Readers Write In #377: ‘The family man’ is one of the best things to happen to the Indian entertainment sector, and it owes more to its characters than anything else

Posted on July 2, 2021

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(by Alex John)

I am not a big fan of TV/web series. As an old schooler who got used to the movie sensibilities, the marathon modes of entertainment are quite alien to me. No matter how hard I try, I can’t quite warm up to the idea of waiting for a year or more to get the rest of the story you were being told. And of course, no matter how engrossing a series is in the beginning, boredom begins to set in after a couple of seasons, and things start to get stretchy. So I watched both the seasons of The family after both the seasons came out, and it did really sweep me off my feet. Of course, there is tremendously competent acting by the veteran actors, the story’s voyeuristic pleasures and the gritty subject matter are among the factors that hooked me onto the show, but there is something else that I found better than any of these things, which is the unmistakable genuineness of the characters and situations the writers and the directors successfully brought into the proceedings.

Take the ‘manager-slap’ scene, for instance. They could have ended the scene with close-up shot of the manager, shaking and horrified, which would have added a few more laughs to the already funny scene. But the scene ends with him angrier than he was in the beginning, yelling out for the security-staff, refusing to yield to the scariness of the situation he is in. To some, this might be a missed comic-opportunity, but to me it is the outright refusal from the part of the makers to compromise the character trait for a few laughs. We know the guy is relentless and megalomaniacal, and turning him into a clown would seriously hurt the character arc. By letting that character be, the series-makers did a favor to us, of making it weigh down on our minds, rather than being an instantly forgettable nincompoop.

Or take the scenes set in the south. It is easy and almost a norm to have the characters from the north and the south to have minor skirmishes at first, and then have them hold hands together and sing patriotic rhymes. Of course, they warm up to each other, but the tension lingers throughout the series. It becomes perceptible from when Muthu Pandian asks if the northies thought Tamilnadu is all about Idli-Sambar and ‘yenna rascala’, and extends to one of the last scenes where he says that it doesn’t matter what he thinks about Eelam, and he is just doing his duty. The series-makers clearly understands that things are not as easy as it is in one of those ‘aman hoga’ Bollywood films. Profound demographical differences raise a million questions within our nation, and the makers of ‘The family man’ don’t hesitate to admit there are no easy answers to those questions.

BR wrote in his review of the movie ‘Kaththi’ about how its characters spoke the languages of the place they live in, like normal, everyday people. This works in an amplified level in ‘The family man’, where even Muthu, who isn’t the greatest fan of northerners, understands and speaks Hindi in a reasonable fashion. But just about when you start feeling nuanced about it, comes Raji, one of the most lethal spearheads of a movement based on Tamil language and culture, and starts speaking Hindi better than him. See, this is not just about Tamilians speaking Hindi or any other language, but about the fact that it would be much easier for the writers to portray these people as unidimensional hard-heads whose pride need them to completely stay away from the northern culture. But what we get instead are people in flesh and blood, who keep their distance from the northerners, but don’t let that distance get in the way of their duty. Sentimental, but practical.

I believe this approach has, in great deal, curbed the uproars that this series could have generated, especially in the season 2. Of course, the plan of Eelam is foiled in the end of S2, and it certainly whipped up a few grunts in the south, but weren’t loud enough as the characters of the series were so close-to-life and genuine that it is almost impossible to turn your back to the fact that they were humans who were walking the edgy road where life took them, even the antagonists with sinister plans. S2 was more successful in doing this, and was more fun as it was difficult to take sides. I mean, do you think you have a heart if it didn’t go out for Raji when she was about to take off for the last mission of her life? Didn’t you feel off when the fiery Bhaskaran took his own life? Weren’t you touched by the Eelam’s cause even if you didn’t want them to win?

This is no small feat. Not because you root for the villains, but because the writing is so deft and complex that you get acquainted to each character rather than knowing them by what you see onscreen. Like I wrote before, it is this tangibility that makes me wait for the next season of ‘The family man’, the first time for a regular TV/web series in my life. I am almost sure I am about to get some perky writing, terrific action and memorable laughs, but what buzzes me out is that I will get another chance to see the at-their-wit’s-end-yet -muddling-through family. Of course it makes sense to make the characters more interesting than the plot in a series, as we will spend a lot more time with them than we will in a movie, but ‘The family man takes this to a whole different level. The people in it are so close-to-life and their lines are so catchy and familiar.

That is why when Srikanth says he is not used to the western notion of marriage and couples are either married or not in India, we see a desperate man trying to hold his family together, not a regressive chauvinist. Okay, I will wrap this up by saying this; it might be a little too early for my own terms and in general to deem ‘The family man’ the greatest or even one of the greatest as these multi-season shows tend to decline rapidly as time goes by, but so far, it is one of the prime examples on how to keep the audience hooked onto the longer formats of entertainment using great plot, controlled-polemics, realistic action set-pieces, and above all, incredibly genuine and affable characters. Hope we get more of these in the tumultuous times we go though.