It’s taken 27 years, but Vikram Seth’s much-loved masterpiece A Suitable Boy — a 1,300-pager considered one of the longest novels ever published — has finally made it to screen.
Mira Nair, the Oscar-nominated director behind the likes of Monsoon Wedding, Vanity Fair and, most recently, Queen of Katwe, is the filmmaker to have taken on the daunting task, distilling the mighty tome into a six-part TV series for BBC Studios via producers Lookout Point with help with noted adaptor of mighty tomes Andrew Davies (War & Piece, Les Miserables).
A tale of forbidden love interwoven with the turbulent backdrop of a newly-independent and post-partition India in 1951, A Suitable Boy — which closes this year’s virtual TIFF (Nair’s seventh time selected for the festival) — marks something new for the BBC; its first period drama with an entirely south Asian cast and no white characters. It’s also Nair’s first delve into TV following a four-decade career making feature films.
Speaking to The Hollywood Reporter, Nair discusses her deep personal links to Seth’s “doorstopper” of a book, how she tried — and failed — to acquire the rights when it was first published and how it even came to inspire her most famed film.
A Suitable Boy has been out since 1993. How did this TV adaptation come your way?
I know Vikram as a friend, and I’ve always loved this book. For me it captured so much about our Indian circus of families in a just-free India in 1951, four years after independence. It was the year my parents got married. It was the year that we had our first national election. And it’s such a sprawling story of four interwoven families in that time. It’s also about people like us, in the sense that we think and read and are English in so many deep ways, which we try to deny sometimes… but it’s not true. He evokes that entire ethos in this beautiful lyrical way. But at the time it came out in the 90s I couldn’t I couldn’t get to buy the rights.
Did you inquire back then?
I did of course inquire. But it was so vast and also I was not equipped. I was much younger and I had just begun to make films. But it inspired me to the extent that it inspired a microcosmic version in my own film Monsoon Wedding. So Monsoon Wedding is literally a child of A Suitable Boy. Seriously, I’m not bullshitting you. Although I am capable of that. It’s very moving for me to be able to make the parents of my child.
So after wanting to adapt the book for so long, how did it eventually land at your door?
Well, Lookout really should tell a flattering story about how they broke down my door. But actually my friends in India said there was some line producer prowling around on A Suitable Boy. So I told my agent to just call them and god bless them, they didn’t pause for one second, and said come over.
How did Vikram feel about you taking on his most famous work?
He was actually very happy and relieved. I went over to meet him and the first thing he said was, you’ve got to do the [long-awaited sequel] A Suitable Girl! So I was like, Vikram, hold on. Because this is already two years of my creative life.
This is your first TV project. Did you always see it that way?
I didn’t really think like that. I mean, I’m very happy to do it because it is a six-hour long thing, which is what it deserves to be. A Suitable Boy is not to be squeezed into two hours with cinema, and yet it is sweepingly cinematic. It didn’t feel imposed upon our narrative because the narrative itself is full of the rhythms of what creates, I think, episodic television. And it was beautiful to work with Andrew, who’d already distilled this doorstopper of a book, first to eight episodes and then actually it was me who said that, let’s keep it as six because to increase the pace of our story.
What were the challenges of working with such a much-loved story?
The question was how to make it feel really modern, how to make it contemporary but not a fuzzy-duzzy period piece. Even though we were resolutely period, it’s very modern. Also, the politics of it, to keep it very cognizant of the pulse of now. Because that was what Vikram’s novel did. Everything that we’re protesting today in India, and in other parts of the world, the seeds of it were born in this time… the Hindu-Muslim conflict, the building of temples by mosques. And secularism, which prevailed at the time of independence, is now being threatened by today’s government. So the protests that are happening in India, across the young, across universities, across political parties, are to preserve that secular India, which is the heart of A Suitable Boy. So it’s an uncannily politically timely series.