Family Man: I spy a householder

Aditya Mani Jha | Updated on October 23, 2019

Two-in-one: In Raj Nidimoru and Krishna DK’s enterprising new Amazon Prime series, the the protagonist Srikant (Manoj Bajpayee, extreme right) essentially has two lives

The double life of a family man in a smartly written Amazon Prime series by Raj & DK raises disturbing questions about the role and reach of surveillance

John Krasinski’s recent interpretation of Jack Ryan (Tom Clancy’s CIA super-spy character, previously portrayed by the likes of Alec Baldwin and Chris Pine) has been praised by a majority of critics, not least because the show (Amazon Prime’s Jack Ryan) subverts the idea of a ‘real-life hero’. Channelising his old character Jim from The Office, Krasinski plays Ryan as a file nerd who, because of circumstances beyond his control, is thrust into the firing line overnight. A reluctant field agent, he makes it up as he goes along until he realises he definitely has a talent for this.

In Raj Nidimoru and Krishna DK’s (professionally known as ‘Raj & DK’) enterprising new Amazon Prime series The Family Man, the source of dramatic tension is similar, for the protagonist Srikant (Manoj Bajpayee) essentially has two lives. For his family, he’s the titular householder, a less-than-brilliant father and perpetually defensive husband who makes his living as a desk jockey, a file-pusher. For his colleagues, however, he’s a veteran field agent for Threat Analysis and Surveillance Cell (TASC), which is part of the National Investigative Agency (NIA) setup. Having successfully kept this part of his life a secret (we’re told) for over a decade, Srikant is necessarily a master at making it up as he goes along. Bajpayee’s talent for controlled farce (remember the memorable brothel scene from Gangs of Wasseypur?) comes to the fore, as he convinces a terrorist to surrender by spinning a tall tale about his supposedly dead mother.

Priyamani (playing Suchitra, Srikant’s wife) and Neeraj Madhav (as Moosa, an ex-ISIS militant who uses his expertise in chemical engineering to make weapons) are both excellent in their smartly written roles. Priyamani, in particular, has undeniable screen presence and her eyes communicate the silent frustration and anger she feels towards her husband, who’s an absentee father for all practical purposes. One of the major story arcs in the season involves Suchitra feeling attracted towards her genteel, divorced colleague Arvind (Sharad Kelkar). When Srikant suspects her of having an affair, his reactions lead to some hilarity. He sees a WhatsApp notification on her phone involving smiley emojis. A small masterpiece of a scene sees Srikant and his colleague Talpade (Sharib Hashmi) attempting to decipher the precise shade of emotion conveyed by a certain number of emojis.

This contrast between Srikant’s personal and professional lives also allows Raj & DK to sneak in a subtle, yet fairly thorny question: If the family is the smallest unit of the nation, will surveillance affect them both in the same way?

To its credit, the show offers no easy answers for such questions. On one hand, TASC’s mandate is to snoop on everyone, everywhere, all the time. On the other the show’s writers take pains to show us how this is an egregious mistake, and can lead to panic-stricken blunders, the kind that ultimately costs young lives. On one hand, we see Srikant oblivious about his children’s lives — and how this very nearly has disastrous consequences for them. On the other, we also see how a rare act of personal surveillance (Srikant follows Suchitra and Arvind to a five-star hotel’s poolside restaurant) leads to supreme awkwardness all around and makes a solid dent in his marriage.

The show’s politics are, therefore, not as straightforward as they are typically in Bollywood (just look at the filmography of Neeraj Pandey, for instance, which includes soft-Islamophobic outings such as A Wednesday and Baby). In what’s almost certainly a deliberate misdirect, the first couple of episodes, with their generous smatterings of words such as ‘kaafir’ (infidel) and ‘gaddaar’ (traitor), make the show considerably more jingoistic than it actually is. Come the third episode, and the show begins its elaborate lampoon of the current administration’s missteps, whether related to the world of intelligence or otherwise (incompetent officials, Islamophobia et al). The mob-lynching mania is referred to, in a predictable but harrowing scene (much like Sacred Games, which even ran the horrific bits in its lynching scene in slo-mo). A shopkeeper interviewed by TASC confesses he had set up a separate bank account “for the 15 lakh Modiji had promised us”.

Raj & DK have, over the years, settled upon a kind of trademark style — slickly shot fast-paced setpieces backed by solid character development and a unique brand of humour (Coen Brothers-adjacent but not quite as dark). The Family Man is easily their most enjoyable show since the crime comedy 99 (made in 2009, now on Netflix). And here they have the perfect conduit in Bajpayee, whose Wasseypur-inspired resurgence seven years ago has led to a bagful of diverse and memorable roles (Chittagong, Aligarh, Gali Guleiyan, Sonchiriya and so on). Second chances aren’t squandered lightly, as both Srikant and Bajpayee understand perfectly.

Published on October 22, 2019

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