Director Sudhir Mishra’s next Serious Men, a screen adaptation of Manu Joseph’s eponymous novel, is a scathing social satire that revolves around Ayyan Mani, a Tamil Dalit and a first generation Mumbaikar. Mani, essayed by Nawazuddin Siddiqui, is tormented with his under-privileged societal status and harbours unrealistic aspirations. He plots to build his son’s reputation as a boy-genius to improve his family’s social status and fortune.
Ahead of Serious Men’s premiere on Netflix on October 2, Mishra and Siddiqui speak about the process of adapting the novel, which is a poignant and satirical examination of the Indian caste system. They also share insight on the ongoing insider-outsider controversy and the stories of the everyday man occupying the Indian screen.
Excerpts from the interview with the director and the actor:
Since Manu Joseph had earlier suggested that either Irrfan or Nawazuddin Siddiqui should play the role of Ayyan Mani, did that make the process of casting easier for you?
Mishra: When you are writing, a face emerges. Nawaz was a unanimous choice and was one of the first people to be cast. The process of working on the film is always very collaborative for me. Nawaz has the skill set and you don’t have to talk about basics with him. Instead, we were discussing the idea and context.
Siddiqui: When we graduated from the National School of Drama, we wanted to work with directors like Govind Nihalani, Ram Gopal Varma, and Sudhir Mishra. Finally, after 20 years, I worked with Sudhir ji. During the making of Serious Men, I trusted him to point out if I was not doing something right or overdoing it.
What was the process of adapting the novel Serious Men for screen?
Mishra: The better the book, the more difficult it is to adapt. To turn the words, images, and abstracts in a literary work into a scene with actors is a difficult task. Screenwriter Bhavesh Mandalia took about 10 months to adapt it for the screen, keeping the novel’s essence intact. We worked on it with Manu’s approval. When we went to Goa to work on the final draft, we took Manu along. He enjoyed the process of creating something else instead of recreating the book. However, the film owes a lot to the book. The movie could not have existed without the novel.
This is a layered social satire and we don’t get to watch these kinds of movies quite often these days. Did the caste angle emerge as the central issue organically?
Mishra: It (caste angle) is there in the book. It is a humane story of a father and a son. Everything beyond that is a layer. It is what it is and the story is told without pulling any punches. I was attracted to the book because it is a biting social satire. The movie retains that aspect of the book. First and foremost, the story should work, and then it can have these strands, layers, backgrounds, context and others. Whatever the statement the movie makes, emerges from the story.
Nawazuddin Siddiqui, did you identify yourself with Ayyan Mani and his struggles?
Siddiqui: Yes, at a certain point. Every parent wants that his/her child should take a considerable leap of progress. Everyone wishes for a better status in society. I do connect with my character in these respects. However, I don’t think as Ayyan does. Even though it was a long wait and I had to work hard, I wanted my journey to be honest.
Mumbai chawls have their unique charm and many beautiful films have been shot there. What was your experience?
Mishra: Years ago, I had shot Mein Zinda Hoon (1988) in a chawl. BDD Chawl, where we shot Serious Men, has a lot of history. It was built by the Britishers in 1920s as low-cost housing. The rooms were too small and the chawl was converted into a prison for freedom fighters. Even though later on the rooms turned into housing tenements, the present structure still resembles a jail. During the shooting, the residents there were very cooperative.
Is the story of everyday man told less frequently today compared to the movies made by the filmmakers in the ’70s and ’80s?
Mishra: For a while, it was like that. We started making movies for NRIs, who were homesick. We wanted to project a certain kind of India to them. Today, we are once again telling the stories of the common man and that’s the advantage of platforms like Netflix. A lot of young writers and directors have come from smaller towns and their stories are about the common man. These movies have enjoyed success. Marathi cinema is very evolved today and that influences others too. Indians want their stories to be told.
So, where does the raging debate about insider-outsider stand today?
Mishra: Yesterday’s outsider is today’s insider. Nawaz, who was an outsider earlier, is an insider today. If his child wishes, then he/she has the right to be an actor. It is just that there should be fairness. We should not look at the cinema just as a dhanda (business). An outsider always faces difficulties. If you are an outsider, then it is difficult to establish your practice even as a lawyer or doctor. If you are good and skilled, then the right people will find you. Why do you want to be with those who are nepotistic by nature and don’t believe in stories? Why do I want an invitation to their parties, when I can enjoy a cup of tea with Nawaz.
Siddiqui: I have spoken a lot on this subject. Like Sudhir ji said, when my children grow up, I will support them to pursue whatever career they choose for themselves. I can’t impose my wish on them. Otherwise, I will be like my character Ayyan Mani.
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