Not long ago, it felt like the only Asians you saw on TV were either being forced into arranged marriages or could answer algebra questions off the top of their heads.
At a time when original primetime TV seems to have been put on hold in place of repeats of Masterchef, the widely anticipated TV adaptation of Vikram Seth’s novel A Suitable Boy adds some much-needed colour to our weekend viewing – and shows that ethnic storytelling can make for mainstream viewing.
The six-part drama has been hailed as the first all-Indian period drama on western TV. Written by Andrew Davies, who is considered the Spielberg of the genre thanks to his adaptation of books such as Pride and Prejudice, it was shot entirely on location in India. The drama features an all-star cast that includes Indian film legend Tabu, who says it was high time that the story of partition was brought to the screen.
“We have seen glimpses and flashes of Indian culture, but A Suitable Boy is part-fiction, part-inspired by real life and what was happening at the time of partition,” she says, “and that’s what makes it interesting. It is not just a historical documentary but a story of people’s lives and how they were being changed by historical events.”
Set in early Fifties, post-partition India as it prepares for its first free election, the series centres on Lata Mehra (played by Tanya Maniktala), a vivacious 19-year-old student from a traditional Hindu family, whose widowed mother Rupa (played by Mahira Kakkar) goes in search for “a suitable boy”. Her mother’s efforts would give Aunty Sima from Netflix’s Indian Matchmaker a run for her money. The visual sumptuousness of the series – which combines the colour and musicality of Indian culture and the darker side of society and political turmoil with the seamless intricacy of a bridal sari – shows a picture of Indian society we rarely see in the west.
As Saeeda Bai – a beautiful courtesan who scandalises polite society through her relationship with a handsome young politician’s son half her age – Tabu gives one of the stand-out performances of the series. Although director Mira Nair said they resisted the temptation to “sex up” the series for western audiences, the subtle sensuality of Tabu’s performance – she seems to convey more sexiness in one flutter of her eyelashes than the whole Fifty Shades trilogy managed – has meant the series has been dubbed not so much a bodice ripper as a sari blouse buster.
“The journey of this character is sexy because there is romance, there’s love and passion and she’s a courtesan entertaining royalty and the aristocrats of that time,” says Tabu, whose real name is Tabassum Hashmi. “Courtesans are part of India’s history. Saeeda represents a part of the culture that was prevalent at the time.”
She continues: “The women utilised their beauty, glamour and musical abilities to entertain men and it was something that was not looked down upon at that time. Saeeda is an outsider but she is intertwined with the story, which shows the fine line between respectable society and her world and what can happen when those lines are crossed.”
Though Tabu, 49, is often described as a Bollywood actor, it is perhaps her work outside Bollywood, in films such as Life of Pi, that is the most notable. This series reunites Tabu with Nair, with whom she worked on the film adaptation of Jhumpa Lahiri’s book The Namesake.
She wants more awareness for Indian cinema beyond the Goodness Gracious Me parody of Bollywood couples dancing around snow-capped mountains: “I don’t like the term Bollywood,” she says. “It isn’t the only type of film making in India. Western audiences associate Indian cinema with Bollywood film stars dancing around trees. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it’s only one facet of Indian cinema.”
While this series could go some way to improve perceptions of Asian representation on TV, it’s not without criticism. The lack of an Asian writer in what is essentially the biggest Asian TV project of all time raised concerns over the lack of opportunities for black and Asian writers on TV. Writer Nikesh Shukla, who originally raised the issue, said: “While I engage with Seth’s comments about it being his choice who adapts his work, I would hope he engages with the reality of what the landscape for brown writers in this country is.”
Tabu, however, believes the universality of storytelling crosses these borders: “Cinema is so universal and most experiences are similar on a human level. I don’t know why one style can’t be used with another kind of story, but of course there are going to be different opinions and reactions.”
One relatable theme explored in A Suitable Boy is the dilemma between following your heart and following your duty, when Lata falls in love with a Muslim boy. Their relationship – and the tensions it causes – offers a microcosm of the growing friction between India’s Hindu and Muslim communities, which are exploited by politicians around elections.
The sectarian tensions that form the darker subtext of the series are timely, and there are unmistakable parallels with current events in India; the recent protests in India, for example, against the Citizens Amendment Bill – which offers amnesty to undocumented non-Muslims from three neighbouring countries and was dubbed the “anti-Muslim bill”.
But as soon as I mention the political themes of the story, Tabu’s eyes widen in horror and she lets out a gasp, frantically making scissor gestures and running her finger across her neck in a cutting motion. “Let’s skip this question,” she says, adamantly.
Though her reaction is surprising given the plot of the novel, it is also understandable. The pressures on actors of Muslim origin – which Tabu is – to prove their loyalty to the nation are enormous. An ill-timed remark can result in protests, even death threats.
Politics aside, A Suitable Boy is ultimately a universal story about finding love. Lata’s journey towards finding herself, at a time when the country is also finding its feet, is something to which almost all can relate.
According to Tabu, A Suitable Boy is a coming-of-age story not just for Lata, but for ethnic, female representation on TV. “The representation of women is changing, not just in Bollywood, but in every industry,” she says, “and going in different directions where female representation is concerned. We have come a long way in giving multi-layered roles to women. This is just the start.”