Vikram Seth’s 1500-page-plus book, A Suitable Boy, has been adapted into a 6-part series for BBC by Mira Nair. Written by Andrew Davies, the series is set in 1950s India and revolves around Lata Mehra (Tanya Maniktala), whose mother attempts to find her a suitor. It will release on Netflix India on October 23. Nair talks about why she called the series ‘The Crown in Brown’ and the three major difficulties she faced while helming the show:
Anupama Chopra: There’s been considerable debate about the series, which you described as ‘The Crown in Brown’. Did you have to struggle between keeping it authentic and also keeping it accessible for Western viewers?
Mira Nair: Of course. For me, that was the most important thing. There were some struggles. Firstly, there was the struggle of finance. I don’t know what the budget of The Crown is, but I know what we had and it was a fraction of that. So ‘The Crown in Brown’ was a way of saying that if we were to make something like this, we had to make it with the same sweep and magnificence as this other series, but with a fraction of that budget and without letting anyone see that struggle. Because of that struggle, the series had to be distilled to six episodes. The distillation, which I did, which was very careful work to bring politics back into the the story. They’re fully there in the novel, but weren’t so much there in the first drafts for when the show was eight-hours long. It had a much more Pride And Prejudice vibe – who will Lata marry? But for me, Lata was the new India. As she found her way, the country also found its way in its first democratic election.
So to bring back that interwoven quality of the political and the personal was the first thing I wanted and everyone blessed that. It took a long time to do that correctly. The second thing for authenticity, and that was a bit of a battle, was language. I wanted to return to Urdu, to Hindustani, to Awadhi – to what the characters would have actually spoken. Maan is clear that he’s an Anglicised cat who doesn’t really know Urdu. He can speak Hindustani like we do. His class and training are clear. But Saeeda is obviously someone who’s steeped in the refinements of Urdu and Ghazals. They were concerned that she spoke only in Urdu and that she would be distanced from the main Western audience. So then I had to come up with an idea of how she might have learned English, which was quite realistic – as a sort of concubine in the Maharaja’s palaces, she would have a governess. We created a little situation so I could retain that mix. Bringing the language back was a big thing. I just could not make the film in which they would go to the village and say: Oh father, I have come. I just couldn’t bear that. Fortunately, Vikram supported me.
The third thing I had to do was preserve my notion of music. Music is the beautiful glue that links all these universes – Maan’s and Saeeda’s and Lata with her suitors. Anoushka Shankar’s sitar was, for me, the embodiment of young Lata. That sense of something coming from an old place, but still being modern, spunky, very much about discovering who you are. They would look at the rough cuts and ask about these musical interludes. Why wouldn’t they? She starts to sing and then we go off into other vistas. And I would say, ‘This is what she does. And the music is not just music. It’s comments on the drama in her heart and in his heart and on the action in general.’
To preserve my sensibility, which is actually much more desi than they would want, was very important to me. So I had to walk that tightrope. And then they came around because I said I would make all of them look good, that I’d make Andrew look good because he would be more on the pulse of the time. But they had a ratio you couldn’t go beyond. I think we achieved a truth because of it, but if we had more time and more money, there would be longer interludes. People in India are used to a lugubrious pace and there’s such richness in our characters that you want to be with them longer, but I think it’s better leave you wanting more.