Manoj Bajpayee simply lives, and loves, the role -- of a man who life is fast passing by, and who continues to live the lie of a simple government servant, observes Saisuresh Sivaswamy.
What do you do when the Web series you made on an unassuming intelligence operative who thwarts a major terror attack turns out to be a sleeper hit?
Obviously, you work on its second season. You also bring in a fresh new brain to the helm to take the story forward.
Which is what Raj Nidimoru and Krishna DK have done with The Family Man 2, bringing in edgy director Suparn Verma (disclosure: he is an ex-colleague and friend) to steer the ship along with them.
And they could not have chosen a better pair of hands.
Still, I suspect, the makers were constrained by the way Season 1 ended, leaving them with not too large an arc to project the story.
For those who don't remember, S1 ended with a chemical factory outside Delhi spewing toxic fumes courtesy Al Qatl and Sajid, with some intelligence operatives trapped inside.
Did Srikant Tiwari, the protagonist, save the situation, as well as his crumbing marriage?
These are questions you have been wrestling with for the last two years, and if you expect S2 to begin by answering them, you will be disappointed.
Instead, it begins in northern Sri Lanka, where a band of Tamil armed rebels (or revolutionaries or terrorists, take your pick), are battle ready to take on the treacherous government of Rupatunga and his ally, the Indian prime minister.
Clearly, a lot has happened in these two years, one of which we have all spent locked up in our homes.
Tiwari, you realise, has graduated from a Hyundai Santro to an Accent, but it has come at a price.
He is now working for a tech company, doing heaven knows what, with his prodigy of a boss taking his case regularly for being the minimum guy. But Tiwari manages to keep his sanity, as well as retain his mouthful of MC/BCs and other epithets.
Nothing much has changed in his family either.
His marriage is still on the rocks, his children treat him like something unwanted and there's only one refuge left.
Former deputy and friend, J K Talpade, but instead of the dives they frequented in S1, Tiwari -- now on private sector salary -- can afford fancy restaurants, never mind that Talpade cannot pronounce the dishes on the menu.
You soon come to learn that the Delhi gas attack was thwarted with some casualties, but it has been passed off as an accident and not a terror attack, something the media has meekly bought into.
But you still don't learn what happened in that hotel room in Lonavla in S1.
Did Suchi and Arvind do it, or was it, to use a Mumbaiya term Srikant Tiwari is yet to unleash on us, KLPD?
Season 1 was based on verisimilitude, so you had Kerala youth returning from a stint with IS in Syria to exact revenge for Gujarat 2002 riots, ISI sleeper cells, university unrest, killings over beef, framing of innocent Muslim youth, etc.
Season 2 tries to walk down the same path.
So you have London being the second last refuge of scoundrels, a Sri Lankan Tamil rebel assassination plot with a lady killer at the centre, differences among the rebel leadership etc, which is all fine, but to extend it to a woman prime minister, and a Bengali at that... The makers sure have a sense of humour, or is it wishful thinking...?
As I said earlier, S1 didn't leave the makers with too a large arc to execute (but from the teaser, it is clear S3 will).
Sajid is in the wind, and will need to be pencilled in for whatever plot is being hatched.
So he gets sent off to Chennai to assist the Lankan Tamil rebels, and gets wasted as a glorified errand boy. His own mind is set on a needless plot in Mumbai, which only serves as a distraction from the main story, so when the final act plays out, he is nowhere around.
As for the main plot, the Tamil Tigers did have the run of Tamil Nadu once and did assassinate our former prime minister, but all that was 30 years ago.
The Tigers were neutralised 12 years ago.
The creative team could have chosen to go with something more contemporary, given that Sajid is still out there, but unfortunately for them, most recent internal threats to India have our western neighbour as agent provocateur, which would have made S2 a reprise of S1.
Choosing the Tamil rebels automatically meant sacrificing Sajid's importance in the scheme of things -- as putting an ISI agent in a Tamil plot would have sharpened the protests in Tamil Nadu.
As Tandav showed, good TV is not always safe from mob fury.
So as the terror plot unfolds, Srikant Tiwari is stuck in a job he hates, and in a marriage that needs a counsellor (go in peace, Asif Basra) to tell them what's wrong.
A dinner with wife tells him their marriage is a sham (whose meaning he quickly looks up on google), and decides to get back to intelligence.
Sometimes, of course, you feel intelligence is something his job lacks in.
Just imagine, in S1, Al Qatl is hiding in plain sight and Tiwari fails to spot him.
He comes face to face with Sajid in Kashmir but doesn't disable him and use him as a cover to get past the restive crowd.
Again, when Sajid is fleeing with gas canisters, Tiwari's security team foils him but the terrorist vanishes right before their eyes, poof!
I mean, is that a dragnet or a sieve?
Once again, after activating the chemical factory, Sajid simply vanishes past our security phalanx that must be hunting him down, and resurfaces in London in S2, none the worse for wear.
This lack of intelligence seems to pervade the entire TASC unit.
A team of two goes to the factory to check it out but they don’t alert the HQ, and Tiwari in his hurry leaves his phone behind. So when his team is in trouble, they keep calling him in vain -- and never once Talpade, who is with Tiwari all the time. Clearly there is no SOP for the team to follow.
In fact, the factory's name had come up earlier but instead of storming it at once Tiwari plays it cool, leading to the near-death of his agents and the death of many others.
The same is the case in S2.
Tiwari and his team have Raji on the ground, she is surrounded on all sides by officers with guns, yet no one bothers to tie her up, or even shoot to disable. Naturally, she escapes.
Talpade and Muthu land up where the rebels are hiding, and spend an entire day there waiting for a warrant. Not once do they call back to the office to report what is going on, nor does anyone call them to check if things are fine.
Nor is there any great tech for the team, like body cams, ear comms, use of drones to spy, or even GPS-enabled cars which would all make the team's job easier. As Prime Minister Basu asks in a scene, 'All the budget that is sanctioned for you, where does the money go?'
That Tiwari is more than fallible is evident in the scene where they finally manage to apprehend Raji.
You know the area is full of rebel sympathisers, so what would your first instinct be? To take her away, to safe and secure Chennai, at once.
Instead, they decide to tie her up to a rickety chair in a room, not even a lockup, in a rural police station where the cops still use rifles from pre-independence era, and wait for security 'backup' to take them to Chennai.
This fallacy costs him another agent, whose end is shown almost operatically -- something the valiant Pasha did not get in S1.
Where S1 scored was in the big reveal of Al Qatl.
S2 doesn't have such a moment.
You know the plot has been hatched, there will be a cat and mouse game till the very end before the threat is neutralised.
Again, S1 left you with the big question: Did the plot succeed?
S2 too could have left the question up in the air, but that would be a repeat of S1.
Instead, Tiwari and team eliminate the would-be assassin, and even make it to the PMO for a private award ceremony; Tiwari even manages to win back his daughter's affection, so all is well one guesses, and S3 won't see him toiling away in a brokerage firm.
Talking of Tiwari's daughter (Ashlesha Thakur), a young star is on the make.
Through all this frenetic activity a love jihad angle gets squeezed in, so verisimilitude is well and alive.
Much of S2 is located in Tamil Nadu, and there is an awful lot of dialogues in Tamil as well Sri Lankan Tamil which is a sing-song, chaste version of what is spoken in Chennai.
For ears like mine filled with choicest Hindi gaalis from Tiwari, a single Tamil expletive brought unbridled joy.
When Jebaraj spits out the word, I almost stood up to applaud. Like the popular four-letter word in English, otha is also multi-faceted, and can be used for a variety of emotions and expressions, from pure joy to threat to disbelief to curse to anything.
And, I must commend the exactitude displayed by the team in things Tamil, the accuracy of language, and even the plot.
A tremendous amount of research and recce has gone into the show to make it believable, and it works.
Few have got complex Tamil Nadu so right.
The playful joshing between north Indians and Tamilians was a joy to watch.
A hero works only as much as the antagonist.
In S1, Tiwari had Al Qatl and Sajid as worthy adversaries, and S2 ups the amp by roping in Samantha Akkineni as Raji the ruthless killer.
One can argue over the need for her bronzing but that distraction aside, she is perfectly cast. Both as the subservient employee with a secret and as the rebel with a deadly cause, she shines.
Personally, I wish she doesn't twist her lips to show she is a badass, something she had done earlier in the Tamil movie 10 Endrathukulla (2015) as well.
As Jebaraj tells her, just because you twist your face like that doesn't meant I am scared of you.
That for all her bottled-up rage Raji is not beyond vanity is shown at the toll gate where, despite having just recovered from a gunshot and living on abandoned premises, she seems to have found fancy togs and even managed a cornrow in her hair.
By being conspicuous when the need was for the exact opposite, she ends up attracting the male attention with all its consequences.
Srikant Tiwari has better etched scenes in S2 and is shown to internalise much more than he did in S1.
Manoj Bajpayee simply lives, and loves, the role -- of a man who life is fast passing by, and who continues to live the lie of a simple government servant.
But I wish he controlled the urge to go emo with the antagonists, be it with Raji in the police station or with Salman on the phone.
But then, he is just a fallible guy.