How do you condense close to six lakh words about post-Partition India spilled over roughly 1,400 pages of one of the longest single-volume books to have been published in the English language, also among the most celebrated books to have come out of India, into six hours of digital drama for the impatient, unforgiving, channel-surfing audience of 2020 whose attention span is shorter than the time it takes to read the first sentence of this review? The simple answer is, you don’t. Not least of all because India’s relationship with its English accent is a thorny subject. And to make an all-brown show largely set in small-town India of the 1950s for BBC’s largely gora audience… It was bound to piss off more people than it ever had any hope of pleasing. Not surprisingly, the most persistent grumbles about director Mira Nair’s adaptation of Vikram Seth’s wildly popular 1993 novel, A Suitable Boy, have to do with the desi cast’s affected way of talking. Personally, I don’t mind it — there is no one “way” in which India speaks English — but I can see why reaffirming Russell Peters’ idea of delivery might be so appalling to so many. Retire the Harlem shake, the rolling Rs, and the grating nasal twang already.
Whatever your opinion of the delivery, you have to envy the audacity of Nair and writer Andrew Davies’ ambition. And although, like any proper book enthusiast I must mutter and curse under my breath about them missing this crucial detail, or not doing justice to that character, or not quite getting that particular mesmerising scene from the book right, the truth of the matter is that Nair-Davies get a lot of it right. For those who’ve read and loved the book, watching the show is going to be a delicate dance between agony and joy. If you haven’t, you’re in for six hours of impeccable art direction, some mediocrity, and several sparks of pure genius.
If I had to draw literary parallels, I’d call A Suitable Boy the desi Pride & Prejudice. Seth’s Lata Mehra is a bit like Austen’s Lizzy Bennett — more interested in books than beaus, even as her mother resolutely informs her that she must marry “a suitable boy” of her choosing. The book — and the show — see Lata resisting, then falling in love; being tormented by love; being courted by men deemed suitable and unsuitable by different people in her life, and finally, making a choice and getting married. Will Lata marry her very unsuitable Muslim boyfriend Kabir for love, the charming and celebrated poet Amit for social mobility, or the mummy-approved simple, suitable Haresh for stability? Half the joy is picking your favourite suitor and cheering him on! The delicate strands of Lata’s love story are woven alongside the coarser ropes of communal tension, political rivalry, hubris, and tragedy. Seth’s novel could have been 500 pages longer, and I’d have happily read it. Nair’s series could have been twice its length and I’d have happily devoted six more hours to it. There’s no dearth of material within each sub-plot.
If I had to draw literary parallels, I’d call A Suitable Boy the desi Pride & Prejudice.
Nair makes many inspired choices with casting — Tabu as courtesan-singer Saeeda Bai is mesmerising, the talented Ishaan Khatter as the fickle and over-indulged Maan nails the good bad boy switcheroo, Shahana Goswami as Lata’s pleasure-seeking, morally vacuous sister-in-law makes adultery look light-hearted, Ram Kapoor perfectly balances the tension between his twin roles as Maan’s crabby father and a do-gooder Congress politician, while Namit Das as Haresh will woo you with his artless charm. And yet, oddly, she completely misses the mark with Lata and Rupa, her most important characters. It’s almost as if Tanya Maniktala (Lata) and Mahira Kakkar (Rupa) are competing to see which one can get on your nerves faster.
Fortunately, you can distract yourself with the flawless, breathtaking art direction, when the mother-daughter duo get tiresome. Watching the show unfold was like watching the India of my grandmother’s childhood come alive. The billowy trousers cinched just a few inches below the men’s torso, the slim watches and thick well-oiled braids with flowers that fashionable women of my grandmother’s generation favoured, the plump long cushions that were a staple in homes for men to rest their ample girth on, the forgetful canna lily that bloomed in every garden, the delicate shiuli preferred by women for their pujas… Nair and team really have outdone themselves in getting all the finer details just right.
In the end, when you’re working with so much material that needs to be crammed into so little time, you’re going to get erratic. There were times when it felt almost criminal to convert Seth’s lyrical, unhurried prose into functional dialogue and I found myself sorely resenting Davies for his hatchet job and the jarring scenes that resulted from the exercise. But that’s being unfair. I envy those who haven’t read the book — they’ll be able to enjoy the series the way no reader can because they’ll never know what’s missing. So, is the show worth giving up half a dozen hours of your life to? Yes. Because it will make you want to read (or re-read) the book. And that, I promise you, is a thing of pure joy.