Jawaani Jaaneman is a 2020 release on Amazon Prime about a father who doesn’t want anything to do with his newly discovered offspring.
It stars Saif Ali Khan who plays ‘Jazz,’ or Jasvinder Singh, a muscled, tattooed, Sikh immigrant in the UK. At 40, this committed bachelor inhabits a universe which is the equivalent of a permanent adolescence – a haze of nightclubs and one-night stands. He’s also a broker about to embark on an important deal, selling his building to a developer who planning an ultra-modern commercial complex.
Khan plays a convincing Jazz – a middle-aged, macho Jat, who believes he’s a ‘Babe-Magnet Casanova’ (though it’s mystifying that he grew up in England but retained a “Paaji” accent!) Jazz loves his shallow life of no commitments or responsibilities. He lives for his evenings at the night club, bumping and grinding like the 20-year olds around him, guzzling shots, and tossing one-liners like ‘oye phuljariyaan, Happy Diwali’ to a crowd of British women in a London hair salon.
His vapid life turns inside out one day when he invites a young woman, Tia (Alaya Furniturewala) home. She tells Jazz that he has a ‘33.33 percent chance of being her father.’ Jazz recalls a 20 year-old tryst with a girlfriend Ananya (Tabu), and like whiplash, the middle-aged playboy in him reacts with a vigorous denial, “Nahin ho sakta—main batting hamesha guard kay saath karta hoon!”
Jazz takes a DNA test to prove his innocence, but the results take him straight from nightclub schmoozer to dad of a 21-year-old. Tia declares that she’s dreamt about meeting her dad since she was 15 – and then drops a bigger bombshell – she’s pregnant with her boyfriend’s child and wants to stay with her newly minted Papa to have the baby.
Jawaani Jaaneman (directed by Nitin Kakkar) drips with cliches and transparent plot devices, but Saif and Alaya (the daughter of Pooja Bedi and the granddaughter of Kabir Bedi) have an onscreen chemistry that’s very engaging. This movie is a lighthearted, air-headed concoction you save for a rainy-day and a bucket of popcorn.
The flip side to the frivolous Jawaani Jaaneman is the intense Serious Men – another male-centric movie dealing with masculine identity.
In an era where the debate on social justice is increasing in public discourse, a movie like Sudhir Mishra’s Serious Men brings an interesting, satirical take to the equation between those who lack opportunity and the people born into the kind of privilege that assures their place in our social hierarchy.
Serious men are men like Arvind Acharya (Nasser), who runs an agency like The National Institute for Scientific Research (NISR), and lobbies for government funding of obscure scientific projects – in this instance, hunting for alien microbes in space. Acharya is a seriously privileged man from the right caste and educational background which has given him his social success and his obnoxious hubris. His privilege lets him manage awkward questions about the value of his eccentric research by talking about irrelevant metaphors that no one understands; he views their lack of comprehension as proof of his superior intellect.
In the film, Ayyan Manni (Nawazuddin Siddiqui), a Tamilian Dalit living in a Mumbai chawl works as a Personal Assistant to Arvind Acharya. By any measure, it’s a good, secure job for a Dalit but Ayyan has been bullied and humiliated all his life by his boss (calling Ayyan an idiot knucklehead with a primitive mind is all in a day’s work for Acharya).
However Ayyan is no meek pushover: He coins the half-mocking epithet ‘Serious Man’ for his boss. He’s also figured out that Acharya fobs off legitimate queries about his work by spouting incomprehensible, obscure concepts that no one understands. So, Ayyan bears his humiliation with a cringing smile, while plotting to make his son Adi (Aakshath Das) a ‘Serious Man’ like his abusive boss.
Unlike other films on India’s complex caste issues, Serious Men uses an unfiltered lens on both sides – the aspirational Dalit and the arrogant upper caste boss have serious flaws. Films like Aarakshan and Samar showcased the righteous rage of oppressed Dalits, but Serious Men looks at caste through a wily, conniving human lens.
Ayyan believes the system is stacked against him, so he feels justified in gaming the system. He’s a born huckster, ambitious and canny, and able to talk his way out of any scrape. He coaches and presents his son as a precocious ‘genius’ in a dishonest endeavor to gain an educational and social advantage, with the misplaced conviction that he’s doing everything to secure his family’s future.
The soul of the movie is encapsulated in a scene before his son’s birth. Ayyan cons his way to a hotel poolside telling staff that he’s a hotel guest. His dream, he tells his pregnant wife Oja (Indira Tiwari), is for his soon-to-be-born son to afford to stay like a regular guest at a hotel like this.
“You see,” says Ayyan, “our parents were 1G, slogging in the fields. I got an education but didn’t know how important that was to get ahead. So, I am 2G. Our son will be 4G. He will be able to lounge poolside like this and do nothing if he wants to. It takes four generations to be able to do nothing.”
The first half of the movie cleverly holds our attention. We wonder what will become of Adi as he is thrust into the limelight as a ‘genius’ mascot for the local Dalits by manipulative politicians. Adi begins to feel the pressure of performing like a trained monkey in his new role and Ayyan, in a delightful parody of Acharya, coaches Adi to answer questions that fluster him by shouting, “I can’t deal with primitive minds like yours!”
The second half becomes predictable and the plot convoluted. Ayyan gets his revenge on the abusive Acharya but things don’t turn out as planned. The multiple storylines – Ayyan’s ambitions for his son, his obnoxious boss, and the politicians using his son as caste currency – merge in typical Bollywood style. Despite the melodrama, there is a stark frankness to the dialogue when it touches upon the generational impact of caste on an individual’s life. Serious Men has some terrific, thought-provoking discussions and scenes which highlight India’s caste-based hypocrisies, and great acting by Nawazzuddin Siddiqui and Aakshath Das.
Caste is like a baton handed down by ancestors in a lifelong relay race whose outcome has been fixed before birth, and Serious Men attempts to drive this point home. However, the movie ends without a sense of satisfying closure to the higher ideals it’s aspiring to.
Jyoti Minocha is an DC-based educator and writer who holds a Masters in Creative Writing from Johns Hopkins, and is working on a novel about the Partition.
Edited by Meera Kymal, contributing editor at India Currents