Recently released Netflix film Serious Men, based on journalist and writer Manu Joseph’s 2010 novel by the same name, is a powerful reflection of the desperation that exists within those belonging to the Dalit community in an urban setting, and the angst in their dog-eat-dog world.
Ayyan Mani (played by Nawazuddin Siddiqui) is a Dalit assistant of a well known astronomer at a research institute. He lives with his wife and son in a slum, and is frustrated with his life. His 10 year old son, Adi Mani (played by Aakshath Das), who wears a hearing aid, is hailed as somewhat of a whizkid in his school and society at large when he starts making precocious statements and asking questions well beyond his age.
Given his high IQ, he is promoted to a higher class and given a scholarship, and in no time, he becomes instantly famous—signing autographs, appearing for photo shoots and giving television interviews—all for his genius. A political party goes as far as making him their poster boy, and he begins delivering speeches in various public forums.
It is only until we find out that the boy’s brilliance is simply a façade created by his father Ayyan—who feeds him all the answers and other information through a Bluetooth device on the boy’s hearing device, and even helps get him the question papers. This stems largely from Ayyan’s incessant desire for inter-generational equity and opportunity, which he and seeks for his son. In a sense, by pressuring his son—a slow learner in reality—to pose as a prodigy before the world, Ayyan hopes that he and his family can rise above the filth, climb up the social ladder, and aspire for a better life. The child, however, feels like he is living a lie, scared that his secret will soon be out and discovered by all. He cowers under the immense expectation, and begins to slowly break down.
During the course of his work, Ayyan uncovers some fraud committed by his boss (M Nassar), who in turn, realises the truth about his son. When Ayyan reports his boss’ deceit, the latter takes revenge by revealing the truth about his son to the political party. The politicians, though disappointed, decide that it’s best to play along with the story at this point, as a lot of money is riding on Adi. When Ayyan recounts to his boss the narrative of his own struggle as a child, he sympathises with him, but tells him that what he is doing with his son is wrong. He urges him not to make his son an exhibition for the world. Instead, he tells him to let Adi grow at his own pace, play, and have fun with his friends. “Kids are like flowers,” he says. “Either they bloom or die.”
The film shows that the social emancipation matrix is much more complex than just providing access to education. It also sends out a larger message about parenting—the fact that we must not try to live out our dreams through our children—and reminding us of those many parents who habitually parade their children around like circus clowns, hoping they will earn them a fortune.
We caught up with the film’s director Sudhir Mishra and writer Bhavesh Mandalia among other things about the process they used to adapt the novel into a screenplay, Dalit stories being portrayed on screen, and the Indian education system.
What process did you use to adapt the novel into film’s screenplay?
Sudhir Mishra: In the novel, one gets inspired by something, like a character. The greater the novel, the more difficult it is to adapt because it means playing with words and delving into the abstract. Cinema is concrete, so you have to reinvent, create scenes and remove tracks since it’s a two hour film. So, the selection process is very important. What is it about the novel that can be transformed into a film? In this case, we thought it was the father-son story.
Bhavesh Mandalia: It’s like how I would write any other film. The key difference was, instead of looking for inspiration from, real life situations, I (and my co-writers) took inspiration from the story and the characters from within the novel. Instead of literally following the novel, I took the essence of the book that I understood and followed my usual process of putting it in a screenplay form. Adaptation, for me, is converting the thoughts of the novel to events of screenplay.
Thankfully, Manu Joseph (the book’s author) gave us a freehand and encouraged us to give our spin to his story. The question was not “how much to take” but “what to take” from the novel. Those who have read it and seen the film might notice some missing characters or events from the novel but we had to drop them—they didn’t naturally fit in our screenplay.
It is a wonderful novel, full of interesting strands and details which we could not incorporate in a screenplay. Someday, I would love to see another adaption of the novel by another writer or Manu himself, to see what spins he gives to the screenplay.
Mainstream Hindi films mostly portray upper caste Brahmins as protagonists. Do you think that Dalit stories—about their lives, struggles, discrimination, and violence—are finding a new voice in the entertainment industry?
Sudhir Mishra: Not as much as they should. We still are caught up in the narratives of the upper class and upper caste.
Bhavesh Mandalia: Yes, definitely. The influx of talent working in the film industry from smaller towns is growing rapidly, as it’s not taboo to be working in films anymore. Hindi and its dialects are becoming ‘cool’, which is encouraging new writers from smaller towns and villages to tell their stories from their heartland. That’s why new-age protagonists and stories are growing. Just like partition, communal divide stories and class divide stories, Dalit-Brahmin stories are also deep-rooted in the psyche of people. We should see more of them in the coming future.
Does our education policy put undue pressure on children, or is it the lack of job opportunities that is driving parents into the kind of things that Ayyan resorts to in the film? Will the newly announced National Education Policy, which puts emphasis on one’s mother tongue, be a major disadvantage to children from underprivileged backgrounds? Do you agree that English is the language of emancipation for underprivileged students?
Sudhir Mishra: In India, education is a lot of learning by rote. You rote something informational and then you regurgitate it out in the exams. It is a way of getting out of the middle-class, lower middle-class hole. It’s a way out of poverty into job security. It’s not about inquiry or discovery. So, the whole education system needs to be revamped and more emphasis needs to be put on education because today information is available at the click of a button. So, all this memorization is passe. More interpretation and imagination is needed.
Emphasis on mother tongue is a good thing, but we need more books and information to be available in the mother tongue. At the moment, I don’t think that English should be made lesser. It will harm job prospects, communication and future research.
Bhavesh Mandalia: In the film, Ayyan does the con because he believes his son, a slow learner, has no chance of survival in the real world. Ayyan lacked patience and he truly believed his son would never be able to get out of the stinking chawls unless something drastic is done. The sheer desperation that rose from the thought of his son’s bleak future drove him to plot this con, which had no exit strategy.
As for our previous education policy, it was designed to make great clerks out of us but not great thinkers or artists. Unfortunately, in a developing country like ours, for most people, survival is the first priority; they don’t have a choice. After 16 grueling years of education, you have to be someone worthy of a job.
We’ll be much richer and more inclusive as a society once we collectively stop looking down upon people who aren’t fluent in English. There is a huge chunk of India which can’t afford education in English. Personally, I’m in favour of a system of education that is equal for all and puts more emphasis on one’s mother tongue.
How has the film industry evolved from your first film Yeh Woh Manzil To Nahin (1987) to Serious Men (2020)? Are you finding opportunities to tell more stories through the proliferation of OTT platforms?
Sudhir Mishra: Yes, there are definitely more opportunities. The big advantage is that you can tell all sorts of stories. Some stories require twenty minutes, so you can make a short film; some require a two hour format; some require more elaboration, so you make a mini-series; and some have the legs to go into seasons, so you can do that as well. When I started out, it was very difficult for one wanting to make an independent film.