The first season of The Family Man revolved around a secret agent, Srikant Tiwari (Manoj Bajpayee), trying to balance his days and nights: the responsibility towards his country and – in the leftover time – his family. The job continued to derail his personal life, but his professional nemeses posed a bigger threat: to the country’s security. The best Hindi Web series of 2019 – blending humour, adrenaline rush, political commentary – The Family Man ended on a cliffhanger in a chemical factory.
Its second instalment – premiering on Amazon Prime Video, helmed by Raj and DK and, a new directorial entry, Suparn S. Varma – moves southwards and opens to an island in northern Sri Lanka. If the first season had ISIS militants and ISI operatives, then the current chapter is about Pakistan’s intelligence unit collaborating with Tamil rebels to assassinate the Indian prime minister (Seema Biswas).
Srikant, on the other hand, has quit Threat Analysis and Surveillance Cell (TASC) and joined an IT firm. He follows a nine-to-five routine, drops his kids to school, spends time at home. But he is as obsessive and methodical as ever. He insists on the importance of “quality time” – “family time” – making sure no one touches their phones on the dining table. But a new job doesn’t necessarily mean a better life. His wife, Suchitra (Priyamani), has become estranged from him; his daughter, Dhriti (Ashlesha Thakur), likes to do her own thing. As if Srikant returned to a home that didn’t have space for him. He isn’t happy with his job, either. His 28-year-old boss bullies him, warning him to not be a “minimum guy”. Srikant, who still meets his old colleague and friend JK (Sharib Hashmi), is more interested in the operations of TASC than making spreadsheets and presentations.
Which leads to a natural question: Can a person change his (fundamental) nature? And if he tries, like Srikant, then is he doing a disservice to himself – and others, including his family? Raji (Samantha Akkineni) is battling a similar conundrum. Once an important part of Tamil Rebels, she’s now working as a blue-collar worker in a Chennai factory. She gets harassed at work, molested in the bus, but she doesn’t lash out. She must lie low and endure the humiliation, so that her true identity is concealed. But for both Srikant and Raji, their real selves – their ultimate missions – keep them safe and sane. Like fish asked to walk on land, they try and try – until they can’t any longer.
The second season’s first three episodes, in sharp contrast to the prequel’s, struggle to find a rhythm and voice. The new version is devoid of Srikant’s exasperations and confusions, lacking much humour. At least two plot turns – a Pakistani ‘major’ and a Tamil Rebel chief meeting in an open area and getting photographed by a RAW agent, Suchitra’s dissatisfaction with her marriage – seem unconvincing and contrived. The villains in the first season, especially Moosa (Neeraj Madhav), contained an element of surprise; that’s not the case here. Even the simmering portions – Raji’s harassment, Srikant’s humiliation – meet predictable ends.
But a few crucial changes begin to elevate this season. Srikant rejoins TASC, making the subsequent episodes more focused. We also get more scenes between Bajpayee and Hashmi who share terrific chemistry. Their conversations are marked by delicious banter and comforting tenderness, comprising a gamut of topics that open the show. Bajpayee is expectedly fine, but Hashmi is the real star, lighting up the season whenever he appears on screen. It’s a versatile role – encompassing levity, gravitas, tomfoolery – that never shows the strain of performance. Akkineni, playing the ferocious yet composed insurgent, is impressive, too. The setting moves to Chennai, and we get some opportune humour between TASC’s agents due to their cultural differences.
As the series intensifies the stakes, you ponder its political meanings. Centred on someone like Srikant, a government servant, the season doesn’t – or rather can’t – have a radical outlook. This is no Kaala, Karnan or Kala – recent Tamil and Malayalam films that punctured the status quo with such blazing ferociousness that, I thought, wasn’t possible in Indian cinema. The Family Man is much more linear in its broad contours. It’s quite evident that Srikant and JK – the ‘heroes’ – will inevitably triumph.
And yet, the show interrogates its story from different angles. A long conversation in the fifth episode, for instance, between Raji and Sajid (Shahab Ali) – a Tamil rebel and a Kashmiri – spotlights the sorrows of geographical orphans craving their homelands. This season often complicates our understanding of the ‘good’ and ‘bad’. At one point, a junior officer, Milind (Sunny Hinduja), even asks JK, “How can we say that we’re the good guys?” In another episode, Srikant clarifies that he doesn’t work for the prime minister – or a party or an ideology – but bigger concepts: the head of the state, the country, the citizens. Elsewhere, too, even the vile characters show humanity. Srikant can sometimes be more manipulative than his enemies, using false sob stories of his family members – his ‘dead’ mother in the first season, his ‘dead’ son in the second – to trick the nabbed perpetrators into confessing.
Most political Hindi dramas obliterate the contexts of ‘villains’ while telling such stories. Which are usually accompanied by tiring assertions of masculinity, jingoism, religion – and familiar dog whistling about the marginalised people, portrayed devoid of texture. The Family Man is always aware of alternate realities – of their displacement, suppression, despair. The presence of one story doesn’t negate the other, and it offers enough chances to the audiences to disagree with the ‘heroes’. But this approach also prompts a question: Does the show convincingly depict the plights of people like Raji and Sajid? That’s where the season slightly falters. The views from the ‘other side’ lack depth, exuding the sense that they were culled from newspaper headlines.
One of the most striking features of the first season was its contemplation on duality. Who should Srikant be: a ‘family man’ or a secret spy? Can you even choose between your family and your country? The makers extrapolate that theme, unifying the two-pronged preoccupations of the protagonist and the series. So, like the first season, we get a scene where Suchitra comes to her children’s room to check on them – or rather bond with them. This time, however, her daughter remains cold, turning it into a much sadder moment. Similarly, the locals in a Tamil Nadu village protect the rebels from Srikant’s team – a mirror image from the sequence in the first season where the Baramulla natives prevented him from nabbing Sajid. Or Srikant’s recurring apology to Jonali (Sanyukta Timsina), the girlfriend of an innocent Muslim man who was killed by his team and then framed as a terrorist.
But the best part about this season is that it is often willing to pause a tense story and absorb moments of hilarity, absurdity, solemness – of life itself. Take, for instance, the bit where JK is running after Raji but gets repulsed by a man brushing his teeth and spitting in open. Or Dhriti leaning to kiss her boyfriend in a theatre but getting conscious by a prying kid sitting a few rows away. Or the TASC officers raising a toast to the recently deceased Milind – by playing his favourite song on the stereo, which once caused some fissure with a Chennai agent (Ravindra Vijay) wanting to hear a Tamil number. These small moments are expertly balanced with big action set pieces: the chase sequence between Srikant and Raji (snaking through suffocating walls, darting on connected terraces, gasping in never-ending lanes), the encounter between the TASC agents and the Tamil Rebels where tension is first ‘heard’ – through the calls of coded whistles – and then explodes into a bloody shootout.
The Family Man’s second season is a decent follow-up, even though it sometimes lacks the intrigue and humour of its predecessor. But by the time it folded (no spoilers here) and gave glimpses of a possible next season – revolving around the COVID-19 pandemic and someone who looked like a Chinese spy – it was hard to not feel that the series may become more formulaic in the future. Especially as it steers away from its core, Srikant’s existential exasperation in trying to balance his personal and professional worlds, which made the show so ingenious. That will be unfortunate, for in this drama about big things – national security, covert operations, strategic duels – the small things stood out. Because a family man, even after winning the world, eventually comes home: He still needs to live a life, even after cheating a thousand deaths.
Featured image: A poster for season 2 of The Family Man