Based on journalist and writer Manu Joseph’s eponymous first novel, this one is a bittersweet watch. Laced in an acid-tongued narrative, the film delves into the life of a morally ambiguous man who hopes to propel his child with supposedly exceptional abilities to deliver on his potential.
The film opens to a whimsical tune which the film’s lead considers his favourite because it signifies nothing and thus complements every mood. A personal assistant to a space scientist, Ayyan Mani (Nawazuddin Siddiqui) doesn’t mind being constantly berated by his bosses who alternately refer to him as ‘moron’, ‘knobhead’ and ‘imbecile’. He confides in office peons who join him in dubbing their arrogant seniors as ‘serious men’ -- brilliant minds keen on unravelling the secrets of the universe but also those who fail to connect a laptop to a printer. Mani also equates them to those ‘who sit in the back seat of sedans, making presentations on their laptops about why condoms need to have dots’. Ironically, he also hopes that his son Adi (Aakshath Das) grows up to qualify as one too, even if it takes a slight nudge and a whole lot of prep. Unwilling to take any chances, he encourages Adi to mug up one liners in an effort to convey early tells of brilliance, just enough to dazzle everyone around him. And when the preteen is confronted by a tricky question, he’s instructed to bark back, saying, “I can’t deal with primitive minds like you.” Evidently, the charade is a success and Adi’s bloated faculties draw much media attention and interest, turning him into a mini celebrity. But since it’s a ruse that’s destined for doom, it’s only a matter of time before Mani’s showhorse is exposed.
Siddiqui slips into his author-backed role with conviction and completes his complex Ayyan with sharp and pointed clapbacks. The actor has often excelled in pulling off characters unwilling to conform to norms or resign to circumstances. But here, he literally carries the story through and it’s difficult to imagine this film without his caustic punchlines. Getting a child actor to effectively translate a layered role -- riddled in self-doubt and also one that’s pretending to be someone he’s not -- may be a bit much. But Aakshath Das is fairly convincing as the perpetually perplexed Adi, while Sanjay Narvekar and Shweta Basu Prasad in peripheral supporting roles are suitably cast too. M Nasser seems a bit restricted in his one-dimensional turn as the arrogant and excessively pissed-off space scientist Aravind Acharya, but his character takes a turn as the film progresses, allowing the veteran actor to flex his acting chops.
Sudhir Mishra’s Serious Men makes for a compelling watch, particularly for the writing (Bhavesh Mandalia) that keeps the proceedings light-hearted even while it slyly takes a stab at caste, class and on being profiled for one’s pedigree. The film also drives a strong argument against ambitious parents who have unreasonable expectations from their wards, often under the guise of ‘it’s for their own good’. But as it turns out quite often, at least in this film, it’s a classic case of unfulfilled aspirations being passed down generations as an undisputable duty, only so that parents can vicariously achieve the goals they couldn’t themselves send to the back of the net.