Between Sudhir Mishra and Nawazuddin Siddiqui, there's been plenty of memorable Mumbai-centric cinema made. The director has given us the searing Dharavi and the underrated gangster film Iss Raat Ki Subah Nahin. And Siddiqui has played Mumbaikars of all stripes, from politician Bal Thackeray and serial killer Raman Raghav to the gentle strivers of Bombay Talkies and Photograph.
Mishra and Siddiqui have collaborated for the first time on Serious Men, an adaptation of Manu Joseph's 2010 novel about Ayyan Mani, an ambitious Dalit man whose dreams of lifting himself out of poverty cause him to run a risky con involving his young son. The film will release on Netflix on 2 October. Over a video call, Mishra and Siddiqui spoke about how cities leave their mark on you and why the film is indicative of a new India.
Had you read the book prior to coming on board?
Sudhir Mishra: I did. I normally don't read books in order to make films but I really enjoyed it and it's quite brilliant in a lot of ways. I've been a big admirer of this tangential mind called Manu Joseph.
It's quite an accident that suddenly my writer and my co-producers said they'd like to take the rights and asked me if I'd make it. I read it again. Then I said yes, but it took us 8-10 months to transform this brilliant book to a film. We managed to take some of what we found interesting, and we always kept Manu aware of what we did. It's a whole different thing, the characters, the themes of the novel along with my mind, which has its own influences, and is a gentler mind.
Nawazuddin Siddiqui: I attempted to read it but didn't get beyond two pages. I'd have to sit with a dictionary. So I thought it was better I read the script. But I'd heard of Manu Joseph, and about this novel. It was a beautiful script. Sir (Mishra) gave me an idea of the film first. It was always my wish to work with him, for 20 years.
You tweeted about how you almost worked with him on 'Calcutta Mail'.
NS: Chhoote-chhoote reh gaya main Sir ko (he remained just out of reach then). (Laughs)
How did you decide which parts of the book to leave out?
SM: You can't transform a whole novel. Different things work in a book; mediums also choose their subjects. Often when you say the book is better than the film it is because the film is trying to mimic the novel. You can't shoot thoughts—you have to create something else.
We have removed a lot and kept it to Ayyan and his son and Acharya (director of the science institute where Ayyan is employed). Manu was there throughout the shoot; he loved the fact that we didn't mimic the book. Even V.S. Naipaul has said, once I give my book to a film I forget about it.
How did you end up casting Nawazuddin?
SM: Sometimes you're working and someone comes to mind. Luckily, Nawaz said yes. On certain projects, the right subject matter creates the right energy, passes to all the right people, they say yes, a good film happens. Sometimes, despite the problems, there is something in the basic nature of the film that almost summons the good energy.
The messiest production I've been in was Hazaaron Khwaishein Aisi. But every mistake improved the film. If you didn't get a location, the second location you got was better. If one actor didn't do the film, the next actor who came in was better.
What was your approach to Ayyan Mani?
NS: We had discussions before the shoot regarding the character. Using that and whatever instructions Sir would give, you get a feel that this is the correct path to take. You add your own interpretation but what the director has in mind is very important, because you're looking out for your character while he's looking at the whole film.
Do you see Ayyan as a typically Mumbai character?
NS: It isn't like that, there are people like this everywhere. But some cities do have a particular effect on the people living there. If I was in my village right now, I'd be the same person but some things would change. The city demands something. Your nature changes. Like right now, I'm at ease, but as soon as I come to Mumbai I'll be like, let's get this and that done.
You made 'Dharavi' in 1991, about a man trying to lift himself out of poverty in Mumbai, just like Ayyan is doing here. Do you think there's a greater chance of success now than there was then?
SM: I think so. I think there's an assertion. There's a major transformation, a new India. It may be emanating in ways that we don't like but these are all necessary eruptions in a society that's been constricted for too long. Ayyan Mani believes his son needs a leg up. Adjustments, jugaad, call it what you want. Mani knows things are not possible without this. I don't think he's wrong. It's the desperation of a man who wants to do well for his son.
That can exist only in modern India, the confidence that a lot of people now have. And a lot of other people don't like that confidence, whether it is an anger against English-speaking people or some other elite.
This aspect reminds me of 'Iss Raat Ki Subah Nahi', when the high-society folk brush up against the gangsters.
SM: There is a scene where the junior gangster is watching the upper-class people dance and tells his boss, yeh style, yeh izzat, apan ke naseeb mein nahi hai (we can never have this style, this respect). And Raman Bhai breaks the alcohol bottles, because he realizes he'll never get this kind of class or suaveness.
Does Ayyan Mani thinks he's doing the right thing?
NS: In their own mind, every man feels they're doing the right thing, even a gangster. I think after whatever Ayyan has seen with his father, his forefathers, he just wants to take a leap of a generation or two through his son. People who aren't privileged, they have to do a little jugaad. He won't do anything hardcore, he just has this wish.
What sort of look were you aiming for?
SM: We went to BDD chawl. I wanted to shoot in most of the actual locations, because you can't replace that, the constriction of that life. But I wanted to shoot it like an upper-class house. You live long enough in a chawl and you take it for granted. I tried to bring out the normalcy in the place.
This piece was published in Mint Lounge on 5 October 2020.