Secret government agent Srikant Tiwari has been banished to serve a post in the sprawling countryside of Kashmir after a botched mission near the home office in Mumbai. At night, he calls his family to check in, but learns that his kids, son Atharv and daughter Dhriti, had a great day at the mall with their mum – his wife, Suchitra – because she just took a new job at a start-up that he had begged her not to. While he’s on the line, the kids find out that their mother has been given a new laptop by her male colleague – whom Sri is suspicious of. They’re so excited that they drop the phone and forget their dad’s even there.
He never gets to talk to his wife. But as he fumes afterwards, alone at his remote post, he has a major insight on a case that could lead to the capture of a high-ranking Islamic State (IS) terrorist – who’s been posing as a low-ranking IS pawn already under his agency’s surveillance.
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The Family Man turns on such satisfying juxtapositions, constantly pitting Sri’s disastrous personal instincts against his superhuman – though not infallible – skill in his role at the National Investigation Agency, rooting out terrorists who flourish in and around India (his family think he has an ordinary desk job).
The series’ beguiling combination of action, drama, and comedy – marshalled by innovative Bollywood directors Raj Nidimoru and Krishna DK – won it a production deal with Amazon Prime. The streaming platform gave the show, shot mainly in Hindi with some English and Tamil, a major promotional push at the summer 2019 Television Critics Association gathering in America. The slot on Amazon makes The Family Man one of a growing, but still small, number of non-English language shows to reach out to worldwide audiences.
The first, 10-episode, season provides that global audience with a snapshot of several key aspects of Indian culture. Played by widely acclaimed, National Film Award-winning actor Manoj Bajpayee, Sri navigates a cross-cultural marriage with his wife: she is from the Tamil region of Southern India, an ethnic group with its own language, and is played by Priyamani, also a National Film Award winner and known for her work in Tamil. Sri’s line of work, meanwhile, shows us what a constant and pervasive struggle it is to fight terrorism within the Kashmir region – and gives us a glimpse of the failures and triumphs.
A very ordinary spy
Sri’s story also embodies a basic tenet of life for some middle-class Indians, that the honour of working for your country is worth the sacrifices of long hours and lower pay – the latter a detail of Sri’s job that The Family Man rams home, with the children wishing for a cooler car and marvelling over a rare, decadent day of shopping. “The idea that for a certain section of Indians, a government job is the pinnacle of what they can aspire to, that remains as relevant as it ever has been,” says Rohan Naahar, a TV and film critic for the Hindustan Times who has written about the show. “In fact, it represents the majority of city-dwelling Indians rather accurately.”
Bajpayee juggles the show’s shifting moods with ease, coming off as believably charming, bumbling, heroic, and idiotic at turns
The Family Man does all of this while remaining compulsively watchable. Bajpayee juggles the show’s shifting moods with ease, coming off as believably charming, bumbling, heroic, and idiotic at turns. These subtleties are critical to the creators’ vision of the character. “The idea was that we wanted to have a middle-class guy who is a typical government employee who treats it like a government job because that’s what I got from the people I met,” co-creator Nidimoru told Film Companion. “Nobody has that kind of movie spy swagger. They’re just everyday guys who talk very normally and everything about them is almost ordinary. They just happen to be doing this kind of job.”
With Amazon Prime-level production values, location shoots, and an omniscient point of view, the series can vividly portray both the plotters and fighters of terrorism throughout India and surrounding countries such as Pakistan. It also offers some funny one-liners and snide commentary, as when Sri’s friend and colleague explains to a newcomer: “Privacy is a myth, just like democracy.”
The bigger picture
Indian critics have praised The Family Man for these reasons as well as, to some extent, its bold – if imperfect – handling of the complexities of terrorism in the region. Karan Sanjay Shay of news website Rediff.com noted its deft portrayal of “the logistical and financial constraints of India’s intelligence agencies”, adding that “the harsh realities of life, including poverty, corruption and discrimination are highlighted, and will make your gut wrench.” Raja Sen, writing for financial publication Live Mint, says, “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.”
Naahar takes some issue with its portrayal of young Kashmiris as terrorists as well as its humanisation of terrorists, but praises the series for daring to address the messier sides of terrorism, and for depicting terrorists festering within Indian borders – as opposed to insisting that terror is a dark force that comes only from outside. He’s among the critics who have contrasted The Family Man positively with Netflix’s similarly premised Bard of Blood, which takes a more reductionist us-versus-them, nationalistic approach. “In recent years, the dominant perception has been that terrorists are, a) Islamic, and b) from other countries,” he says of The Family Man. “What makes the show refreshing is that it flips the narrative and forces the viewer to confront some harsh truths.”
It also brings Indian sensibilities to an international stage, with prestige-show production values – a win for Indian culture as a whole. “It’s smart and surprisingly well-made,” Naahar says. “But I think it stands out because we can perhaps count on one hand Indian shows that can be considered world-class. For some reason, even though we’ve made exceptional films in the past, the same finesse has rarely been seen on the small screen. Streaming has changed that. The budgets are bigger, and talented filmmakers can finally afford to realise their visions. There have been colossal misses, don’t get me wrong – Bard of Blood had a big budget as well – but it’ll be interesting to see how the industry evolves.”
The Family Man is on Amazon Prime now.
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