that the script was also a deciding factor.

Nassar, too, was drawn to the script, which he found “simple but emotional, sensitive and deep”. He continues, “The characters represented society around me. Most middle- and upper-class people are just like Mani — they want their children to become what they missed out on. I saw my father in him. As for my character, we can see a lot of Acharyas around us.”

Much of the film pivots around the conflicting ambitions, social status and power dynamics of the two men. Acharya is a performer more than a scientist, with a great desire to be respected as a man of science for his contribution to the world, while Mani is chasing a desperate, meticulously mapped personal dream of a better life.“Theirs is a love-hate relationship. Mani admires Acharya too, he likes his elegance and attitude. He wants his son to be like him,” chips in Siddiqui. When Mani, almost invisible to those with power and prestige, is routinely called “moron, imbecile, knobhead” by Acharya, he responds with a name of his own for the privileged class — ‘Serious Men’.

A still from the film

From book to screen

Translating this book to screen, with its specifically satirical tone, was tricky. “It took about eight months to work on it with writers Bhavesh Mandalia and Sejal Shah. It was quite a journey and collaboration,” admits Mishra. Like the book, the film too hinges on a fine balance of tackling serious issues with humour and lightness. How do you lens the complexity of caste oppression in contemporary India and create a film that is both profoundly troubling and bitingly funny? “It’s a temperament. If you can deal with something compassionately, yet have a sense of humour to be able to laugh at it by being with its characters and seeing their foibles, you can pull it off. It’s difficult, and how it happens is a mystery,” is Mishra’s response.

Lockdown reaction

The actors agree that releasing the film during the pandemic, on a small screen, has its benefits. “OTT has a huge reach and my films are going to a large audience,” says Siddiqui, who stayed upbeat the past few months by listening to narrations over Zoom and signing movies. Next month, he will begin shooting for a new film. For Mishra, it has been a confusing time. “Everything I was writing before the pandemic has turned topsy turvy in my head, my plans have changed. I want to make a historical series, and there are other projects being discussed, but it’s all up in the air now.”

Serious Men releases on October 2 on Netflix