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On Family Man's Apolitics
The first season was a brilliant subversion of genre. When you replicate an edgy subversion, does it then become a predictable trope?
There are spoilers here, ones I knew going in, but didn’t affect the experience for me anyways. I try to set up the context and everything, because the point I am making is larger, not just about this show, which I have to say up-front I enjoyed despite the reservations I state here. Write to me your thoughts.
Mid-way through the second season of Family Man, I realized that the worst thing that could have happened had happened — I stopped caring about these characters the moment the tensions from the genre-defying first season were resolved; and there were many unresolved tensions.
The titular Family Man, Shrikant Tewari (Manoj Bajpayee), christened Chembur Ka James Bond by his creators, the middle-class secret agent, is torn between two worlds, that of his home-family, and that of his work-family — the former tethered through rehearsed love, and the latter through rehearsed pride. I say rehearsed because whenever the love and pride are articulated by Shrikant, there is a distinct reluctance — that both his love and pride are largely a front to disguise his true fervour, that of duty. Which is why even after murdering and falsely accusing an innocent man of being a terrorist, planting evidence, and excising proof, he goes back to the battle-field of intel. There is a larger war to fight, large violations in small battles be damned. To be fair, he does carry the guilt around, but the adrenaline of the battleground is easy to blur such feelings away.
He notes that his job is not to protect the Prime Minister as a person but the Prime Minister as a post. To not have his duty be swayed by his politics. But what are his politics? The show doesn’t divulge, giving in to a more diffuse, abstract kind of political landscape, where the Prime Minister isn’t a murderous autocrat like he is in real life, but a pushy, almost childish megalomaniac. (Lots of people are pointing to her role being like Mamata Banerjee, but apart from their Bengali origins I couldn’t find a likeness in either demeanour or aesthetic.)
It’s easy to be apolitical, I guess, when the worst thing the head of state is, is stubborn. In this way Shrikant can grapple with violence as a moral issue, as opposed to complicating it with also the state as a moral issue. This irked me a little, to morph the Indian political scene so beyond recognition, only so that you can have a character who short-circuits the need for clear sighted political protagonists. Instead, the show can use geo-politics as a springboard to make safe drama. There’s no edge because there’s no truth.
Curse Of A Cliffhanger
The two-fold cliffhanger at the end of season 1 had both the personal and the professional. There was a nerve gas attack on Delhi, where Shrikant’s proteges’ lives were at risk. Then there was his wife, Suchi, who might or might not have been unfaithful to him. The former is clarified with clarity in the first episode of the second season in a hasty flashback. The latter is drawn out through the second season, and while we almost know for a fact that she might have been unfaithful, we don’t hear it from her mouth until she begins speaking in the last moments of the season when again, she is cut off and we have to wait for the next season. (Again, we kind of already know, and honestly, when you stretch a mystery hinged on one question so much, at some point, its narrative gravity slackens. Hence you stop caring for these characters.)
Structurally, this bodes questionably for storytelling — where the role of a cliffhanger is just to get you excited for the next season, and not an organic conflict to be unraveled with the same patience as the show itself. When there is pressure to embed within your story an advertisement for your next story, something gives. Will we ever get complete stories again? Maybe what streaming has done is to undo what we consider ‘complete’ stories — we’ll just circuitously loop around the same loved characters till either money or narrative will gives up. (That macheted last season of Kim’s Convenience, sigh!)
The truth is put upfront, that one cannot partake in two families effectively, and a lot of the joy of the first season was in being able to see a man squabble with a school principal about his ill-behaved child while also directing a shootout over the phone. It is in this vacuum left by his absence at home that his wife, Suchi, seeks affections elsewhere. The narrative contrivances and coincidences of the first season — like Shrikant’s son finding his gun, while his daughter is at a party, while he is here, Suchi is there — were easy to forgive, and even crave given how effectively they came together. The stilted dialogues, uniformly loud dub irrespective of distance from camera, and conversational humour that at times feels too performed to be funny (In the second it gets worse with the therapist and the corporate boss, none of which land) are all forgiven at the alter of the adrenaline. But the scratching need to keep this adrenaline uppity-uppity, as well as the visuals striking with long, shaky one-takes, were very visible as a viewer. This brings up the question of craft, when foregrounding itself, becoming a distraction as opposed to a medium. This came up with 1917, with Birdman, films that looked like one unbroken shot, though that visual trickery and gruesome extravagance could be forgiven for its immodesty. Mostly because at the very end I felt something in me move.
But in the second season, brilliant dry humour and thumping action aside, something was missing. What was considered sleek — using real life incidents to weave in a story of fictional ferment — now feels like narrative cowardice. (This might also be because I only recently watched the first season, and its brazen inventiveness being redone so soon is beginning to feel like a check-list trope.) This feeling is exacerbated when seeing the makers try to bung in the real life politics of a genocide as one of their narrative contrivances. The Sri Lankan government massacred the LTTE (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam), the final blow of which was struck in May 2009 when under Sri Lankan President Mahenda Rajapakse, according to UN estimates, 40,000 Tamils were massacred. The almost three decade war — a linguistic war, an ethnic war — was snuffed out, following which overt signs of Buddhist majoritarianism, like shrines to right-wing monks and Buddha images alongside Mahenda’s on buses, dotted across Sri Lanka. Indian writers were airdropped to write both-sides accounts because the Sri Lankan media were muffled by choice or coercion. The tragedy of propaganda is that it is often believed.
LTTE But Not LTTE
When in the beginning of the second season of Family Man we see “A Few Years Earlier” we are not given specifics, a few years earlier from when? How many years earlier. The makers are clever, and reference the LTTE in everything but name. The word iyakkam, or movement is used instead to connote the groundswell. It is assumed that we are quite a few years post 2009, because there is speak of “rebooting” the movement.
Don’t get me wrong, my criticism of Family Man in this piece comes from deep love for what the makers are trying to do, create pan-Indian stories in pan-Indian lingua fancas. The extensive usage of Tamil and Tamil actors to play Tamil roles in the second season is testament. (But I will push back on their decision to use fair-skinned actors to play sun-roasted roles. Does skin tone not require the same authenticity as language?) But to create pan-Indian stories — the third season will be about North Eastern separatists — as solely aesthetic projects has political limitations. I am merely pointing that out, even if their decision to be safe is a reaction to India’s censorship criteria.
While structurally this season was clunky, a weak first 5 episodes — weak because it delved into the characters which I stopped caring for — followed by strong, gunpowder laced 4 episodes, it comes together with a feeling that resembles reluctant joy. One of the big mistakes they made, I think, was open with a one-shot sequence, that really didn’t need one-shot. Usually, the long shots helps articulate space, like the opening shot of the apartment in Pieces Of A Woman. It can also help create palpable tension, creating a sense that you are there with these characters, like the shootout in the hospital in the first season, and the shootout in the remote police station in the second season. But both the opening and closing episodes didn’t need the one-shot. They felt gratuitous, serving as only a stylistic purpose. In the opening it was all the worse because we were being introduced to a world of the Tamil rebels, trying to follow the dialogues, the impressions, the characters, the morality — are they villainous heroes or heroic villains — and the tone. Bung in the aesthetic wunderkind so early, I had to pause to figure out some details I missed trying to appreciate the awe of the one shot.
But in the climax, for me, it almost dimmed the adrenaline, reducing the stakes by showing us one side of the battle, that of Shrikant. We don’t have a camera closely following Raji (Samantha Akkineni), Shrikant’s nemesis, an agent of the iyakkam, and thus we don’t get a Fargo like build up of tension. It also led to the criticism of a lot of people, that the final blast in which Raji dies is so watery, lacking the final impact a solid character like her deserved.
But the question arises, did the makers think she deserved an impactful farewell? In the beginning there is a promise of setting her up as a villain with a backstory, but this promise soon gives in to the traditional villain — blind to everything except allegiance. The Maruvarukku Maranam Illai — the martyr never dies — is given the same Allahu-Akbar-boom treatment.
The show doesn’t reference history at all, preferring a fictionalized present, exempt of historic context. That in 1956, Tamil was removed as the official language of the Sri Lankan state, cutting access of Tamilians to jobs and the judiciary. That in 1971, universities demanded higher admission marks from Tamil students than of Sinhalese. That in 1981, the Jaffna Public Library, that had ancient and rare Tamil manuscripts, was burned down, a clear assault and erasure of Tamil history. That what the iyakkam were fighting was not just a random military apparatus but a concerted effort at cultural oblivion. To fictionalize this real-life violence in a way such that the reality of it is apparent but not specified must be heartbreaking to those who have followed the war, reported on it, translated the suicide notes, lived among those for whom violence was verbatim. Not to mention the people who lived through it.
Then of course is the refusal to see India as anything but a victim of these foreign political movements. The writer and translator Meena Kandasamy notes in an essay, “It was often remarked, in jest, that the biggest recruiter of women for the Tigers was the Indian Peace Keeping Forces, a rapist army whose reign of terror drove women to take up arms.”
In Family Man Season 2, Raji becomes a militant because she was raped repeatedly. (This too is an issue, because it assumes like the above joke that women's involvement in social and militant movements comes from violation and not a sense of political purpose based on historic realities. This is a far fetched criticism, I understand because it's expecting an almost academic nuance in mainstream television but if anyone is capable of doing that it is Raj & DK, and so it must be noted how we see female rebels’ politics defined solely by their victimhood.)
But in the rape shown, there’s no mention of the Indian Peace Keeping Force, and so it is assumed that it was the Sri Lankan army. When makers Raj & DK noted that they were making a story that was “sensitive, balanced, and riveting”, the subtext was clear. Nothing clear eyed and political can ever be balanced and sensitive. It's the same futility as expecting objectivity. Instead, we get this riveting, truly riveting, apolitical intrigue.
But even with this Raj & DK do something that I found interesting, but I can understand why people find abhorrent. They made the LTTE (again they never reference it, calling it only the iyakkam) collude with the ISI. It’s so silly on paper, and if you question the proceedings of the show, it is easy to find that silly as well. The success of the show is in its barrage of drama that doesn’t allow you to step back and consider what exactly is being proposed. The ISI are seen as a movement that just wants to destroy India, while the LTTE are seen as a militant movement to fight for their right to self-determination. For one, war is the end, while for the other freedom is the end — war is only the means. There is something very interesting about this set-up because something similar has happened before — when Subhash Chandra Bose while fighting for freedom, trying to get the British out of India, was willing to collude with murderous Japan and genocidal Germany. That good or well-intentioned, while fighting for good, can also collude with evil.
Forgive Brownface If The Craft Is Excellent?
Last week when writing about the Friends Reunion episode, and the exhausting moral posturing of those who find Friends and thus those who enjoy Friends problematic, I wrote the following:
Everyone has a different threshold for repulsion, and it’s easy to feel shame for not having it low enough, conflating that with the limits of a moral compass. I find this scary because like a slippery slope argument, it lends itself easily to logical extremes. There will always be a bridge to cross between what is and isn’t permissible — the mismatch between one’s intentions and one’s intuitions.
This was with reference to insensitive jokes, dated beliefs, and the unhealthy stereotypes of the show that sometimes we find funny anyway. Then there is black face or brown face, which is usually condemned unequivocally but there has been reluctance with calling it out in the second season of Family Man. Its makers with their edgy content are at the vanguard of cool. Samantha Akkineni who plays Raji, the undercover agent fighting for the iyakkam, is bronzed beyond belief. In scenes with harsh lighting you can see on her chest where the bronzing ends and her fairness begins. But her acting, her character, and the show come together with such effective technical craft, I understand the reluctance to call out the problem. Because it is easy to believe — in the post #MeToo world — that to call out the politics of a film is to call out the film itself. (A friend noted that this is like liberals unwilling to call out Democrat senators who had black-faced in the past with the same rigour as calling out Republican senators who had black-faced in the past.) I think there might be some wiggle room for nuance here.
For some clarity, I think it is fair to note that we must not promote black or brown face because to do so is to actively prefer fair people for dark characters. There was a time when men played roles of women because there were so few women willing to be on stage. In Raja Harishchandra (1913), India’s first movie, the role of the wife was played by an effeminate man after its director gave up his search among brothels for a woman willing and able to play the part. This was a supply-side issue, one which no longer exists — for women and more specifically for dark women. The gap is thus in the demand.
But is this reason enough to not watch the show, and engage with it? Depends on your threshold for repulsion. For me, the aesthetic dissonance was more jarring than the politics of it — it made me constantly aware that what I was watching was a performance, that was prepped and propped with bronzer. For a show that peddles so effectively in realism, to not be able to sink in was certainly a problem. And again that is both the brilliance and bane of the show — that at its best it peddles so effectively with realism that when it fails to uphold that realism in its politics or its aesthetics, the failure is just as glaring.