'A Suitable Boy': TV Review

A Suitable Boy
Courtesy of Tiff
Clearly a grander story than what's depicted on screen.
12/7/2020

For BBC/Acorn, Mira Nair and Andrew Davies adapt Vikram Seth's 1993 intergenerational saga set during the period after the Partition of India.

In his nearly 1,500-page post-Partition epic A Suitable Boy, one of the longest novels in the English language, author Vikram Seth weaves the stories of two upper-middle-class North Indian families navigating ardor, marital negotiations and politicized religious conflict as their newly independent nation sloughs off the stink of colonial British rule. Falling somewhere between escapist period soap (the bread and butter of its Welsh screenwriter, Andrew Davies) and sensorial family saga (the lifeblood of its Indian-American director, Mira Nair), BBC's anglicized six-episode A Suitable Boy adaptation seemingly fails to capture the ideological vastness of Seth's vision, instead opting for accessible tawdriness. It is one of the most expensive British miniseries ever made, and yet still lacks the visual and textual artistry a tale of this scope requires to truly electrify the viewer. It airs on Acorn in the U.S.

Davies and Nair are not constrained by time or budget, but imagination. David O. Selznick's landmark film adaptation of Gone With the Wind skillfully condenses Margaret Mitchell's 1,000-plus-page best-seller into less than 4 hours of running time without sacrificing scale, tenderness or characterization. Saverio Costanzo's immersive My Brilliant Friend, the projected four-season HBO serial adaptation of Elena Ferrante's Neapolitan Novels, only enhances its original source material through the lushness of its cinematic grandeur. My Brilliant Friend succeeds in part due to its aural naturalism, Costanzo and his directors permitting the story to inhale and exhale in the native vernaculars of its setting — Neapolitan and Italian — in spite of the books' international popularity.

I can only wonder how A Suitable Boy might have soared if its cast were allowed to mostly converse in Hindi, Hindustani and Urdu instead of merely peppering snippets of these languages into predominantly English dialogue. For a TV series that, at its core, alludes to the injurious long-lasting consequences of colonial hegemony, it sure does prioritize and concretize Western, especially Anglophilic, tastes.

A Suitable Boy opens on a Hindu wedding that intertwines the Mehras and the Kapoors, two cosmopolitan families still reeling from the dissolution of the British Raj and the inter-religious discord that resulted in the separated nations of India and Pakistan. Their lives will soon be plagued with violence. The Mehras lost significant stature upon the death of their locomotive engineer patriarch, resulting in his widow's struggle to make prominent matches for their adult children. Eldest son Arun (Vivek Gomber), a snobbish arriviste, has married a trifling urbanite (Shahana Goswami) who sleeps around and melts down her dead father-in-law's military medals to make herself some earrings. Eldest daughter Savita (Rasika Dugal) weds a lowly college professor. With a ne'er-do-well youngest son embarrassing her at every turn, Rupa Mehra's (Mahira Kakkar) final chance for victory is to marry off her ardent college student daughter, Lata (Tanya Maniktala), to "a suitable boy."

Or is the "suitable boy" of the title the Kapoors' profligate heir Maan (Ishaan Khatter)? Willful and hedonistic, Maan enjoys a homoerotic friendship with his Muslim best friend (Shubham Saraf) until he meets and falls for the maternally sensual courtesan Saeeda Bai (Tabu), much to the displeasure of his politician father. Maan and Saeeda Bai are so consumed by desire that she bids him to accompany her sister's tutor back to his feudal village so Maan can learn to read and write in her native Urdu, her literal love language. While Maan becomes entrenched in the plights of the downtrodden villagers, emerging as a folk hero to them, Lata finds herself caught between three suitors: impassioned scholar Kabir (Danesh Razvi), resolute shoe manufacturer Haresh (Namit Das) and ostentatious poet Amit (Mikhail Sen).

Although Lata exhibits a fairly muted disposition, Maniktala is luminous in the part, imbuing our protagonist with allure that we're otherwise unable to glean through character development. Das also exudes warm vulnerability in his role as a self-made man who takes pride in his creativity and business acumen: "When I returned from England, I realized the British left us free, but barefoot. India needed shoes.”

In some of the most evocative scenes of the series, Haresh invites Lata and her mother for lunch at his boardinghouse, and like a child showing off a favorite toy to his preschool class, has them tour his neat little bedroom and, later, the tannery he manages. The women recoil at the stench of curing animal flesh as he strides through the warehouse, but the man is all smiles, practically giddy as he displays his upward mobility and, by extension, his intellectual curiosity. Lata, Kabir and Amit may be the up-and-coming literati of their burgeoning republic, but Haresh is the true visionary among them.

I knew A Suitable Boy would be flimsy from its opening titles, a watercolor-style animated sequence of images acting as exoticizing exposition to the setting. We see colorful flashes of trains and bloodied bodies, of parakeets and doll-like children that set a sudsy tone for a series that should bear more gravitas. And like a cartoon, A Suitable Boy caricatures a time and a place, squashing and stretching the motion of a sweeping narrative until it suits the action of plot instead of the magnitude of emotion.

My Brilliant Friend reveres Italian neorealism through its attention to cinematography, editing and montage. Another auteur behind A Suitable Boy might have borrowed from the delicate textures of Indian master filmmaker Satyajit Ray, who lances the stifled agonies of affluent femininity in 1964's Charulata and chronicles the heart-wrenching trials of early maturity in 1955-1959's The Apu Trilogy. Instead, Nair splashes us with jiggly sex scenes and unsubtle camerawork. The potency of Seth's story remains intact; Davies and Nair's stylization nearly clobbers it.

Cast: Tanya Maniktala, Ishaan Khatter, Tabu, Namit Das, Mahira Kakkar, Vivek Gomber, Ram Kapoor, Danesh Razvi, Shahana Goswami, Mikhail Sen, Shubham Saraf, Mahira Kakkar
Written by: Andrew Davies
Directed by: Mira Nair