Political correctness imposes crippling constraints. More so when you want to depart from the mandated stereotype of the Dalit as a victim. This is a problem felt across cultures. I remember how American stand-up comics, and other satirical shows that revelled in screwing incumbent Presidents, bemoaned that Obama was off limits. You could not target America’s first Black president. Someone with his good looks, grave professorial air, eloquence that had intellectual heft and emotional appeal, everything that made him charismatic, challenged writers of comedy and satire (except for white supremacists, of course).
A similar taboo, unwritten but dominant, prevails when you want a Dalit hero with grey shades to evoke an ambivalent response. For taking this on, you have to grant it to Manu Joseph’s debut novel that Sudhir Mishra brings to screen. Serious Men is seriously not a film that even Indie cinema would dare to handle. It is thanks to streaming platforms, that Serious Men could be made. A satire that takes on the elite science community, and a Dalit hero’s vengeance in a rather complicated, ambiguous manner, touches on themes usually considered untouchable.
Ayyan Mani (Nawazuddin Siddiqui) is PA to a top scientist, Dr. Aravind Acharya (Nassar) at a very prestigious research centre (something like the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research) that is government funded. Mani is a sponge, picking up disparate bits of information, thirsting for the education he could not get. He is a quick and cunning learner of not only scientific information, but also will pour over dictionaries to write a pompous letter requesting paternity leave. He is a survivor who aims high — to make his son an equal of those born to privilege. He has a simple gradation of social hierarchy, from 1G to 4G —first generation learner to the fourth—which doesn’t need to work, but idles around swimming pools of five-star hotels. He is a Dalit who calculatedly uses the victim card to shame the staff of the admissions department of a prestigious school when his slow-learner son is denied admission even though he tries to bluff his way. He claims Dr.Acharya for a colleague on back-slapping terms, while the top boss is snooty, and discourages Mani from speaking to him in Tamil – their mother tongue.
Mani hates and admires the arrogance of the man (Mani always sports a tie at work like his boss) who dismisses inconvenient questions with the non-sequitur: I can't deal with primitive minds like you. It is a sentence Mani coaches his young son Adi (Aakshath Das) to use with a precocious dismissive attitude to angry teachers, or persistent journalists.
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