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A chat with some not so ‘Serious Men’

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When an acclaimed filmmaker like Sudhir Mishra took on the onerous task of adapting award winning novelist Manu Joseph’s 2010 sleeper hit Serious Men for celluloid, one would have expected sparks to fly. Luckily for the audience this seems to have been limited to the screen since by the duo’s own admission it was a collaborative process involving Joseph who Mishra jokingly refers to as the ‘Tamil consultant’ on set.

While Sudhir Mishra, Manu Joseph and leading man Nawazuddin Siddiqui can be termed a trio of seriously talented men who may be averse to being tagged as ‘Serious Men’ the way the movie satirises the upper class, there is no doubt each brought to the table the best of their collective experience leading to an evocatively touching tale of a lower middle class Dalit man who embarks on a con to give his beloved young son a leg up in the world.

Set in BDD chawl in Mumbai, Serious Men, is at once a social commentary on modern India as well as a heartbreaking tale of the special bond between a father and son. As played by Siddiqui, Ayyan Mani is an ambitious go-getter who is bent upon leveraging his son into an aspirational world that he has access to only from the fringes. The National-Award winning actor, who has in previous interviews joked that he couldn’t get past a couple of pages of the book, confesses that Ayyan is a complicated character but he benefitted greatly from the inputs provided by Joseph.

Tellingly he also draws parallels between his own journey in Bollywood and Ayyan’s migration from the village to the big city of Mumbai, where he serves as an assistant to astrophysicist Dr Arvind Acharya. “This character is very connected to me because I came from a small town. I did so much of hard work… in that sense I relate to Ayyan,” the actor tells us candidly over a Zoom conversation along with Mishra and Joseph.

“The complexities of this character is such that he has good and bad within him,” explains Siddiqui. He rues that though the content might have changed in Hindi films over the years, people still want to see a “politically correct human being” on the big screen.

Calling Ayyan a “rare” character Siddiqui explains that “audience likes ideal characters – however much we may be flawed from within, however much drawbacks we may have, we still like to see a correct character, one who will inspire on the big screen.”

Joseph on his part admits he may have been possessive of his book soon after its release but was reassured by the talent pool that came together to flesh out his characters on the big screen, including screenplay writers Bhavesh Mandalia and Abhijeet Khuman. He adds that while it is unfortunate that certain aspects of the book have aged well, there are still many things which are relevant. “And some aspects in the book are actually irrelevant, which gives the film a much fresher look.”

Sudhir Mishra (Hazaaron Khwaishein Aisi) confesses turning Serious Men into a movie was a scary proposition since “the better the book the more difficult it is (to adapt it)”

The director, however, asserts that Serious Men the movie is totally different from the eponymous book. He makes it clear his intention was never to let the movie mimic the book: “The film exists on its own and the book exists on its own.”

He even quotes V.S.Naipaul to accentuate the point. “Like Naipaul says; ‘when I give away the rights of the book, I forget about it. I’m confident of my book, it rests on its own and I don’t care’.”

A sentiment he obviously shares about his movie as well that is streaming on Netflix.

“Don’t come in expecting the film to give you the same experience as the book did,” he warns as a parting shot.

Joseph has a more philosophical take on the movie. “People have a fantasy about themselves as receivers of some great morality,” he explains. “But films like Serious Men, are retraining people to accept people the way they are.

“The way some people are reacting right now (referencing Bollywood) as if they are some great saints, all that will be minimised,” he adds, “if we accept we are all flawed.”

 

Serious Men will be streaming on Netflix from October 2, Friday