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Serious Men - Review

The smarmy story of government servants that could have been something much better!

A scientist wants some more funds for his radio telescope. He comes to his senior. The senior is watching a film that highlights his work on space microbes. A puff piece for his ego! So, he barely has time for his junior and dismisses him quickly. Of course, there are no funds for his radio telescope.

And more importantly, both of their projects are unnecessary to human civilisation. But yet there they are, doing and competing with each other in that silliness.

In all this is Mani, the senior scientist's PA. He has risen from the dark depths of the country's lands. A Dalit from Tamil Nadu, whose wife swears when she is delivering a baby. He explains to another person listening to her swearing that in her tribe, this is all very normal. She is dark. He is dark. Very Dalit, and very resourceful.

So, Mani jumps into the scene between the two scientists and wangles his way out of his office, pitting one scientist against the other. It's as smart as it gets. It's smarmy too. Mani seemingly has no remorse in pulling off small illegalities like those Class 4 employees we have seen lifelong. They pilfer things from the office for their home needs. They are always looking to make an extra buck, without scruples. As Mani says, Upper caste chaps run things, so only they should have misgivings because they can afford to. They arrived long ago. People like Mani are still coming. Maybe, their children will have scruples.

Mani needs to do some big things in the meanwhile. Including making his son a genius and making him do something that will set course for the rest of this story, that's adapted from a novel of the same name by Manu Joseph.

It's a story about how castes play an underlying role in everything that happens in Indian homes, communities, and offices. How some take advantage and how others are suitably subjugated. It's a vast sweep, from schools to real estate developers to a premier scientific research facility in the city of Mumbai.

Therefore, it's engaging. And then there's Nawazuddin Siddiqui as Mani. He alone shepherds the film's engagement to another level altogether. Darting eyes, assured body language of a small level government servant, quicksilver hands to explain himself now and then, Siddiqui lays out his wares, with mind-boggling speed and effect. The director, Sudhir Mishra, uses his voice to create that additional satirical tone for the film to pop up well in parts.

The novel was a study of characters. The film needed to run on incidents. It's here that the screenplay needed to shape up to the next level, and that fails.

There had to be some additional scenes created to intrigue in a better manner, and we don't see those scenes. So, we meander with scenes that lose impact, and we do not know the evolution of other things like the developer's evolvement that may have been good for the story.

In all, it's a middling exercise held together by the brilliant Nawazuddin Siddiqui. One saw Suresh Narvekar as a politician after a long hiatus from the Hindi cinema. He is quite refreshing. The rest of the cast, including Nasser, as the Senior scientist, is wasted.

Sudhir Mishra was one of the young Turks back in 80s and 90s. He is jaded in thought and execution here. He does not use the city for an effect as he did in his earlier films. And there's no music to speak of.

Netflix is steadily building up his arsenal of middling cinema from India. Does one wonder whether they look at the content or names?

- Indraneel Majumdar

Stars - **

Streaming - Netflix

Director - Sudhir Mishra

Cast: Nawazuddin Siddiqui, Shweta Basu Prasad, Nassar, Sanjay Narvekar

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