"Serious Men" Review

Movie Review: ‘Serious Men’ and the myth of merit

Print edition : December 04, 2020

From the movie: Ayaan Mani (played by Nawazuddin Siddiqui) and his son Adi (played by Aakshath Das).

Serious Men attempts to address the contentious issue of “merit” that is bandied about as a counter to affirmative action but fails to go the full distance.

“THIS is what happens when you come from illiterate parents. It shows your upbringing.” These disturbing words are from a scene in Serious Men, the recently released Sudhir Mishra film, which is based on a book by Manu Joseph of the same name.

A schoolteacher in an elite Mumbai convent insults the eight-year old student Adi (played by Aakshath Das), son of Ayaan Mani (played by Nawazuddin Siddiqui). Mani is a Dalit migrant from Tamil Nadu who lives in a BDD (Bombay Development Directorate) chawl in Mumbai and works as personal assistant to Arvind Acharya (played by Nassar), a Brahmin scientist at the fictitious National Institute of Fundamental Research. This casual insult is a normalised practice in India’s caste cruel society and exclusionary education system. The film with its themes of India’s current abysmally poor record of equal education for historically marginalised sections of society and the routine caste-based harassment in educational institutions could not have been timelier.

Yet, despite the urgency of its objective, the film flatters to deceive. To be fair, however, the film attempts to question the simplistic but powerful notion of “merit” as an autonomous and “neutral” value by vividly portraying the systematic hurdles in Ayaan’s path as he aspires for greater glory. But sadly, its ending leaves much to be desired.
Also read: Equality, dignity and justice

Ayaan, who faces daily and normalised humiliation at the hands of his Brahmin boss in the form of frequent jibes and name callings, is determined to ensure that his son gets “all that our community has been deprived of”. He puts his all into ensuring the best possible schooling for his son, only to be reminded of his caste and the supposedly neutral standards of merit. However, such neutral benchmarks of merit are, in fact, manifestations of structural control of privileged and fortunate groups.

Such sanitised notions of merit bring to mind Amartya Sen’s critique of merit, which emphasises its derivative nature. In his 2000 essay “Merit and Justice”, he argued that meritarian processes and mechanisms arise from structural factors in society that perpetuate the elite control of power. This is what makes “preference against inequality” a key ingredient for an equitable conception of merit. Recent scholarship by Michael Sandel and Joseph de la Torre Dwyer has put the idea of merit or individual competence to scrutiny by highlighting the dominant role of “chance”, “morally arbitrary value allocations” and privilege in the achievement or attainment of “prestigious credentials”.

Marc Galanter, a Professor of Law Emeritus at the University of Wisconsin Law School, for example, identified three broad kinds of resources that are necessary for students to succeed in competitive examinations, which qualify as indicators of merit: (a) economic resources (for prior education, training, materials, freedom from work, and so on); (b) social and cultural resources (networks of contacts, confidence, guidance and advice, information, and so on); and (c) intrinsic ability and hard work. The Supreme Court cited this work of Galanter’s in B.K. Pavitra (2019) where the court recognised that the first two criteria were not products of a candidate’s own efforts but were rather the structural conditions into which one was born. As the judgment juxtaposed the merit discourse with upper-caste disdain for reservation, it explicated the importance of reimagining merit with a normative vision that seeks social justice, substantive equality and diversity.
Also read: The 'merit' fallacy

When Ayaan seeks a reference from Arvind Acharya for Adi’s admission to school, the scientist dismisses his request by asserting that admission should only happen on the basis of merit. This excessive zeal for merit, which outwardly appears to “invisibilise” caste, completely ignores the huge advantages that upper-caste privileges offer. While completing the formalities of the admission procedure, Ayaan is voyeuristically asked about his caste background: “Mani Kaun hote hai?” (Who are the Manis?).

The right to education was recognised as a fundamental right through a constitutional amendment, but the roots of equal and accessible education for all was a promise of the freedom struggle. The Nehru Report on fundamental rights (1928) and the 1931 Karachi session of the Indian National Congress recognised the role of the state in ensuring the fundamental right to education. Dr B.R. Ambedkar proposed in Article 2, Section 4, Clause 1 of States and Minorities (1945)—a constitutional proposal he authored on behalf of the All India Scheduled Castes Federation for submission to the Constituent Assembly—that the federal government should be obligated to undertake special “financial responsibility for the Scheduled Castes [S.Cs]” and make special provisions that “shall form the first charge on the Education Budget of the Union and State Government”.

Yet this constitutional promise remains a mirage. As many scholars such as L.C. Jain and Niranjanaradhya V.P. have argued, the government’s emphasis on fostering world-class excellence in standards took precedence over meeting the constitutional directive of ensuring universal primary education. As the extensive data presented in Hindustan Times show, a student from the top 20 per cent of society is 10 times more likely to be studying in an English medium school than someone who belongs to the bottom one fifth. This data also concludes that a student who does not belong to the Other Backward Classes, the S.Cs or the Scheduled Tribes is almost three times more likely to be enrolled in English medium education than an S.C. student. The recently released National Education Policy mentions the increasing dropout rates amongst students from the marginalised communities as they proceed from primary to secondary school.
Also read: Merit above money

The film is a portrayal of the failure of the state to fulfil the constitutional promise it made decades ago. As far as the promise of equal education is concerned, the state is far from available for Ayaan and Adi. On learning about Adi’s congenital learning difficulty, Ayaan realises that unless an extraordinary intervention is made in the hierarchy-ridden system, his son cannot hope to get his due. Thus, Ayaan creates an elaborate lie that Adi has genius capabilities, a lie that is kept hidden even from Adi’s mother, Oja (played by Indira Tiwari).

“Caste is a thing of the past,” Ayaan is told, but caste is far from over. Ayaan carries the intergenerational trauma of his grandfather who died of a heart attack after he mistakenly believes that he has sat in the first class compartment of a train, and of his mother who died of starvation after an encounter with an award-winning photographer who did not believe that she “looked like a farm labourer”. As Gopal Guru noted in a recent editorial in Economic & Political Weekly, inequalities continue to persist across generations and over whole careers and are transferred from one generation to another. Where is the constitutional promise of transformational justice in these intergenerational inequalities?

Confronting hypocrisy

With its emphasis on the modernised socio-economic stratification in education where merit serves as an instrument of elite machinations to limit access to opportunities, the film’s narrative attempts to speak the blunt truth about the experience of underprivileged individuals at educational institutions. The film critiques the hypocrisy of the modernised “casteless” elite classes, which claim that “caste is a thing of the past” by providing the Dalit protagonist cinematic agency. Ayaan is not shown as a helpless victim. He mocks elite professionals such as Acharya with an egotistical sense of intellectual superiority, terming them “serious men”. His assertive and defiant streak is revealed when he writes pro-reservation quotes on the office notice board, ascribing them to Amartya Sen. But at the end, the film reduces Ayaan to a prop who arguably has been given a dignified “exit” by his Brahmin boss, the same boss who had refused to help his subordinate even when he had nothing to lose in the process. Ayaan is forced to leave Mumbai on the discovery of his lie. While Arvind Acharya continues without a mark of condemnation, Ayaan is condemned with judgments such as “your angst is right, your actions are not”.
Also read: The price of education

In his latest work, The Tyranny of Merit, Michael Sandel observes that in an unequal society those who land on the top seek to perpetuate the myth that their success is morally justified. A meritocratic society is one in which winners must perpetuate the belief that they have earned their success through their own talent and hard work. The obvious obverse of that is that the losers, instead of blaming others for their plight, would do well to put in some more hard work. This film is a reminder that this is just not the case.

Prannv Dhawan and Surbhi Karwa are constitutional law researchers with an interest in cinema.

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