Serious Men: Similarities & Differences Between Book & Film

Nawazuddin Siddiqui, Sudhir Mishra, Manu Joseph, Netflix = Serious Men! 

When this film was announced in 2018, I had just finished reading Serious Men. The book kicked off a Manu Joseph binge, and within the next couple of months I ended up reading his other two books (The Illicit Happiness of Other People, Miss Laila Armed and Dangerous) and also became an avid follower of his weekly columns on Livemint. Needless to say, the announcement – and the names involved – hyped things up for me, big time. The film released earlier this week to moderately positive reviews. I realized I’m too late to be on the review wagon. But then I also realized: there may be very few people who were jobless enough to finish both the versions in record time, so maybe a comparison is in order? 

The Similarities

Where both the film and book, Serious Men, coincided was the core idea – and corollary to that – the characterisation of Ayyan Mani. Instead of taking the beaten White Tiger-ish path of showing the poor as the oppressed, the story is about how the poor also have aspirations, and how they need to go out of their way – and often do the unthinkable and the unethical – to get as basic a thing as respect.

Ayyan Mani is the embodiment of this aspiration. He is a Dalit who works in a science institute of national importance, as PA to an eccentric Brahmin scientist.  He speaks English whenever he wants to command respect. Being an advocate of meritocracy, he believes that skills should decide a man’s worth. To earn the dignity he so craves for – to escape the trap set upon him by his social status – he plays a game. A fairly dirty game involving his genius son Aditya and his upper-class superior Arvind Acharya, among others. 

Nawazuddin’s dry portrayal – and the sharply penned dialogues that reflect his worldviews – help create a faithful clone of the original (book) protagonist. The performance of Indira Tiwari (as Oja, Ayyan’s wife) also deserves praise; her eyes – tired, yet having that bleak hint of hope for a better life – remind you of Oja from the book. 

The Differences

There’s a world of contrast in the two formats, and I’ve tried to list down a few that crossed my mind: 

  1. Serious Men, the book, is primarily about two men – Ayyan (the ‘lowly scumbag’) and Arvind Acharya (the ‘high-class serious man’). Right from beginning to end, we see these two characters evolve. In the movie, however, Ayyan is placed as the central character – our frame of reference – and the “serious man”, ironically makes brief recurring appearances at best. 

    In the book, Arvind Acharya has a well-defined arc. He is not just an alien-obsessed self-absorbed oaf. A lot of focus is given to his scientific ideologies and quirks; for example, his belief that the Big Bang theory was a scam by the Vatican! He also ends up having an affair with his young colleague Oparna; this becomes one of the tools that Ayyan, later on, employs to blackmail him. However, the movie gives Nasser very little to work with (the science talks are kept to a bare minimum and the affair is only hinted at) and paints him as an unlikeable douche for the most part. It becomes an Ayyan story, rather than a broader story about how people in all capacities share the same aspiration for power. 
  1. The book hurls surprises at you when you least expect it. Two reveals that stood out were how Adi is not actually a genius (he is just being fed jargon and facts by Ayyan) and how Arvind Acharya ends up committing research fraud. These reveals take their time to come to the surface: for example, we are shown multiple instances of Adi behaving like a prodigy, adequately to a point where we actually believe he might be one; and then comes the brilliantly worded twist about 100 pages into the book. These reveals don’t work as well in the film, probably due to differences in pacing. 
  1. The climactic sequences (feat Adi) seem over-dramatized in the film – we are made to sympathize with Adi’s character: how he is just an innocent chap stuck in a cobweb of power-hungry agents. On the other hand, the book had a fairly consistent unapologetic tone. 
  1. The book has a character of a builder who uses Adi to convince people in the society and get them to agree to his renovation project. The movie replaces this character with two characters (a father and daughter) and brings in a political angle. Considering how the concept was essentially about how people from all nooks of society often aspired for the same things, it is a nice touch. However, these characters aren’t fleshed out well enough. 
  1. The film had bonus scenes that swayed away from the original. In fact, the hilarious childbirth sequence – that gave the film a really promising start – wasn’t part of the original book, yet it blended in perfectly into that universe. 
  1. Now, this is a difference only fans of the author will care about. There’s a palpable dearth of…. “Manu Josephness” in the film version. Let me explain. The book is narrated in the third person; so when Ayyan Mani walks down a Bombay chawl, we get a sneak peek into the thoughts brimming in his head as he walks past, and then we also get to see what other households in the chawl are up to. There’s a hilarious commentary that goes on alongside the hero’s journey, some fantastic lines about human behaviour. The movie, however, is narrated by Ayyan in the first person, and this becomes a limitation in bringing additional perspectives into the picture. 

Okay, it really does look like I’m biased towards the book here, innit? Let me just clarify that I’m one of the biggest advocates for the adaptation of books into movies. The visual medium provides ample scope to broaden the canvas of the idea conveyed through words. I loved how films like Scott Pilgrim Vs The World, Moneyball, The Wolf Of Wall Street, and even 3 Idiots, accomplished this. But this time around, I’m going to stick with the original (book). Not that the movie is bad. I’m sure that someone who hasn’t read the book, will be intrigued by the premise of the film. But in the battle between the words and the moving images…the words told a different story at the end of the day – a more anthropological one, a more darkly comic one, a more…complete one? 

You might also like: C/O Kancharapalem: A Telugu Movie That Is “Quietly Revolutionary”

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