In early scene in Serious Men spells out Ayyan Mani’s dilemma. Sitting by a luxury hotel’s swimming pool with his wife (Indira Tiwari), Ayyan (Nawazuddin Siddiqui) — a Dalit (untouchable) by caste — brings up a parallel between their societal standing and the people sitting around him.

“It takes four generations to be able to do nothing at all,” he explains in today’s tech-speak. Their parents were the 1G generation, who never went to school. He and his wife were the 2G generation; people who’ve gotten an education but didn’t get anywhere in life (Ayyan is a leading astronomer’s personal assistant). The 3G generation — their children — will get further education, do inane jobs (such as explaining the need for dots on male contraception), and make enough money to get their children — the 4G generation — to live lives in such luxury that luxuries feel worthless.

The stark contrast of the generational, racial and societal gap is acerbically presented in the Sudhir (Dharavi, Chameli, Hazaaron Khwahishein Aisi) Mishra-directed adaptation of journalist-turned-novelist Manu Joseph’s novel.

Adapted by Bhavesh Mandalia, Abhijeet Khuman, Niren Bhatt and Nikhil Nair, this is a deeply troubling and sad but riveting drama of a man who wants his children and grandchildren to live the life of kings.

Director Sudhir Mishra’s Serious Men is a deeply troubling and sad but riveting drama about caste discrimination and social ambitions

As a PA to Dr Arvind Acharya, one of the prominent astronomers in a major institute in India (played by M. Nasser), Ayyan has taken the wrong inspiration. Dr Acharya is a conman who has consistently swindled government funds for the exploration of the Earth’s stratosphere, where he theorises, lie signs of intelligent alien life.

“Space microbes,” he screams at people not buying the idea. “They’re the reason why life exists,” he says with authority. To anyone questioning otherwise, he bluntly puts them down by speaking scientific gobbledygook (the unintelligent, made-up kind), and arrogantly retaliates by saying that he can’t stand dumb people.

Ayyan and Dr Acharya are always at odds; the esteemed scientist, however, sees his PA’s worth as that of a gnat. Ayyan, who lives at a rental one-room apartment in a chawl that houses 15,000 people, is passionately driven to raise his family’s status.

A few years later, Ayyan’s son, Adi (Aakshath Das), who was once denied admission in a prestigious Christian school, is hailed as an Einstein-level genius. Adi speaks of theories that might baffle even revered scientists — like photosynthesis generating enough oxygen to save the Earth from pollution decay — to the ire of his middle school teacher. The media loves him, however, and soon he becomes the poster-boy for a politician who wants to clean up Ayyan’s chawl and erect a sprawling high-rise in its place.

There are two problems though. Adi, who has a problem with his hearing, never smiles and Ayyan’s ambitions are dangerously cruel. Serious Men — or rather the story of one very ‘Serious Man’ — is a harrowing account of a great con.

Serious Men is less frivolous than the excellent Irrfan Khan and Saba Qamar-starrer Hindi Medium. In fact, Siddiqui, splendidly forceful, excels in a role that would fit the late great Khan like a glove.

The casting — Indira Tiwari, Sanjay Narvekar and Shweta Basu Prasad — is impeccable. The real powerhouse element of Serious Men is its taut, unyielding, multilayered screenplay, from the perspective of characters that are immovably caught in self-made, dire circumstances. It is a socially relevant, ethical piece of fiction that’s grounded in so much fact that one feels suffocation in the lungs and palpitation of the heart just by watching it.

Published in Dawn, ICON, October 11th, 2020