Serious Men is one of the sharpest movies of Sudhir Mishra's career, observes Sukanya Verma.
A father's desire to see his kid succeed is a sentiment. A Dalit father's desire to see his kid succeed is an endeavour.
Casteist hierarchy has historically controlled whom it chooses to empower and whom to oppress.
The gross injustice in this distinction manifests in a father's questionable actions in Serious Men.
In the process of plotting his son's shiny future, he not only deceives but endangers the young one's childhood for the sake of an advantage may not necessarily seek.
Ayyan Mani (Nawazuddin Siddiqui) is a bit of a smart-ass putting on a brash act to pull off his minor schemes.
A man's belief in his dreams downsizes his reality.
Rather than pity his marginalisation as a Dalit Tamil migrant in Mumbai, Ayyan weaponises it to slyly turn tables in his favour or shame anyone who dare belittle him.
His constantly condescending voiceover reveals a shrewd sense of observation and extraordinary grasp over matters well beyond his reach.
Like when he remarks, 'Uska IQ machar jitna hai. Microbes uske universe ki baahar ki cheez hai,' the scorn in his I-know-better conviction is hard to miss.
People at the fringes are always in the know of things that people at the centre are too preoccupied to notice.
Ayyan's insolence and trickery stems from his acuity, which he has meticulously cultivated over years and years of insignificance.
Sponging off his snooty astrophysicist Brahmin boss Acharya's (sophisticated, erudite Nassar) pretence of intellect, he parrots back the same knowledge to his son Adi (Aakshath Das) until he is perceived as a child prodigy.
When Adi's wee celebrity status attracts a local Dalit politician (Sanjay Narvekar is suitably slippery) and his daughter's (Shweta Basu Prasad does well within the scope) redevelopment plans for the crammed chawl complex he resides in along with his pushy father and compliant mother (Indira Tiwari, scarce lines, tall presence), endorsement is symbolic of altering the status quo.
But the burden of genius is hard to bear. Especially when you are not one.
Adi discovers this the hard way as does his idiosyncratic father.
In this riveting adaptation of Manu Joseph's novel of the same name, the author's scathing worldview and wry wit sheds some of its cynicism to embrace director Sudhir Mishra’s empathetic treatment of morally skewed characters.
Though remorseless in its cunning, often Ayyan's machinations feel like a justified response of a victim of longstanding prejudice. Between wronged and wrongdoing, Mishra treads on the fascinating duality of insecurities and impulses through the prism of class, caste and parenting.
What emerges is a captivating and complex portrait of underdog ambition.
Its satirical overtones, crackling zingers and razor sharp detailing enrich the experience of watching wholesome actors at the top of their game.
Every second of Serious Men pulsates with Nawaz's steadfast energy even though it is a performance whose various facets can be traced to previous roles.
Nawaz's ability to loom large even when he is not in the frame does well to highlight his character's intimidating quality.
Even if the composure in his definitive chat around Acharya feels a tad too neat, the ruthless vigour he applies to his aggression towards the younger members of the cast is where his mettle shines.
As an equal participant in Ayyan's elaborate game of affectations, Aakshath Das gets the body language of deceit down pat. His subsequent moment of breakdown is as heartbreaking in spirit as it is conveyed in person.
Even phony brainiacs get a big speech moment but the masterful twist leading to his redemption is an amusing hat tip to human folly.
Doing away with a literary source's plot threads or condensing characters is the prerogative of any film-maker.
But one never sees the point of alluding to the politician's daughter's bad marriage.
Another weak link is Acharya's characterisation, which is side-lined to give Ayyan's a stronger footing rendering the payoff somewhat underwhelming.
Regardless of its unromantic conclusions, Serious Men never feels as dark as it really is or Manu Joseph intended it to be thanks to its film-maker's humane outlook.
At the end of the day, there's always a little more to people than their politics.
In what is one of the sharpest movies of his career, Sudhir Mishra shows you needs to be more sensitive than serious to recognise that.
Serious Men streams on Netflix from October 2.