The father wants to get his kid into the exclusive Catholic school that will give his little boy the best chance at a brighter future. And it’s not going well. The admissions officer asks him a question in code.
“What kind of people are Mani?” he wants to know, referring to the dad’s surname.
But that’s not what he’s asking, and Dad (Nawazuddin Siddiqui) cuts to the chase.
“We’re shudras, lower caste,” he blurts, and the whole office of this Mumbai institution flips out.
“We’re not ALLOWED to use that phrase,” even though that’s precisely what the classist creep wanted to know.
Mani is personal assistant to a scientist (Nassar) who heads an institute dedicated to getting government grants to search for signs of alien microbes in the upper atmosphere. The scientist is arrogant and insulting, calling Mani “Moron!” “Imbecile!” “Knobhead!” He can be that way because he’s upper caste. He can even get away with being a stubborn dope. Mani gets it.
The caste system still exists, Indian semantics be damned. A Tamil, he’s lived his whole life in a kind of comical defiance of the stacked-deck of India’s democratic meritocracy. And he’s hell-bent on getting his kid into that school, having the boy — mostly deaf in one ear — recognized as a genius, and putting it to India’s version of “The Man” as he does, as his son mingles with and joins the ranks of “Serious Men.”
Sudhir Mishra’s dramedy, based on a novel by Manu Joseph, is playful and profound, a commentary on India and its version of “privilege.” It’s also quite touching, a cautionary tale of “How far we’ve come” India, a sentimental father-and-son saga with a bitter metallic aftertaste.
The prologue shows Manu chewed out for speaking Tamil, when Hindi and English are all the upper classes will tolerate in upper class jobs. He jokes (in Tamil and Hindi, with English subtitles) with his pregnant wife (Indira Tiwari), sneaking her into an exclusive hotel’s pool, explaining the torrent of Tamil profanity she shrieks when she goes into labor as “It’s the Lord’s name…in Tamil.”
But once the child is born he’s all business. He will use what he’s learned to get little Adi into that school. He will teach the boy the science he overhears each day, and more importantly, the arrogant way the blowhards he works for carry themselves.
“I don’t have TIME for this” is a classic brushoff of annoying questions. “I can’t DEAL with primitive minds,” Adi fumes. “If you understood, you would be ME,” a brilliant person’s most effective put-down.
Adi (Aakshath Das) is distracted in class, pedantic when pressed on it. And by age nine, he has become a celebrity, the “little Einstein” of the BDD (slum) complex.
We have just enough time to ponder what Adi’s deal is — A genius learning to throw his weight around? A fraud? Dad’s trained, taught and doted-on revenge on India’s rigged society? — when a father-daughter PR firm and its idealistic, politically wired younger partner starts wondering how Adi can be of use to them.
“Aunty Anuja” (Shweta Basu Prasad) wants to lobby for money to improve the BDD slum, and a smart, articulate little boy with his eye on the skies just might be the face of that effort.
Like “Slumdog Millionaire,” “Serious Men” is a satire of Old India colliding with the new. But our hero this time always seems to have the upper hand against the Forces of Class and Caste. He and his wife may be “2G,” a generation removed from the filthiest, menial work of their caste. The top tier of India are 4G or higher. It’s just that Manu has been watching, listening and learning, and plotting his revenge.
Siddiqui, a wonderful actor who starred in “Photograph” and had a supporting role in “The Lunchbox,” beautifully embodies the resentment and hurt Manu lives his life by. He is the classic office underling rolling his eyes and cracking wise at the over-promoted cranks he works for.
“Alien microbes in the stratosphere?” It is to laugh.
Tiwari plays the wife and mother Oja as passive and provincial, exactly as Manu sees her — until he and we realize she isn’t.
Veteran character actor Nassar — he was in Hollywood’s “Fair Game” — has the bluff and bluster to pull off the imperious Dr. Acharya, and the range to show us the real man whose bluff has been called.
Young Aakshath Das sounds like a child speaking by rote, which is exactly right in this part. And Prasad, a beautiful actress given a facial scar and limp as Anuja, gets across a nice blend of ruthlessness and disability-driven empathy for the poor she might actually want to help.
Of all the countries where Netflix has planted its flag and financed home grown cinema, India is where their cash is producing the most impressive films. “Serious Men” is a serio-comic satire well worth the subtitles, and a sentimental drama worth the tears.
MPAA Rating: TV-MA, profanity
Cast: Nawazuddin Siddiqui, Nassar, Aakshath Das, Indira Tiwari and Shweta Basu Prasad
Credits: Directed by Sudhir Mishra, script by Bhavesh Mandalia, Abhijeet Khuman, Nikhil Nair and Niren Bhatt, based on the novel by Manu Joseph. A Netflix release.
Running time: 1:54