A Suitable Boy review: Mira Nair's marriage of the personal and the political is a patchy road to mild fulfilment

Devansh Sharma
·6-min read

Language: English, Hindi, Bengali

On paper, there could not have been a better duo to adapt Vikram Seth's sprawling 1993 novel A Suitable Boy than Mira Nair and Andrew Davies.

The Welsh writer, who has written the six-part BBC series based on the book, has earlier adapted Leo Tolstoy's War and Peace, Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice, and Alexandre Dumas' The Three Musketeers for film and television. Similarly, the Indian-American director has made her own the various film adaptations of bestsellers like Jhumpa Lahiri's The Namesake, William Makepeace Thackeray's Vanity Fair, and Mohsin Hamid's The Reluctant Fundamentalist.

But her imprint in the TV adaptation of A Suitable Boy comes a tad too late €" only in the sixth hour of binge-watching. The signature stamp is so impressionable that the residual feeling is that of fulfilment. But the hangover of a narrative that plods through, despite fascinating characters, potentially intriguing subplots, and a seasoned motley of technicians and ensemble, does not fail to get to you.

The tracks of two principal characters for the spine of the show. Lata (Tanya Maniktala), a college student looking for a prospective suitor, prodded by her mother, is as disoriented as India at a time when the country is coming of age after Independence. Simultaneously, her brother-in-law Maan (Ishaan Khatter) gravitates towards an older Muslim courtesan Saeeda (Tabu), much to the chagrin of his father Maheep (Ram Kapoor), the Revenue Minister who is gearing up to contest in India's first democratic general election.

Ishaan Khatter in A Suitable Boy
Ishaan Khatter in A Suitable Boy

Ishaan Khatter in A Suitable Boy

One does not know if it is deliberate but Nair's narrative feels as lost and directionless as Lata and Maan €" and India as a newly independent nation €" and only finds its footing like the rest of them in the final episode. Most stretches till then are painfully challenging to sit through, thanks to Davies' screenplay and Nick Fenton's editing. For a book of over thousand pages, the six-hour long adaptation would have been awfully brisk, even at the risk of merely checking all the plot points and doing away with many of them.

But Seth's book was never celebrated for its plot anyway. Its primary claim to excellence was the language. Neatly and inventively crafted, Seth's words were both transportive and evocative. The translation to visuals achieves only half the job.

There is little doubt that the world Nair recreates is immersive as she draws out the optimal potentials of her technicians, with whom she shares an enduring working relationship over the years. Stephanie Caroll's production design is expansive as well as intricate. She maps out the Ganga ghats with as much opulence and precision as the swinging Calcutta of the early 1950s. Her craft is ably aided by Arjun Bhasin, whose handloom costumes lend warmth and texture to every frame.

A still from A Suitable Boy
A still from A Suitable Boy

A still from A Suitable Boy

Alex Heffes' music and Anoushka Shankar's sprightly sitar, accompanied by Kavita Seth's unblemished vocals, do not allow the viewer to only appreciate the peripherals. Declan Quinn and Shreya Dev Dube's cinematography, barring a few problematic shots, is equally telling particularly when it peaks into Maan and Lata's loquacious eyes.

But these narrative tools feel divorced from the rather tepid direction by Nair and second unit director Shimit Amin (Chak De India!, Rocket Singh: Salesman of the Year). The dialogues are so trite and the perspective so limp that one does not feel invested in any of the myriad characters till at least four episodes into the show. It also does not help that the show is not designed for binge-watching. So there is no cliffhanger at the end of the episode that thrusts the viewer into the next one. That is exactly why every character needed to have a beating heart, and the screenplay some coherence.

Tanya Maniktala in A Suitable Boy
Tanya Maniktala in A Suitable Boy

Tanya Maniktala in A Suitable Boy

There are ample breathing spaces embedded in the narrative, usually offered to viewers so that they could read between the lines. Unfortunately, there is not much to be read here.

To make matters worse, Nair, Davies, Dube, and Quinn's gaze is also not entirely free of Western prejudice. If one digs deeper, the conspicuous absence of even a passing mention of the British atrocities post-Independence amounts to implied whitewashing. Some of the establishing shots, like a buffalo emerging out of a village lake and Lata feeding a monkey in the closing shot, seem like postcard stills from a dated exhibition at The National Gallery, London.

A still from A Suitable Boy
A still from A Suitable Boy

A still from A Suitable Boy

Much has been debated about the language and accents used in the show, and how they add to the cultural appropriation. While that may be a concern, given how pronounced and stereotypical the accents are, and how injected the use of local languages feel, this writer would suggest turning on the Hindi dub. All the actors have dubbed for themselves and the translation of the English dialogues does not feel inaccurate.

Notwithstanding the Western gaze, where Nair scores brownie points is the politics. Right from the first episode, the rise of Hindu nationalism in the wake of the formation of Pakistan is underlined. The construction of a temple besides a mosque by the local authorities, backed by the national ruling party, was burningly relevant then, in 1993 when the book released, and is so today. Maan and his best friend Firoz's (Shubham Saraf) relationship is utilised as a layered symbol to the evolving Hindu-Muslim dynamics in the country, as the two friends go from cryptically queer to blinded by rage and prejudice.

Nair's most fulfilling interpretation comes in her micro-to-macro juxtaposition of how the politics of Indian matchmaking and lovemaking play out against that of a nation struggling to get to its feet. Through Maan and Lata's parallel journies and common learnings, she professes the idea that love and ambition need to go hand in hand for a country recently divided on communal lines and given the freedom to choose its path ahead.

Casting directors Dilip Shankar, Nandini Shrikent, and Karan Mally round up a rich and exciting ensemble. The most prized additions are certainly the leads. Khatter is going strength to strength displaying his versatility, conviction, and devotion in debut film Beyond The Clouds, Dhadak, Khaali Peeli, and now, A Suitable Boy. He makes Maan worth rooting for despite all the character's missteps. Maniktala's smile is like the crack of a dawn, and her dewiness is imbued with a great deal of self-assuredness.

Tabu reunites with Nair 15 years after The Namesake but their partnership matches its brilliance only in flashes. The seasoned actress lends both gravitas and grace to Saeeda, but spends a considerable screen time lip-syncing to Seth's voice that does not gel too well with her personality. Among the wide-ranging supporting cast, Ram Kapoor, Vinay Pathak, Rasika Dugal, Vivaan Shah, Vijay Varma, Shahana Goswami, Vijay Raaz, Ranvir Shorey, and Namit Das each get their moment to shine and leave a mark, in the same order.

Nair extracts commendable performance from each of these innumerable talents, along with her talented technicians. But a director's job transcends just eliciting quality work from her cast and crew. These have to be channeled into a unified vision. Going by the last episode, Nair's vision does come alive. But it does not feel earned.

A Suitable Boy is streaming on Netflix India.

Also See: A Suitable Boy: Ishaan Khatter, Tanya Maniktala, Ram Kapoor on being part of the adaptation of Vikram Seth's novel

A Suitable Boy to premiere on Netflix on 23 October, after BBC telecast in UK, Ireland

Hubie Halloween movie review: Adam Sandler endorses kindness in unabashedly silly Netflix comedy

Read more on Entertainment by Firstpost.