Imagine a man pulling off remarkable feats of espionage daredevilry; feats that are sprinkled with hefty doses of machismo and audacity. Imagine then that this very same man has to daily face the ignominy of being declared a loser by everyone who matters – his wife, his kids, his sibling and even his own mother. That, in essence, is the extraordinary existence of Srikant Tiwari (Manoj Bajpayee), the protagonist and eponymous family man in Raj Nidimoru & Krishna D.K.’s The Family Man.
The series is written by Raj and D.K., along with Sumit Arora and Suman Kumar. The Family Man consists of ten episodes and is currently streaming on Amazon Prime Video.
In The Family Man, Srikant lives a volatile dual life – one of realistic everydayness, and the other of shrewd troubleshooting.
For his family, comprising wife Suchitra (Priyamani) and kids Dhriti and Atharv, he is a lowly government employee, pushing files at work all day long. The car he drives is a dingy old clunker; money is always scarce; and he’s angling for a home loan from his boss, one that doesn’t seem to be materialising any time soon. His kids treat him with disdain; his wife treats him with resigned exasperation; and his younger brother treats him with puffed-up superiority.
It is the humdrum existence of an ordinary man. Except that the man is as far from ordinary, and his life, as far from humdrum, as the Sahara is from the Savannah.
The troubleshooting that Srikant does is not of your everyday garden variety. He routinely diffuses explosive situations that involve the world’s most dangerous terrorists, in tinderbox locations strewn across the globe – Nagaland, Kashmir, Afghanistan, Balochistan and the like are his playing ground, and he often dives headfirst into hotbeds of hard-core terrorism.
So this is his real job – that of a much-lauded, revered secret service agent who works at TASC (Threat Analysis and Surveillance Cell). TASC is a covert intelligence organisation that reports to the NIA (National Investigative Agency).
Unfortunately, despite leading the romanticized life of a spy, the reality is that his job is a high-stress, low-paying one that requires him to be on call the minute his cell phone flashes the ‘Red’ message. His marriage is in shambles because Srikant, being bound to his highly secretive job, has no time to spare for his family.
The pathos in the situation is that he can’t even reveal the real nature of his job, something that could have earned him the respect of his wife and kids. But of course, that is not to be. So the only interaction he has with Suchi is when she pesters him to pull his weight around the house and take equal responsibility for their kids.
Thus, between seizing the nerve-centres of terrorists and seizing hold of his crumbling marriage, Srikant performs a fine juggling act in which the balls can drop at any time, invariably on his own head.
Srikant the spy is able, astute and adept. He excels at cracking clues, however veiled they may be; and picking up cues, however unlikely they may be. He’s got the gift of sniffing out suspects, and in his own words, he never ever forgets a face.
He’s known by juniors as ‘The’ Srikant Tiwari, that’s how famous he is in the rank and files of the secret service organisation. Accompanying him on his missions is his colleague, friend and confidante, JK (Sharib Hashmi). The pair shares a sparkling chemistry, their banter lightening many an incendiary situation.
The narrative starts with the capture of three Keralite ISIS terrorists by the Indian Coast Guard from a fishing boat off the waters of Kochi. Gradually, it dawns on Srikant that the country is up against a terrorist mission called ‘Zulfikar’, which has the potential to make even the 26/11 Mumbai terrorist attacks pale in comparison. The stakeholders are many. The ISIS in Syria, the Pakistani military and its Major Sameer (Darshan Kumar), the CIA and Indian Muslims that have taken to Jihad as revenge for all the wrongs committed against them.
The latter ilk is embodied by the edgy ISIS jihadist, Moosa (Neeraj Madhav), captured by the Coast Guard in the first few scenes of the show, and Shahid (Shahab Ali), a college student who operates as a lone wolf, setting off scooter bombs in Mumbai. The action shifts from Mumbai to Pakistan to Balochistan to Syria to Kashmir, ending in the capital, Delhi.
As the action gathers pace, what makes the narrative even more compelling is the cinematic device deployed by creators, Raj and DK, to shoot several action scenes. Most action scenes are shot in long take, where the entire action sequence is shot in a single take without any cuts, to capture brilliantly inventive shots, showcasing exquisite choreography and superb coordination.
The settings of the scenes do ample justice to the long takes. The shot in a Mumbai Koliwada, when Srikant and his colleague from Force One, Pasha (Kishore), chase and capture the three Keralite ISIS recruits, zips between the numerous gullies crisscrossing the fishing village, juxtaposed by quaint old homes. Another shot zips through picturesque Kashmir gullies, as Srikant chases Shahid, only to fall victim to stone-pelters. The entire sequence is shot in a single take.
The next single take shot is even more compelling. It is a long take of a night-time chase scene between the police, led by Srikant and Pasha, and the three college students who are driving a van. The van is backed and swerved in diverse directions numerous times, as the students look for a way to escape, culminating with the three deserting the van and running for their lives, and finally being hunted down like dogs. The entire harrowing sequence is shot in a single take, rendering a distinct urgency to the sequence.
But the chef d’oeuvre is the long take shot in a hospital. It starts with the hard-core terrorists gaining entry into the hospital, killing at will, moving up the stairs, all the while killing more people, including a few TASC operatives, walking through corridors, and culminating with the escape of the most dreaded ISIS terrorist who has been entrusted with the execution of Zulfikar. The shot consists of a mind-boggling 16,380 frames. Owing to the complicated choreography of the scene, all actors have done their own stunts, and the results are there for all to see.
The absolute perfection of the long takes indicates an exceptionally high level of planning, coordination and attention to detailing. The shots are a treat to watch, and we must admit, we hit rewind several times, to take in the beauty of the flawless scenes.
Another remarkable element of the series is that most of the scenes have been shot at real locations, even the ones at the Lal Chowk in Srinagar and the Srinagar Airport, a feat that must’ve been difficult to pull off. The series takes a leaf out of the Hulu web series, The Handmaid’s Tale, and ends each episode with a peppy number that perfectly suits the ethos of that particular episode. It was inspiring in The Handmaid’s Tale; and it is positively uplifting in The Family Man.
Besides the fact that the basic premise of The Family Man is based on true events, there are numerous incidents plucked out of real life and cleverly weaved into the storyline. Quick montages of heart-rending atrocities perpetuated on minorities in the name of religion pepper the ten episodes of the series.
A young Muslim college student is beaten up in a theatre for not standing up for the National Anthem. Elsewhere, students of a college are declared ‘anti-national’ for daring to speak up against hate-mongering politicians (a clear reference to JNU and its goings-on). Muslim students are thrown into jail without a warrant and beaten up for the sole reason that they belong to a community that has to bear the brunt of being labelled ‘terrorists’.
The scene showing the gory lynching of two innocent Muslims on charges of carrying beef is particularly affecting; as is the killing of three innocent students on suspicion of planning a terrorist attack. The latter is carried out under the supervision of Srikant Tiwari, one of the rare instances that he goofs up….and badly at that. In a bid to cover up the goof-up, the three boys are declared terrorists. An Arnab Goswami caricature is shown shouting down human rights activists on national TV for demanding an enquiry into the encounter.
Time and again, we are reminded that the story is based on true incidents, something that every member of the audience would have gleaned even without the disclaimer. It encompasses the truth that hangs in the current atmosphere prevalent in the country, in the precarious Kashmir impasse, in the very air we breathe. In a particularly telling scene, Saloni Bhatt (Gul Panag), Srikant’s CO in Kashmir, sums up the Kashmir problem beautifully. It is one of the best explanations we have heard in recent times, of the state of Kashmir and its people.
The character of Srikant, in the hands of any other writer-director, had the very real possibility of being reduced to that of a pained and pressured man, struggling under the burden of his deceit and the dual life he leads.
But given that Srikant is the creation of Raj and DK, the writers behind the superhit Stree and writer-directors of Go Goa Gone and Shor in the City, the character is imbued with a delightfully sparkling sense of humour; and his balancing act is peppered with hilariously entertaining situations and even more humorous dialogues.
Often, when he needs a quick escape from his public life into his secret one, or from a potentially explosive situation, Srikant turns into an accomplished storyteller, entangling the listener into a web of hastily-crafted though utterly convincing stories that he whips up out of nowhere.
There are several scenes that are truly engaging and hilarious as hell. In one scene, he spins a tale about a suicidal friend to escape his daughter’s lecturing school principal as he must rush to respond to his phone flashing ‘Red’. The death of his dear mother is another favourite tale he employs to soften criminals into confessing the truth.
Manoj Bajpayee is simply superb as Srikant Tiwari. In the hands of a lesser actor, the character was in danger of being reduced to a mere clownish caricature. But the consummately accomplished actor that he is, Manoj Bajpayee elevates the role to historic heights. He renders it into a character that will be remembered for years thereafter. His comic timing is spot on, and his grasp on his character, absolute.
In his perennially arched eyebrow, the actor conveys a myriad of emotions – surprise and sarcasm at his kids’ precociousness; remorse, for a mission gone awry; disdain, at the highhandedness of the police/Pasha/his boss/his wife/ and whoever else he’s currently pissed off with; chutzpah, when he’s spinning one of his glib yarns; and so many more, that it’s breath-taking to even contemplate.
Sharib Hashmi, as JK, has put in an impressive performance, as has Priyamani, as Srikant’s harried wife. Malayali actor Neeraj Madhav is memorable as Moosa, Kishore, as Pasha, is very good too. Shreya Dhanwanthary has an impressive stint as TASC Agent Zoya. And yes, the two kids, Vedant Sinha as Atharv, and Mehek Thakur as Dhriti, are simply outstanding.
Raj and DK have made a series that is enthralling and engaging, and worthy of being called a true-blue spy film. It is a must watch, and a show you can watch again and again.
In the meanwhile, 3.5/5 is our rating for The Family Man.