Manoj Bajpayee looks pained in the new Amazon Prime series The Family Man. As an intelligence officer who lives the dual life of being an underpaid government servant in Mumbai, the actor looks harangued and strung out, and wiry in an uncomfortable manner: as if he’s forced to leave most of his meals a course too early. This is likely, given how often his cellphone buzzes. Every time he looks at it, his eyebrow is cocked and his brow furrowed, as if asking what in the world could happen next.
Much is always up, and none of it can wait. Bajpayee’s Srikant is well-respected in his field—a new recruit reverentially calls him “the Srikant Tiwari"—but his wife believes he has left that very field behind and chosen a tamer desk job. As a result, Srikant pretends he has to attend to problems of paperwork instead of sleeper cells and terrorist attacks. Since a misplaced file is a less potent excuse than a mistimed bomb, he can’t get out of dropping children to school or having to prepare the oxymoronically titled “veg biryani" for a family dinner.
The idea of a domesticated spy is a familiar concept, exploited most successfully by James Cameron’s 1994 blockbuster True Lies, where Arnold Schwarzenegger not only hid his secret-agent status from his wife, played by Jamie Lee Curtis, but used state-of-the-art spyware to snoop on her. Created by Raj Nidimoru and Krishna D.K., The Family Man feels a fair bit like British comedy series Spy—not to be mistaken with the recent Netflix true-life espionage drama The Spy, which I wrote about last week. In Spy, Darren Boyd plays a goofy single father who ends up joining MI5. Considered too uncool by his son, he wishes he could tell the boy what he really does. But there lies the job’s biggest drawback.
In India, however, the demerits run deeper. Raj and D.K.’s show deftly plays with the idea of budget—and especially a sarkaari (government) budget—where bomb disposal suits are held together with duct tape and highly respected secret agents can’t earn like their brothers in the software business. In Tiwari’s first meeting with his boss, he asks about a long-overdue home loan. So while there are story arcs very reminiscent of Spy, including a school principal who must be quelled and coaxed, most of this series is as Indian as it gets.
The directors have always been great at finding a uniquely local flavour, as shown in their Shor In The City, the smartest-ever film set against Mumbai’s city-halting Ganpati Visarjan, and The Family Man is no different. Chase sequences take place in thin and crammed lanes full of churches and multicoloured houses, while cops languorously scratch their backs as they bring in “anti-national" boys for questioning. There’s texture and character, and the truth is that a street-side eatery in the financial capital of India offers just as much anonymity as feeding ducks in Hyde Park. It’s a city too busy to eavesdrop. Mostly, anyway.
The problem is that the spy-thriller stuff feels undercooked. The cinematography is spot on and there are some delightful tracking shots, but despite a suitably rousing background score, the terrorist plot line feels perfunctory. It’s efficient enough, but a touch tiresome because there isn’t anything truly original in the spycraft—at least not in the first three episodes sent out for review. The comic bits are sharply observed and Srikant’s existential juggle is compelling. Alas, I fear this show might be mistaking itself for a thriller.
Bajpayee is alone reason enough to keep watching The Family Man. The actor strikes a terrific and unlikely balance between fatigue and efficiency, and his no-nonsense character is genuinely fascinating. Priyamani plays Srikant’s wife, Suchitra, and while the actor is drily natural, her part could have used a few more drafts: It’s tiring to see every single interaction between the husband and wife involving her nagging him. Her complaints are reasonable, sure, but it would be nice to see Srikant catch a break once in a while. Or to see them share a smile.
Parts of the show feel jarringly unnatural, like when bearded terrorists in Balochistan interrupt chaste Urdu lines to use phrases like “lone wolf", or when a man and a woman texting each other keep making broad emoji-likefaces before typing. Not very sly at all.
I wish this was a crisp half-hour show instead of a 45-minute indulgence, but the actors and details keep things bubbling, and I am genuinely curious to see how it unfolds. Investigators in fiction are traditionally unmarried—Sharadindu Bandyopadhyay’s Byomkesh Bakshi, or Dashiell Hammett’s Nick And Nora Charles are marvellous exceptions—and there is definite promise ahead. On some level, we are all Srikant. If only those around us could know our greatest secret: that we are the ones holding the world in place.
Stream of Stories is a column on what to watch online. Raja Sen is a film critic and the author of The Best Baker In The World (2017), a children’s adaptation of The Godfather.