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Serious Men - Not so Serious about Dalit Realities


Neeraj Bunkar

neeraj bunker 2020The recently released ‘Serious Men’ is an Indian Hindi language comedy drama film directed by Sudhir Mishra. The film is based on a book of the same name by Manu Joseph. This movie revolves around the issue of child genius scams. Nawazuddin Siddiqui (Ayyan Mani) plays a migrant Tamil Dalit man who lives in a Dalit chawl and wants to make his child a genius by spreading the news that his son is a genius by birth, and for this, he emphasizes on his son to memorize nonsensical things without understanding their meaning. He works in a reputed research institute as a personal assistant to a scientist (Brahmin).

It is based on a fictitious novel but the director has the liberty to contextualize it and he failed to do so. The film touches on a very sensitive issue of Indian society, and that is caste. Even though the protagonist works in a big institute, he can’t afford his own flat and still lives in a very congested room with an attached bathroom and kitchen that is situated in a Dalit slum. It is yet another attempt to depict the Dalit reality in a very stereotypical manner. His son cannot be a genius because he is Dalit and for making his child a genius he has to do certain things that show him to be dishonest, corrupt, immoral, etc. On the other hand Dr. Acharya, a brahmin, is shown to be very good and smart in his work as a scientist (although he also engaged in fraud).

There is a quote written on the whiteboard of the institute which says, ‘Reservation cannot be the only compensation for treating fellow human beings like animals for the last 3000 years’. It is shown at the beginning of the movie, and after reading it one might believe that this movie is going to do justice to the debate of reservation. But the entire movie is stuck with the stereotyping images of Dalits and the debate of ‘Merit’ in a useless sense. In a scene where the school authority denies admission to Ayyan’s son and he steps out from the school with his son and wife, at the entrance he sees a sweeper and says to him, ‘You know what? Caste based reservation should stop. Merit is everything’. It may be a satire on the system but as a Dalit, I also feel that through this dialogue, the director wants to degrade the importance of reservation in a subtle way, by projecting upper caste politics into the domain of justice.

The film also shows the problem of the scavenging community, how they are treated in the village even after cleaning and carrying the excreta on their head. But it doesn’t shock us entirely as if it was just put there for the sake of showing. The Dalit protagonist also talks about his wife’s caste when asked about his surname, ‘My wife is from Guthakami community. The privileged castes (upper castes) don’t allow their men inside the village, but they want their women in their bedroom at night.’ The director tried to show the Devadasi custom that prevailed in South India but failed to do so. In one scene where the photoshoot of Ayyan's son is going on, he is holding a black cardboard that has ‘Suddh Dalit’ (Pure Dalit) written on it. What does it suggest to the audience? Is there a concept of non-pure Dalit? Or is it an attempt to create a binary among Dalits?

This is often argued in urban spaces that caste doesn’t exist in the present and the director wanted to establish that narrative in the movie. It is not the first movie in Indian Bollywood cinema that attempts to erase caste with the class argument and is only an addition to that fixation. The Dalit protagonist's wife seems very religious and a devotee of Ganesha which is not relevant to her reality because she hails from South India and would differ from North Indian culture. The Dalit protagonist is shown to be rude and abusive. His boss abuses him all the time because he thinks he is not worth it.

Dalit politics are also shown in the movie with a political organization named ‘Dalit Aghadi Dal’. Blue flags are shown in Dalit political rallies. Shweta Basu plays Anuja, the first woman from the Dalit community who has studied abroad and joined the politics of her father’s party. Even though she is well educated and in a good position, she is shown to be a victim of domestic violence who cannot fight back against it. I think this showcasing of Dalit women’s realities stereotypically reveals the perspective of the filmmakers.

This movie is yet another attempt at the imposition of upper-caste intellects onto the Dalit masses whether it is in religion, politics, education, culture, gender, etc. In the end, as usual, a brahmin (Dr. Acharya) becomes a savior of the Dalit family.

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Neeraj Bunkar is currently working in Rajasthan as an activist among Dalits and Adivasis and has previously done MA Social Work in Dalit and Tribal Studies and Action from TISS, Mumbai.

 

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