Mira Nair directed ‘A Suitable Boy’, a series based on the novel by Vikram Seth, completed its sixth and final episode on BBC One on Monday. And I’ve got to admit that I feel a little hollow. I wanted more! However, it’s probably not for the obvious reasons one might think.
The series is a great triumph for Indian entertainment, being shown on mainstream television in the UK, fronted by solely Indian actors. A further victory, somewhat, is that this Andrew Davies written adaptation incorporates sometimes full scenes in Hindi or Urdu. This may come across as a surprise to some viewers, as it is primarily a British audience who would be devouring this show before it hits the online world. However, I believe that these additions gave this version some character which perhaps would’ve escaped had absolutely all the dialogues been in Hindi. With Mira Nair – known for directing other almost crossover type projects such as 1988’s ‘Salaam Bombay!’ and 2001’s ‘Monsoon Wedding’ – helming the treatment of this re-write, expectations were rightfully quite high.
Firstly, I have to admit, I’ve not read the book so am not qualified to tell you whether the series works well as a representation of the book. However, as a standalone mini-series, I can tell you that despite the exciting factors mentioned above, it is an absolute privilege to see so many very well-known and some lesser-known names coming together on-screen in such a project. The most well-known of the lot are Tabu (who plays courtesan Saeeda Bai), Ishaan Khatter (who plays Maan Kapoor, a politician’s son), Ram Kapoor (who plays politician Mahesh Kapoor, father to Maan), Tanya Maniktala (who plays protagonist Lata for whom her mother is looking for a suitable match), Mahira Kakkar (who plays Rupa, Lata’s mother), Rasika Dugal (who plays Savita, Lata’s sister)… the list can be perceived as being endless. The star power that these actors and the others not mentioned bring to the series is impressive to say the least and each and every one has a special role, showing off their talent and also spoiling the British audiences who may have never seen many of them before ‘A Suitable Boy’ and may not see them after.
What this adaptation gives the audiences is a sense of 1950s India and I have to say, it feels like it’s a very modern setting even though it’s not meant to be. There’s a relatability one feels with some of the characters quite early on and the charm of the settings and the treatment visually is nothing short of stunning. Brahmpur, Kolkata and Delhi make up much of the backdrop and political undercurrent probably could’ve been a whole lot clearer and more prevalent than it was. What was clear from pretty much the very start, nonetheless, was the tension and after-effects in a country which was fresh from partition and how Lata’s apprehension when falling for Kabir (played by Danesh Rizvi), on finding out he was Muslim, comes into context. I do genuinely feel that this emphasis could’ve been a little clearer for those who perhaps weren’t so aware of why she felt herself fall and then had to make herself withdraw from him in the way that she does. However, as a viewer, I was totally sucked into the narrative especially as it was fresh to me, having not known the story or how different or similar the treatment on-screen was from the book. I think it was possibly a blessing in disguise to not know so much of the plot so that I could go by how it was made as a series, as opposed to a written book elevated to the screen.
Nair’s version of ‘A Suitable Boy’ gives way to performances by Khatter and Tabu which are all-consuming, endearing and, quite frankly, the highlight of the entire series. When Maan first lays his eyes on Saeeda Bai, it’s in a crowded room, from the garden. His infatuation leads him to then pose lying down right in front of her as she sings elegantly to entertain the mixed audience, his eyes fixated on her even though the room is full of people. Right from this first scene they both share up until the final scene where they are leaving court, these two actors together carve a huge space in the viewer’s hearts and beings in the six episodes. Together they are fascinating and passionate. Individually, Maan is free-spirited and portrays the epitome of youthfulness and joie de vivre; Saeeda is stunning and seemingly in charge but also somewhat trapped in her own destiny.
Lata’s character, as protagonist, is essayed superbly by Maniktala who is, quite literally a fresh face. All through the six episodes you feel her dilemma between heart and mind but also her uneasiness in having to choose a “suitable” life partner for herself, as well as tick all the boxes her family have for that person. As an Indian, albeit outside of India, I can say I know of these pressures existing even today in certain families and communities, although much more scarcely. When Lata realises that her future really isn’t with Kabir, she has to choose between those she’s introduced to as “matches” by her family or friends. In come shoe manufacturer Namit Das as Haresh and poet Mikhail Sen as Amit; both very eligible and both very interested in Lata. Das and Sen’s performances in these respective characters are interesting to say the very least, both getting into the skin of their characters and developing their own chemistry with Maniktala which almost confuses the viewer as to who might be best for her. The choice she eventually makes is the right one for her, for someone who will always let her be her own self.
One of the other characters worth a mention is Rupa, Lata’s mother. Mahira Kakkar plays a very set-in-her-way mother, who wants to marry her daughter off to the most suitable boy. In the process, her portrayal (probably rightfully adapted this way for today’s audience) of the ideologies that many families may have had then and have now until this day come across a little comical. Whether this is because of the dialogues which I found myself laughing out loud at many a time or whether it’s because of the way Kakkar performed in certain scenes, I can’t really pinpoint. I think this is a very clever way of showcasing how ridiculous attitudes and cultural traditions can be by putting in a character who is a little over-the-top. There was a great sense of ‘Goodness Gracious Me’ about her which simply didn’t come across in the other characters.
‘A Suitable Boy’ was a treat to watch – that absolutely cannot be denied. However, the feeling of the trick comes in its minimal shortcomings. One of these is the final episode which feels rushed and abrupt. It left me feeling a sense of the incomplete, as if there’s another episode left because the story just didn’t feel like it’d come to its natural end. At just six episodes, this tale deserved some more screen time, in my book. The trick is also in the fact that, as a viewer, you become so absorbed into the characters, into the occasions – weddings, Holi, parties – that the cultural aspect really seems to take over. Without much warning, the colours and the ambiences created feel so easy on the eye that you don’t want to let it go so quick. And you know, when you feel that way, that it has left its mark on you.
I’m definitely sad to see this series end but glad it will be there for the world to see next month. Because audiences deserve his slice of 1950s Indian life… and love. Many may think it has too many flaws and many might wish there were some wrongs corrected. However, what I hope the viewers agree on is that Mira Nair has given this story a a very special treatment indeed.
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