BOLLYWOOD: Serious Men, the debut novel of journalist Manu Joseph, was published a decade ago in a different, less raucous India. Joseph’s smartly cheeky take on the two “serious men” of his imagination – Arvind Acharya, a Brahmin scientist, and Ayyan Mani, his Dalit personal assistant – is unsentimental but also a sympathetic insider’s view of our grand divides. Joseph’s story and narrative provided, unintentionally or intentionally, a counterview to the platitude about India as a country of contradictions and opposites. The novel stripped the idea that India lives in several centuries at the same time and shows why these polarities can play out dangerously in human lives.
Director Sudhir Mishra is a right fit for this India story. Mishra directs the screen adaptation for Netflix without frills and obsessing about form and style. Through a linear narrative, Mishra allows the intersecting fates of the two protagonists to show us how human-made hierarchies built around caste and social status can fuel savage battles within and outside of us. Writers Bhavesh Mandalia and Abhijit Khuman craft a simple, chronological structure for the story with overlapping layers about class subversion, intellectual ambition, the limits of fame and greed, the weight of caste baggage and courage and vulnerability.
In Joseph’s novel, the world of science is as monolithic and oppressive as any corporation or government machinery. But there is also the promise that science, when used the right way, is one of humanity’s greatest hopes to cross artificial barriers and find solutions to its problems. In the film, the focus is on Ayyan’s journey with his son. There is no catharsis and only compromise, catalysed by a brilliant climactic moment at an art gallery. The scene beautifully crystallises what Serious Men is about – no matter how close they are physically, for a Brahmin, and in extension, all born to privilege, the lens to view creativity, is vastly different from what it is to a Dalit.