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Nawazuddin Siddiqui in 'Serious Men'. Image Credit:

Indian actor Nawazuddin Siddiqui has an interesting observation about what kind of movies do well in Bollywood mainstream cinema.

“You can’t ever imagine a Hindi movie being made around an unsuccessful man … He has to emerge successful for him to be popular,” said Siddiqui in an interview over Zoom ahead of the premiere of his latest movie, ‘Serious Men’, now streaming on Netflix. “The other day, I was watching a Hollywood film about a gangster who is very unsuccessful at what he does. A movie like that won’t be seen in Hindi cinema … But I find the concept of a character trying to do ‘jugaad’ [hack] in his life and doesn’t succeed compelling,” he adds.

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His theory — about viewers and critics being uninterested in underdogs — has been disproved though. His latest film, in which he plays a disadvantaged Dalit (‘lower caste’ in India) who is a personal assistant to a Brahmin (‘upper caste’) boss and scientist, has been embraced by all.

Siddiqui plays a wily, scheming Ayyan Mani, who is desperate to project his dreams and ambitions on his 10-year-old son Adi. His boy isn’t the brightest bulb in his classroom, but his doting dad won’t give up and hatches an elaborate plan to portray him as a child prodigy. Politicians interested in the caste angle jump in and take his son under their wing, making his desperate con bigger and more complicated.

The riveting social satire directed by Sudhir Mishra, which has opened to glowing reviews, has caught the Indian public’s collective imagination. Here are seven things we have gleaned about ‘Serious Men’, which touches upon heavy subjects like class divides, politics of caste and a questionable rote-heavy education system with a light hand …

1. ‘Serious Men’, directed by Sudhir Mishra, is based on celebrated Indian author Manu Joseph’s debut novel and examines caste divides in modern India. But the searing satire, about a middle-class Dalit parent Ayyan Mani — played brilliantly by Siddiqui — isn’t a teary film that is subtly patronising towards the poor and those born with fewer opportunities.

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Indira Tiwari, Aakshath Das and Nawazuddin Siddiqui in the film.

2. Siddiqui, who plays the enterprising Ayyan Mani who goes to desperate lengths to position his young son as a child prodigy, found his role complex and challenging. Mani works as a personal assistant to a supercilious Brahmin astronomer at a top science institute in Mumbai. He faces constant indignity from his boss’ high-handed, arrogant attitude and wants to somehow carve a better future for his son — even if there’s deception and subterfuge involved.

“I thoroughly enjoyed playing Mani because he is such a complex character and there lies the beauty. He is innocent, but he tries to do fraud too. There’s always a thin line between right and wrong. And the tough part is to make it look easy, but it was tough to tow that grey track,” said Siddiqui in a mix of Hindi and English.

3. The award-winning actor, whose credits including the stirring romance ‘The Lunchbox’, ‘Gangs Of Wasseypur’ and ‘Talaash’, claims he identified a lot with his character from his latest film.

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In 'The Lunchbox'.

“At the end of the day, ‘Serious Men’ is about his dream of building a better future for his son. He has seen his forefathers live and he wants to take a leap from that world. The battle is within his mind and the outside world where he believes that though he is educated, he is not reaching places. No matter what caste or religion you belong to, you always want your son to do well … This film touches upon all that,” said Siddiqui. He takes the example of his own reality.

“I was born in a small village in India [Uttar Pradesh] and I never studied in a good school. But I hope my son goes to a great school and I will be so happy if somebody tells me that he’s a genius.”

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In 'Gangs Of Wasseypur'.

4. While the film touches upon how class divides dictate a person’s opportunities and shapes their future, the movie is also about Mani being an unapologetic hustler who wants to survive in a world that isn’t fair to the less fortunate. During the course of the Zoom interview, Siddiqui revealed that he has hustled quite a bit in his own life to fulfil his acting ambitions.

“Trust me, I have hustled a lot in my life. I have done a lot of ‘jugaad’ [hacks] in my life. For instance, during my National School of Drama times I was expected to have been a part of 10 plays. But honestly, I had only done five … I am just telling you for the first time. Everybody does things like that. Doing ‘jugaad’ is our birthright, I believe,” said Siddiqui with a laugh.

5. Just like Siddiqui, director Mishra — a self-titled democrat about viewers processing his film in the way they feel and like — was fascinated by Ayyan Mani’s character and didn’t set out to make a didactic tale on caste divisions in India.

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Nawazuddin Siddiqui with director Sudhir Mishra.

“What I intended was to make a film about this fascinating character Ayyan Mani, who takes life by the scruff of its neck, improvises and goes a certain distance with it. But when he realises that he’s going in the wrong direction, he has that stability to pull back. It’s also an interesting story of a father and son. It’s a story of a father’s desire to see his son get things that he wasn’t given. Isn’t the normal Indian desire of any parent. All over the world, parents feel their child should getter better deal in life than they were given,” said Mishra.

6. The film is also a witty portrait on the skewed education system in India and how rote learning is a mainstay. It also offers a peek into how parents can obsess over their children and how they project their ambitions and dreams on those young minds.

“If you are in India, a parent is often obsessed about their child. And after all, who else will be obsessed? Apart from it being a great father-son story, it’s a lovely take on Bombay and modern India. There are many things that my movie sets out to show without dragging you down or making it heavy … A great story should take you to many places. It opens your head and makes you open to more questions. A movie should never have definite answers. You must find your own answer. I am not a soothsayer who should tell you what to think nor am I some cult figure,” said Mishra.

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A still from 'Serious Men'.

7. Both Siddiqui and Mishra have an interesting take on the issue of reservation in education sector. The system of reservation was introduced in India to bridge inequalities that arose due to the centuries-old caste system.

“It’s is a long conversation … In the past 70 years, we have failed in the primary education area specifically … I feel every child — irrespective of who they are — deserves the right nutrition. The nutrition — especially for those from backward social-economic strata — should be physical and mental. Call it reservation, affirmative action or call it what you want, all school education in India should be free or at a minimum cost. It’s our civilised nation’s responsibility to look after our children and give them good nutrition. After that, there can always be competition. But the issue is complicated,” Mishra said. Siddiqui too believes that equal rights to education should be a given in Indian society.

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“Reviews are opinions and I can always learn something from it. I respect opinions … But just saying I did not like a film is not enough. Tell me why you didn’t like it,” said Siddiqui when asked about his take on movie reviews.

Did you know?

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Roger Ebert.

Nawazuddin Siddiqui hung out with late legend Roger Ebert in 2012 and respected the film critic immensely for the way he reviewed films.

“I stayed with him in his hometown Illinois for over eight days … He always tried to understand what the director was trying to say through his films. I read his review of ‘Citizen Kane’ and it was such a deep analysis of the film. The way in which he narrated the story made me learn a lot about the film itself and that was impressive,” said Siddiqui.