Cast: Tanya Maniktala, Ishaan Khattar, Tabu, Mahira Kakkar, Ram Kapoor, Danesh Razvi, Gagandev Riar, Shubham Saraf, Rasika Dugal, Vivek Gomber, Aamir Bashir, Geeta Agarwal Sharma, Shahana Goswami, Namit Das, Vivaan Shah, Mikhail Sen, Vinay Pathak, Joyeeta Dutta, Vijay Varma, Vijay Raaz, Manoj Pahwa, Ranvir Shorey, Namit Das
Direction: Mira Nair
Streaming on Netflix in English and Hindi
Can time, as in a particular period, a few years in the life of a nation and its people, one that is not too distant and whose inhabitants are still alive, turn into an artefact?
In Mira Nair’s rendition of Vikram Seth’s 1,488-page book, two years — 1951 and 52 — in a newly Independent India feel like an artefact, an endearing oddity. One that she dusted and cleaned, added colour to its fraying, fading bits, and then swirled around it waving her magical Bollywood wand, bringing to life its world, complete with the tehzeeb, the music, the petty corruption, rising bigotry, the idealist politician, gorgeous, young men and women who seek and find love, and then lose some.
It’s a world that buzzes with evening chatter over chai, where mornings smell of harshringar, and evenings are rich with the sound of the tonga and ghazals by Saeeda Bai (Tabu).
But Nair’s A Suitable Boy opens on an artificial note. The pretty, wide-eyed Lata (Tanya Maniktala) is talking to a monkey who is chewing pieces of mango (or is it orange) she is tossing to him. Her super expressive, one-sided banter is a bit too precious and sets off the series on an artificial note.
This spurious, synthetic note stays with A Suitable Boy throughout, irritating us in the midst of worlds and characters that feel real. It is sometimes injected by characters that are reduced to caricatures, or unbelievable scenes — like lip-to-lip kissing between a Muslim boy and a Hindu girl on a busy ghat.
A Suitable Boy’s main concern is shaadi, and that’s what it opens and closes with.
Savita Mehra (Rasika Dugal) is getting married to Pran Kapoor. Savita is Mrs Rupa Mehra’s daughter, and Prof. Pran Kapoor is the son of the state revenue minister, Mr Kapoor (Ram Kapoor). In attendance are Savita’s brothers — Arun (Vivek Gomber) with his wife Meenakshi (Shahana Goswami), and younger brother Varun (Vivaan Shah).
From the boy’s side there is the groom’s younger brother, Maan (Ishaan Khattar), among others.
Written for the BBC by Andrew Davies — who has adapted several other big books for British television, including Pride & Prejudice, House of Cards, War and Peace — A Suitable Boy is an adaptation of a book that is second perhaps only to Mahabharata in the deep love and respect it generates.
The book was written in English, and so is the serial. But, apart from the put-on air which encases some of its characters, the English dialogue throughout the first episode are shockingly trite, stagey. At one point Mr Kapoor asks his friend, Nawab Saab (Aamir Bashir), “Something is troubling you my friend. What is it?”
This hold-your-breath-in formality at a very Indian celebration — beti ki shaadi — relaxes a bit when Mrs Mehra (Mahira Kakkar) says to Lata, “Tu bahut mazak karti hai”. We too exhale.
A Suitable Boy’s home is the fictional town of Brahmpur by the Ganges in Purva Pradesh. But it travels to Kolkata, Lucknow, Benaras, mostly in search of a suitable boy for Lata, and sometimes for India’s first general elections.
But its setting really is a newly independent India as it struggles with the pain and devastation of Partition, the schism left on a nation’s psyche, the feeling amongst some Hindus that India now belongs exclusively to them, and who feel emboldened to openly challenge Muslims’ right to live in their own nation.
It’s here, in Brahmpur, that Lata, clutching books to her chest, goes to a college where James Joyce is not considered suitable reading for young ladies.
This is also where the free-spirited Maan, with his curly hair, mulmul Lucknavi kurtas, living on the joy and swag of youth, falls in love with Saeeda Bai, whose nose-pin and sensuous voice carry a hint of the bedroom. This is also where Maan saves and later hurts his friend Firoz (Shubham Saraf).
Brahmpur is where Lata meets the passionate and temperamental Kabir Durrani (Danesh Razvi). And it’s in Brahmpur that Maan’s decent and honourable Baoji pours over documents till late at night to challenge the Zamindari system.
It’s at the Brahmpur legislative Assembly that he expresses worry over the actions of the Raja of Marh (Manoj Pahwa), who is building a Shiv temple next to a mosque.
I remember reading A Suitable Boy in 1993, because it was written by the man who had the audacity and genius to write The Golden Gate.
The book was riveting in its detailed characterisation, dialogue, elegant writing, but also excruciatingly demanding in attention and interest. I recall lots of details, some characters, but what has stayed with me the most is the feeling of entering and living in an India that was meant to be.
While the research and sharp political commentary that went into writing the 591,552-word novel gave it literary gravitas and heft, at its core A Suitable Boy is a very Bollywood, very melodramatic story.
Mira Nair has retained the essence of that world, that story, but has given a big Bollywood jhappi to a book that, though insanely impressive, was also a wrist-challenging tome with pages after pages devoted to how the tannery industry functioned, how land reforms were implemented.
She bypasses all that but enhances the romance and increases the seduction quotient by placing gorgeous people in gorgeous spaces.
As we stay with Lata’s confusion between the forbidden, passionate Muslim, the impressive but unstable poet Amit, and the reliable but dull shoemaker Haresh (Namit Das), and a Muharram procession clashes with Ram Lila, Mira Nair’s series feels like a wet-eyed memorial to Nehru and Gandhi’s India.
Like the watercolor on canvas of the opening credits, Nair’s series conjures up a simpler time and yearns for the decency and friendship of men like Mr Kapoor and Nawab saab, and the benign irritation of Mrs Mehra.
Lots has been left out, of course. And some bits that have been retained haven’t been given the care and context they deserved — like the entire track with Rasheed (Vijay Varma). And when Nair’s A Suitable Boy travels to Calcutta, it seems that it does so merely to poke at the pretensions of the bhadralok who, for a long time, pretended to be British.
Most of the characters in Calcutta are single-note and few actors are able to break through the few lines and costumes assigned to them.
Amit Chatterji (Mikhail Sen) is almost a joke, and Arun Mehra (Vivek Gomber) with his jaw perennially twisted into disapproval of all desis around him is boring. Mrs Mehra is almost funny in how bad she is. Mahira Kakkar contorts her face a lot, but only into three expressions – happy, sad, angry.
Not surprisingly, similarly limited characters assigned to Bollywood actors fare much better. Mrs Kapoor (Geeta Agarwal Sharma), for example, and Shahana Goswami’s Meenakshi whose pallu-dropping, bed-hopping diva act is energising.
Sultry and sexy, Shahana Goswami’s “Minxy” is like a naughty evening breeze that ruffles hair and ignites loins as it twirls about.
She brings lots of sizzle to what would have otherwise been rather drab outings to Calcutta and even reminded me of Rekha when she suddenly arrived crooning in a Calcutta club (Parineeta).
The stars of A Suitable Boy, however, are Ishaan Khattar, Tanya Maniktala and Tabu (whose singing voice is provided by Kavita Seth of Iktara fame from Wake Up Sid).
Khattar’s Maan is the prodigal son who takes the story forward. Things don’t happen to him, he happens to them, all in the pursuit of pleasure and love.
Tanya Maniktala’s big, bright eyes, protected by thick, long eyelashes, are the lens through which we view A Suitable Boy. When they sparkle, we smile, and when she bats them gently, we pause.
Tabu, well, what can I say about her, except that she is Saeeda Bai, the resident of the haveli with pink walls and green interiors.
The various worlds of A Suitable Boy are lit by goodness, gorgeousness and a warm glow of nostalgia that women in sleeveless blouses and men with pants pulled up to their diaphragm carry on them. This is courtesy Nair’s old collaborator, costume designer Arjun Bhasin whose work always stands out for its fluidity, and who dresses characters here only to seduce us.
Inhabiting Mira Nair’s world for six hour-long episodes left me with a deep sense of longing and loss for the spaces, characters and India she creates. But then, when Mrs Mehra shuts the door on Kabir without even acknowledging him, I thought, shayad, hum aise hi hain, shayad hum aise hi the....