Mira Nair’s ‘A Suitable Boy’ is a snazzy adaptation of Vikram Seth’s novel. The quest for love and identity on a tumultuous sociopolitical backdrop of a newly independent India is perfectly condensed into a snackable six-part series. With lavish, immersive visuals, the show sure feels like a post-colonial fantasy featuring a perfect all-Indian cast. But is it all too British?
A Suitable Boy, BBC’s first outing with an all-coloured cast gives Mira Nair an ostentatious project to direct. Based on Vikram Seth’s 1993 novel of the same name, the six-part series sets up a sweeping look at a newly independent, post-partition India. Extensive as the source material is, the show keeps to the core narrative and gives us the story of a nation coming of age along with its people. Starring Tabu, Ishaan Khatter, Namit Das, Ram Kapoor, Vinay Pathak, Vijay Varma, Ranvir Shorey in an ensemble cast of critically acclaimed actors, with Tanya Maniktala taking on the role of the protagonist, the show seems to pack in talent from all walks of Indian entertainment. For a story this expansive, it will hardly surprise you when you spot the 30th (?) recurring character.
Set in 1950, the show, like the book, follows four families from the upper echelons of Indian society as their lives and relationships play out on the backdrop of political turmoil with India headed for its first democratic elections. At the heart of the story is Lata Mehra (Tanya Maniktala) and her quest for identity. Lata’s mother (a very convincing Mahira Kakkar) in typical Mrs. Bennet fashion wants nothing more than to marry her daughter off to the titular “suitable boy” of her choosing. Our wide-eyed protagonist, a literature student with a fondness for Donne and strong opinions about Joyce, finds herself torn between choices as three very different men try to woo her.
Lata has to pick between (1) Kabir Durrani (Danesh Razvi), a good-looking history student at her university, (2) Amit Chatterji (Mikhail Sen), a poet who studied abroad (3) Harresh Khanna (Namit Das), a hardworking shoemaker her mother favours. While Lata has her hands full with big life decisions, Maan Kapoor (Ishaan Khatter), the son of a politician (Ram Kapoor) is falling in love with Saeeda Bai (a scene-stealing Tabu) an enigmatic courtesan whose music can entrance anyone listening. These are the major romantic arcs that run parallel in the series that blends the personal and the political.
A Suitable Boy takes on themes of politics, religion, identity and love, all in one miniseries. And that’s a tall order. The very first episode of the series has a wedding celebration and a local politician constructing a temple next to a mosque in order to spite the Muslim population, a glimpse at the beginnings of Hindu nationalism. This is a microcosm of the range of storytelling the show tackles. How the makers did it is beyond me, but it’s rather unsurprising when you consider the sum of director Mira Nair and writer Andrew Davies’ involvement. Going into the show, I was familiar with Davies’ 1995 BBC adaptation of Pride and Prejudice which is such a great adaptation of the literary text that it was a part of the course material in my film and literature class. He has a way of condensing chapters and chapters of events into comprehensive TV viewing. Mira Nair, best known for Namesake and Monsoon Wedding having explored the subject of identity in her past works knows exactly what parts to meditate upon. The director’s penchant for creating immersive onscreen experiences coupled with her sensibilities are the main draw of anyone who has been waiting for the title to finally premiere on Netflix. But now that it’s here, its sparking questions like – Does the writer’s Britishness prevent an authentic portrayal of Indianess?
For the sake of getting it out the way, the writer’s script does bring in a cliched perspective so A Suitable Boy has a regular feature of trains, riversides and monkeys. One can argue that these were constants of Indian fiction at the time but one thing the show must explain is why its characters sound the way they do. When I first started watching the show, Netflix played it with the Hindi audio and upon switching it to the original English audio, I found that everyone in the fictional town of Brahmpur, Calcutta and anywhere else has an accent. It’s the same accent we hear the one Indian cast member in an otherwise all-white film speak in. What’s up with that? I have spoken to some of the cast members for telephonic interviews in the past few days and they sure as hell didn’t sound the way they did in the series while conversing in English. This only makes me wonder if this big Indian period drama is made for a British audience, an accusation many critics have pointed out. The result is a show that in spite of all its flair comes off as an outdated soap opera instead of the re-staging of a crucial event in history and history in-making (the all Indian casting is a radical move towards diversity in English dramas).
Coming down to the parts I liked. You gotta hand it to Mira Nair, her DOPs, her art direction team (most of them are long-time collaborators) and her splendid vision. On Nair’s direction, we see intricate details of ‘50s India, a world built with careful attention to detail. It’s easy to get lost in the spectacle of it all. It helps that the people populating the frame are brilliant performers cast perfectly. And that’s why A Suitable Boy feels a lot like fantasy television. One can live vicariously through Nair’s post-partition India, a place where Lata can go on picturesque boating dates with Kabir or lavish parties where she can learn to tango with Amit. It makes for a great piece of escapism and while we’re all stuck at home, fantasy post-colonial India feels strangely good. If Nair knows how to brew alchemical potions of enchantment, she also knows how to splash a tall cold glass of water in your face to bring you back to reality as well. And this the part that will almost certainly get you. The series paints a clear-eyed portrait of politics that’s relevant now more than ever. While Lata struggles with the realisation that the boy she’s falling for is a Muslim (a strict no-no for her mother who upholds religion and caste), communal riots spark in another place. Watching Maan recite the Hanuman Chalisa as proof of his religious faith to a group of men armed with lathis who quickly question the faith of his Muslim best friend Firoz (Shubham Saraf) is haunting. India’s history of divisive politics is common knowledge but having it play out in times where it rings truer than it ever did before (what with our Prime Minister laying the foundation stone for a temple on a site of communal violence) is a piercing sight. It’s the kind of sharp realisation that will escape the British audiences and will most likely stay with Indian viewers.
This adaptation of A Suitable Boy might not please fans of the 1,300-pager, a mammoth read. It most definitely won’t please those among us scoffing at the idea of BBC filtering an Indian period drama. Like its characters, the show struggles with decolonisation. But it will remain an enjoyable, relevant piece of entertainment and a moment for diversity. That should give you an idea of why the series has been getting mixed reviews since its initial release back in July. The way I see it, A Suitable Boy is a sum of its carefully curated parts and I’m glad those parts had one of India’s finest female directors as helmer, an army of a production crew, scenes full of talented Indian actors and multiple perspectives to look at the story and Indian history from.
A Suitable Boy is available to watch on Netflix.
Cover artwork: Bhavya Poonia/Mashable India