SERIOUS MEN (2020)

Nawazuddin Siddiqui, Aakshath Das, and Indira Tiwari in a still from Serious Men
  • Release Date: 02/10/2020
  • Cast: Nawazuddin Siddiqui, Aakshath Das, Nasser, Indira Tiwari, Sanjay Narvekar, Shweta Basu Prasad
  • Director: Sudhir Mishra

Relevant, important and engrossing! Serious Men is a sarcastic poke at all that is wrong with our society today

Ayyan Mani (Nawazuddin Siddiqui) is the personal assistant of Dr. Arvind Acharya (Nasser) at the National Institute of Fundamental Research. Acharya treats Mani with disdain and doesn’t miss any opportunity to put him in his rightful place which according to Dr. Acharya is the bottom of the barrel. Mani might not be a space scientist but makes good use of his proximity to Dr. Acharya as he “wikipedias” and “googles” everything that he hears the doctor speak in his meetings. This opens up a world of knowledge for Mani who consumes as much of it as he can. Mani is happily married and is soon blessed with a boy who he names Adi (Aakshath Das). Mani’s world comes crashing down when the fact dawns on him that Adi is a slow learner. After Acharya pulls a cruel trick on Mani that robs his son of a seat in a premier school, Mani decides to take matters into his own hands.

Serious Men is a film that tries to bring to our notice a lot of things that most of us have had a problem with in the past but have lived with it anyways. Mani is a hard worker and is really good at what he does. Through his scenes with his colleagues, we learn that he is someone who is enterprising and has a good sense of humor. He treats people who are below him in rank with respect and is always ready to go beyond the call of duty to aid this employer. He is smart, sharply dressed, and is evidently an intelligent go-getter. Even with so many qualities, his boss, Dr. Acharya constantly always calls him names like knob head, moron, etc. With every insult and with all that Mani witnesses Acharya doing, he draws a repressive picture of the creamy layer of the society that may not be completely true. What is sad is that what Mani does next to ensure that his son has a better life than he has is partly inspired by his belief that all successful men are like Dr. Acharya and to them people like Mani are invisible as they are just not worth recognizing. 

Aakshath Das in a still from Serious Men

Mani tutors his son Adi and the kid metamorphs into a genius. At least that’s what the people are led to believe by Mani and as he goes on pushing Adi to achieve impossible feats, the poor kid starts feeling the brunt of all the expectations and the sheer pressure to function under all the limelight and inquisitive eyes. The school that had rejected Adi before as a slow learner gleefully accepts him without any referrals and offers to give him a full scholarship. The headmistress even requests the whole family to convert to Christianity in return for some additional goodies. The local politician and his daughter —who is making a foray into politics— pick up Adi and uses him as their ticket for getting the consent of the people of the “chawl” where Mani’s family resides. The idea is to demolish their “chawl” and build a better housing complex for the people but it can be done only after Adi has drawn the resident’s attention toward the need for a better standard of living with his searing speech. Sadly, with every event, the pressure keeps piling on the poor kid who now faces a strange problem after he speaks his heart out about his predicament to one of his friends who starts using his honesty against him.

Nawazuddin Siddiqui might be doing similar roles that cut close to his appearance and mannerisms but as long as his performance is this heartwarming I am not complaining. The character of Mani traces its genesis to an incident that Nawazuddin recalls to Nasser in a poignant scene at the very end of the film. His rendering of this scene is so breathtakingly natural and haunting that I forgot for an instance that I was watching a piece of fiction. Nawazuddin shares magical chemistry with Aakshath Das who plays his son Adi. The dialogue between the two and how Mani tutors the kid to be the wonder boy that the world sees him as is exceptionally well executed. How Mani teaches Adi to deal with the people and the attention that he is getting is thought-provoking.

Shweta Basu Prasad in a still from Serious Men

“I don’t have time for this”, yells Adi violently at a shopkeeper who is pestering him to see his tax returns and suggest means to save some additional taxes. Mani is proud and applauds Adi for so effectively dodging a tricky situation that could have exposed his lack of genius in matters related to math and the Indian Tax System. “Genius people never keep quite. They know everything”, quips Mani to Adi on their way back home. “If people don’t understand what you are saying, they respect you even more”. In Mani’s explanations on how to deal with the world lies his understanding of the world and its people.  

Akshat Das is a joy to watch on screen. He starts off easy and comfortable but as the film progresses and pressure mounts on him from multiple angles, we can see his performance take wings. His character has multiple facets to it. There are scenes that portray him as an ordinary kid. There are scenes that document him trying to be a friend and comfort to another kid and then there are the portions where we see him trying to be the image of the genius that his father has meticulously crafted. In every aspect of his performance, Aakshath Das excels and in some scenes, he even leaves Nawazuddin Siddiqui behind in terms of sheer effect. The best portion of his act comes towards the end of the film where he starts losing his mind under pressure. His reaction to an upcoming speech makes Mani realize what a blunder he had committed. This scene would extract tears from many. I feel Aakshath has a great career ahead if he gets the right opportunities.

Aakshath Das and Nasser in a still from Serious Men

Indira Tiwari as his mother and Mani’s wife Oja is as natural as one can be. I haven’t seen her in any character before and it just helps her cause in disappearing behind the skin of the character. Nasser is a superlative performer and here too he brings his class to the character. I just loved the arch of his character and how he transforms from someone who despises Mani to someone who wants him destroyed to someone who finally understands his inspiration for doing what he was doing and offers to help him resettle and have a normal life for his kid. It cannot be denied that Nasser’s charm adds a feel to the character without which it might have fallen flat and would have become just another bad guy.  Shweta Basu Prasad has an interesting role and she brings her A-game to the fore. The same can be said about Sanjay Narvekar who plays her father and a ruthless politician.

Having said all that, the film still has some lingering issues that I couldn’t ignore. The believability and realism go for a toss in terms of how Mani builds the façade around Adi of him being a genius. The director couldn’t explain in an effective manner how Mani was able to portray Adi as this genius that he evidently was not. In today’s world and under so many prying eyes, his efforts were too minuscule and obvious to guarantee that Adi’s charade was maintained. It was impossible to pull off the con as far as it was shown being pulled off and that fact hit the realism and believability of the film terribly. This was so distracting that there were moments when the film’s emotional core suffered due to this shortcoming. As the film neared its culmination, there was a sense of urgency to wrap up everything tidily and that made Sudhir Mishra once again go for easy coincidence leading to a squeaky clean ending that tied off all the loose ends. In any other commercial Bollywood fare, this would not have been much of an issue but in a film like this, this deficiency sticks out like a sore thumb and is more evident than it would have been in a lesser film.

Sudhir Mishra has still been able to build an engaging and emotionally involving tale around a bunch of characters that tug straight at our heartstrings. If only he had ironed out some of the issues mentioned above, Serious Men might have become one of the best films of the year. It is still one of the most investing watches owing primarily to the performances of Nawazuddin Siddiqui and Aakshath Das and also the ensemble cast. The story that the film sets out to tell is also relevant and more important in today’s time than it was ever before. It is the kind of film that definitely merits our attention and time.   

Rating: 3/5 (3 out of 5 Stars)

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