Srikant Tiwari sees his wife’s name flashing on his phone, and chooses not to answer it. They have hit an exasperatingly rocky patch, and he’s wary of another conversation likely to drag him down. The phone rings again — it’s a number he doesn’t know — and Srikant picks up to hear the voice of his wife’s colleague, a man he suspects she may have developed feelings for. That’s the job. When the stakes are high, ignoring an unknown number is a luxury.
Stakes keep skyrocketing in season two of The Family Man, out now on Amazon Prime. Created by Raj Nidimoru and Krishna DK, the show walked the rope between national thriller and domestic comedy last time, but stays high-octane throughout this taut new season. The storytelling is slick, the pace relentless, the texture authentic. It sets a new bar for Indian productions.
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Srikant is an antiterrorism agent who, in season one, lied to his wife about having moved to a safe, desk-bound job. This time he really has quit, and we see him drifting in a sea of desks in an IT firm, getting used to anonymity. He’s being advised to “forget Pakistan and ISI, and maybe start thinking of TPS reports,” as he stoically attempts to put up with a young squirt of a boss.
In short, Srikant is doing everything by his wife’s playbook, yet — burdened by guilt about her own illicit relationship — she keeps pulling away. The efficient Srikant is confounded that following a checklist hasn’t led to marital bliss, and keeps checking up on former colleagues in the Threat Analysis and Surveillance Cell (TASC), who currently have their hands full with Sri Lankan separatist rebels.
“You’ve put on weight,” says a rebel when meeting another, as if at a class reunion. They have been dormant for years, people trained in disassembling aircrafts forced into menial, low-key jobs — somewhat like Srikant himself — and have gotten used to full meals. “It’ll be gone in a week,” replies the comrade, smiling at the thought of being pushed into action again. The relief at finding purpose, a cause to rally behind, is palpable. Nothing fills the stomach like meaning.
The Family Man repeatedly questions why we do what we do. Everyone on the show — terrorist, agent, politician — is following orders. When Srikant interrogates his daughter’s classmates at a convent school, one girl says they aren’t friends because “she’s a Feminazi and I’m a Libertarian,” leaving Srikant befuddled. Earlier, when his daughter talks of Patriarchy and Misogyny, he’s impressed not by what she’s saying but by her multisyllabic words. Perhaps he makes an excellent government agent precisely because he doesn’t understand big words — or big ideas. He is a foot-soldier committed to (and hiding behind) Duty.
Manoj Bajpayee is remarkable in the lead, frustrated and hemmed in by his world, yet steely in his efficiency. His interpersonal skills leave much to be desired — he tries hard, but instinctively lies harder — and Bajpayee fleshes out Srikant beautifully, serving up righteous indignation and allowing the audience to sense what he might say even when he holds his tongue. As an action hero, he’s dynamite.
In the other corner stands Samantha Akkineni, playing terrorist pilot Raji, a volcanic fighter who sizes up Srikant and sees through his fibs. Akkineni is magnetic, and makes you want to see more of Raji, who has an impressively compact fighting style. Regrettably, however, the makers have darkened the actress’s face, evidently to fit existing audience perceptions of the way LTTE rebels look, instead of reshaping them.
The cast is bulletproof. Seema Biswas exhibits coolness under fire as the Prime Minister of India, also giving rise to audience wistfulness; Azhagam Perumal plays a delicate game as Dheepan, a separatist who employs more diplomatic ways; Ravindra Vijay is superb as Muthu Pandian, new to Srikant’s team but immediately indispensable; Priyamani is great as Suchi, Srikant’s long-suffering wife, suffering even when Srikant does no wrong; Devadarshini is terrific as hardcore Chennai cop Umayal; and Sharib Hashmi is flat-out fantastic as a man taking pride in pronouncing her name correctly. Hashmi’s JK Talpade, Srikant’s longtime sidekick, starts out saying he “loves South Indian food” but goes on to eat podi correctly — because he asks how.
The show consistently scratches at this otherism — the PM refers to Tamilians as “these people,” Srikant’s daughter makes generalisations about boys, Srikant about terrorists — and argues against sweeping statements. That said, this otherwise self-aware show, where a Muslim terrorist literally decries the way all Muslims are considered terrorists, irresponsibly casts a disproportionate number of Muslim characters as overtly evil.
Over nine episodes, The Family Man delivers a gripping thriller. It doesn’t offer wholly new ideas or attempt to reinvent the wheel, but the execution is top notch. The filmmaking is so muscular, so cleanly effective, that I was reminded of Denis Villeneuve’s 2015 actioner Sicario. Creators Raj and DK — with writer Suman Kumar and director Suparn Verma — have created a well-oiled machine. Cinematographer Cameron Eric Bryson does fantastic work, with longshots of offices and fish markets and factories all resembling one another, and with a couple of breathless long-take sequences. The climax is a knockout.
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We wouldn’t even get there, however, without Chellam Sir. The Family Man leans so hard on the character of an omniscient former intelligence operative that his name may well have been Deus Ex Machina. It is lazy screenwriting to have one character pop up with all the answers, but this trope is used with such charm and texture — and Uday Mahesh is so perfect in the role — that I now wish for a spinoff series about that gentle, Mani Ratnam-ish man who knows everything, who meticulously tosses sim-cards into passing shopping bags, who shows our hero the way. He also lectures him on not wasting water.
It’s in these everyday details that The Family Man shines. Despite assassinations and kidnappings, this is a show about a marriage in trouble. About parenting, counselling, and interest-free home loans. The number of explosions vary from home to home. All families are nuclear.
Stream of Stories is a column on what to watch online. Raja Sen is a film critic and the author of The Best Baker In The World (2017), a children’s adaptation of The Godfather.