A still from Serious Men.

Despite Solid Screenplay 'Serious Men' Fails to Close With a Punch

The film stars Nawazuddin Siddiqui in the lead.

Movie Reviews
4 min read

Despite Solid Screenplay, 'Serious Men' Fails to Close With a Punch

Inspired by (barely based on) the witty 2010 novel of the same name by Manu Joseph, comes Serious Men on Netflix, directed by Sudhir Mishra and starring Nawazuddin Siddiqui in the titular role. This cracking satire laden with the ridiculous nature of human life, poverty, existentialism of the intellectuals and the bourgeois, race, politics and unbridled inferiority and ambition has it all but don’t let this scare you. It is a not-so-serious film about serious things. Wildly funny for the most part, there is comedy in the tragedy. It has a childlike playfulness about it, making it different from the rest of Sudhir’s celebrated canon.

A still from Serious Men.
A still from Serious Men.
(Photo Courtesy: Pinterest)

Through Nawaz, it becomes the story of a hustler. A poor, underprivileged man living in Mumbai’s fringes, he is a force of ambition who doesn’t weep at the wet and torn cards life has dealt him. Instead, he grabs life by the horns and fills vitality, vibrance and zeal into it.

Things like gender violence and caste are still taboo in the sub-continent. Most people shy away from addressing the multiple elephants that live in our living rooms. The film's writing and direction make these discussions palatable and less intimidating for a wider audience, allowing engagement with age old realities that have no place in the modern world.

Sudhir shows us that we are born in a fractured world. Everything’s fragmented and unequal, like a broken bathroom mirror splattered across the floor. Most people are engaged in a never-ending hustle to prove their worth to no one in particular.

We are a people always itching, restless, wanting more, never happy with what we have, creating problems like religion and politics for our own amusement and greedy gains. The characters are beautifully grey. Everyone has meat and layers to them. One really feels for the young Adi, living amidst this circus.

Sudhir also shows us that we live in a world where we care more about how things appear than they actually are. We are happy to buy a lie as long as its beautiful. The low ranked assistant, Nawaz, to the accomplished scientist Dr Acharya (played by the charming Nassar), everyone wants to win the same rat race. We see how we live in a carefully curated reality, where our Instagram, Facebook and LinkedIn pages sell lies and stories, stories we want to believe are true.

We want to convince, even before the world, ourselves of our own lies. We tell these lies first to ourselves and then to others and herein lies Nawaz’s central dilemma. He knows the truth about the game he’s playing but he wants to believe the lie so much that he’s willing to risk whatever little life has given him. He wants his son to have a comfortable life and job where his son answers things like condoms pe dot kyun hote hai. He wants to give his son a life of luxury and leisure, a life he was unable to make for himself, even if that means dwelling in deceit and indecency.

A still from Serious Men.
A still from Serious Men.
(Photo Courtesy: Pinterest)

When parents force their children to take part in pageants, win Olympiads, become child actors or demand that they get into an IIT and nothing less, it’s usually because the parent feels a lack and wants to live vicariously through his child. This parent views the child as an extension of his own reality and not as a separate sentient individual. And in this problem lies the central conflict, theme and climax of the film. Most Asian cultures are infamous for this cruelty towards its children.

The screenplay is solid while the story itself wavers and tapers a little. The first two acts of the film have good pace, momentum, solid sub plots and lots of set up pay offs.

Even the otherwise lazy device of the voice over is deployed with brilliance, adding to the humour. It is the third act of the film, the climax and beyond, that are a little flat, not delivering the punch promised early on. Most of the conflict is quickly wrapped up and resolved with surprising ease in contrast to the rest of the film and the characters completely loose consistency, ending the story on an abrupt and half baked note.

As an adaptation, while inspired by the world of the book, this film is a narrative entirely of its own, delivering a different story. Bhavesh Mandalia hasn’t mimicked the book instead, he has given birth to something new, an adaptation well done.

While thematically the film lies closest to maybe Sudhir’s Dharavi, it is different from his other well-known hits like Hazaaron Khwaishein Aisi and Chameli, which are serious through and through and shot in the style of classic Hindi realism, while Serious Men is more experimental and playful.

There is a whole sequence here where Sudhir externalises stream of conscience and in other parts he uses typically “new wave” and avant-garde camera techniques and shots. Someone well-versed with his work will be able to easily infer that the filmmaker is evolving and incorporating new things to his work.

While Nawaz is as flawless as ever, Sanjay Narvekar’s supporting role as a politician and Indira Tiwari as Nawaz’s wife won my heart. If I ever give the film another viewing, it’ll be to see these two in action. A Netflix film, the production design and editing are stellar, something that the streaming and production platform rarely ever gets wrong. Even the cluttered, grimy, blackened, rat-infested chawl, musty with the smell of stale air and trapped rain water is able to look lush, thriving and sensory.

A good enough film dealing with a plethora of truths, this couldn’t have released at a better time, what with the brutal Hathras rape case and the presidential debate in America. This film might help you understand and investigate these things, and more, a little better.

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