By Pankaj Sachdeva

Serious Men is the story of the desperation of a man to move up the social mobility ladder. Directed by Sudhir Mishra and adapted from Manu Joseph’s novel by Abhijeet Khuman and Bhavesh Mandalia, the film tells the story of Ayyan Mani (Nawazuddin Siddiqui), a Dalit man working as a personal assistant to a Brahmin scientist Arvind Acharya (Nassar) at one of India’s premier research institutes. Ayyan stays with his wife Oja (Indira Tiwari) and son Adi (Aakshath Das) in a chawl in Mumbai. Ayyan is willing to go to extreme lengths to make his son rise the social and economic ladder and give him the things that he was never allowed in his life. He hatches a secret plan with Adi and presents him as a genius to the world. He makes Adi rote learn a few scientific concepts and tutors him through an earpiece which Adi spouts with confidence. Fake it till you make it. The world starts to believe that Adi is a precocious scientist and calls him Junior Abdul Kalam. Adi becomes a celebrity and everyone wants to use his ingenuity for their self-interest.
Serious Men shows how far a father is willing to go to make his child succeed in life. Early in the film, Ayyan brings a lamp to his house and says to a newborn Adi, “Sunlight kam hai to kya hua, tu apne talent se chamakna.” It’s dark but you can light it up with your talent. This light becomes a recurring motif that is used throughout the film. Many a time, Ayyan refers to himself as a small molecule. He compares himself to gravity as he is invisible to the upper-caste people. The film uses light to represent Ayyan’s desperate desire to succeed and to be seen.
At a press conference, a reporter (Manu Joseph in a special appearance) questions Acharya on his quest to find space microbes. Ayyan enters the room and sees all the camera lights focused on the panelists. He stands behind one of the bright lights and listens to the answers in rapt attention. The conference ends; everyone leaves. The stage now has six light stands; three on each side. Ayyan walks on the stage; all the lights gradually dim out. A spotlight falls on him as he sits on the chair while everything else around him is dark. It is at that precise moment that he decided to make a plan. His son, too, will have the lights shining on him someday.
In the next scene, six years pass by and a young Adi is seen sitting by the window in his school. He is playing with the light falling on his hands. His teacher reprimands him for his distraction. Adi replies to her that he is looking at photosynthesis—a natural phenomenon that uses light.
At Ayyan’s workplace, there is an argument between Nambodari (Udhayabhanu Maheswaran) and Acharya related to funds for research. Acharya is withholding funds for Nambodari’s telescope program as he has not seen any progress in the project for over twenty-five years. A disgruntled Nambodari brings up light again and replies, “Universe is vast, Arvind. Even light takes time.” He meant that even light takes some time to travel and reach earth. In the same sequence, there is Ayyan who feels exasperated as he wants to go home but Acharya refuses to let him leave. A television channel wants to interview Adi and Ayyan wants to be there to make sure his son does not say anything untoward that can give away their secret. Ayyan manages to reach home and admonishes his wife for trying to put make-up on Adi and make him fairer. He takes him to wash his face and the screen goes totally dark for a few seconds. Ayyan and Adi emerge from the darkness and the interview takes place with camera lights zoomed on Adi.
Adi becomes a celebrity after the interview. Everyone wants to use him for their benefit. The political leader Keshav Dhavre (Sanjay Narvekar) and his daughter Anuja (Shweta Basu Prasad) visit Ayyan and offer to make Adi an icon of their political party. There is Ganesha Puja where Ayyan creates a Statue of Liberty-inspired Ganesha which leaves the spectators a bit flabbergasted. Ayyan defends his creation and says he gave it a torch. In her raised right hand, the Statue of Liberty holds a torch that represents the light that shows observers the path to freedom. Ayyan’s Global Ganesha is holding a similar torch of light that represents freedom for him.
Another photoshoot happens where Adi is clicked from behind the bars of a window while holding a board that says 100% Shuddh Dalit like prisoners are asked to do. The chawl where Adi stayed was, in fact, a jail earlier. The bars on the windows give the feeling that the people are still trapped. Adi is again shot with a spotlight falling on his face as his parents look at him. Thereafter, Ayyan starts preparing Adi for political speeches. At one point, they both are sitting by the roadside. Adi sees a young boy wearing sneakers with light. Ayyan promises Adi that he will get him the same sneakers if he manages to learn the speech by heart. The desire for light is again seen here.
At an earlier stage, a journalist had said, “Mumbai ka vikas in andheri galiyon tak nahi pahuncha.” Mumbai’s glittering lights never reached these dark corridors. Adi again brings up this darkness when he gives a speech on redevelopment to the residents of the chawl. He also wears those sneakers with light that his father had promised. He says to the audience, “Is andhere se baahar nikalne ka ek hi raasta hai hamare paas. Redevelopment se iss chawl ke har bachche ka future bright hoga.” There is only one way out of this darkness. The redevelopment will brighten the future of every child. The point here is in line with the theme of light.

There are many more instances where the use of light can be prominently seen. When Ayyan frees the pigeons, a light bulb again hangs over his head. Another well-lit scene is when Ayyan guides Adi on his speech on space microbes to make a case for Acharya’s reinstatement. Ayyan is in a secluded building and he is standing in a way that the light falls on him in a perfectly-shaped rectangular area.

Later, Sayali’s father Satish (Sharad Jhadav) finds exam question papers at his house. He confronts Ayyan and threatens to expose his fraud to the public. Ayyan hits back and intimidates him by mentioning the power of his political connections. Ayyan mentions that he struggled all his life but his son will rise above it and get all that his community was deprived for thousands of years. In the next few seconds, a bunch of bikers passes by and the blinding headlights of their bikes fall on Ayyan bringing a glint on his face. Here, again the film uses light as a symbol of emancipation.
Adi starts to crumble under the pressure of his father’s harsh demands to continue their fake-genius act in front of the world. Oja also gets to know of their secret and feels betrayed. A pensive Ayyan then starts talking about black holes. He remarks that the force of gravity is so strong in black holes that even light cannot escape them. Every star ends up as a black hole collapsing into itself. Like a star, Adi, too, starts collapsing under pressure. Ayyan further adds, “Aise dark moments me dimaag bhi dark memories ko yaad karta hai jo hum kabhi bhula nahi paaye the.” Dark moments remind you of the darkest memories—the ones we can never forget. The shining light that Ayyan wanted for his son to escape seems elusive as his son is falling apart.
Towards the end, Ayyan calls Acharya for a meeting and gets an exit strategy where he can come out of the mess he made for himself. Adi gives a final speech to the world where he partially reveals the truth to everyone. He says he learned everything from his father but the audience takes it as a sign of his humility. The speech ends with the camera panning towards a giant spotlight falling on Adi and then it moves to a bunch of smaller lights that gradually reveal Ayyan’s face. Ayyan silently sheds a tear or two and it feels like the closure of the earlier press conference scene in the auditorium where he had probably first thought the idea of his son becoming a star.
The lighting sequences in Serious Men reminded of the car light scene in Zoya Akhtar’s Gully Boy where also the light was used similarly. Murad (Ranveer Singh) sits in a car is parked under a canopy of lights in a square area. The reflection of the lights falls all over the car while Murad sits in darkness inside, having moments of self-reflection, that lead to his soliloquy, “Apna time aayega.” He attains enlightenment at that particular moment under the lights and the stars. Later, Murad’s time eventually comes, and he gets an opportunity to sing in front of a huge audience and the lights shine on him, in contrast to the previous scene. Avant-garde filmmaking techniques often incite the debate if they add much to the overall narrative in the film. In Serious Men, Alexander Surkala’s stylized lighting brings about character aspirations and does play a role in the proceedings of the film. There is definitely something interesting going on with the lights in the film which I tried to elaborate on above.
One of the other scenes in Serious Men that I liked is the one at the art gallery where Ayyan shows the award-winning photograph of his mother to Acharya. He narrates the story of how the picture came into existence. Ayyan’s father made his pregnant wife lose weight dramatically in a few weeks which led her to be selected for the photograph. Likewise, Ayyan did the same to his son pressuring him to be a genius. Acharya says, “Your son has replaced you in the photograph.” His angst was right but his actions were not. I kept thinking that Ayyan had made up a fake story about the photograph. It appeared to me that he was telling another lie but it was not the case. It was a genuine story. But it made me think of how as we grow old, we start behaving like our parents do.
In 2005, Dalit entrepreneur and writer Chandra Bhan Prasad had proposed the idea of the Goddess of English. The goddess was modeled after the Statue of Liberty. She holds a pen in her right hand which shows that she is literate. She has a copy of the constitution of India in her left hand, a book that gave equal rights to the Dalits and was written by Dr. B.R. Ambedkar. She stands on the top of a computer that signifies that Dalits will use English to rise the ladder and become free forever. In a moving article, Prasad also wrote, “English makes it much easier for all Dalits to leave caste-based occupations. Will English-speaking Dalits, for instance, be asked to skin dead cows? Will English-speaking Dalits be expected to clean gutters and roads? Will English-speaking Dalits be content to work as menials at landlords’ farms? Goddess English can empower Dalits, giving them a chance to break free from centuries of oppression.” A temple of the Goddess of English was initially constructed in Uttar Pradesh but it withered away due to the politics of the region.
Serious Men also talks about this Goddess of English. After the redevelopment project is approved, Ayyan says he will construct a temple for the Goddess of English. The Global Ganesha idol created by Ayyan also seems inspired by Prasad’s Goddess of English. Early in the film, Ayyan writes a letter requesting paternity leave from his boss. He sits with an Oxford English dictionary and uses complicated synonyms that do not fit with his intended meaning. He uses the word ‘contemporary’ for wife, ‘subjugate’ for care, and ‘Homo Sapiens’ for humans but he gets the task done. With English education, he was able to move up the professional ladder while Sayali’s father who lived in the same chawl and worked in the same office could not. Like the pigeons freed from the cages by Ayyan, millions of people escape from the cages of brutal oppression using the English language. It is not surprising that they’d rather worship this Goddess and sing her aarti—A, B, C, D, E—as she is the one that gives them the dignity of life.
[Read more of the author’s work on his blog here]