The word 'sprawling' might have been invented specifically to describe Vikram Seth's 1993 novel, A Suitable Boy. The nearly 1500-page book is one of the longest novels ever published. The story, set in 1951-52, traverses several cities in North India while chronicling the fortunes of four large extended families and features more than a hundred characters. As a newly independent nation seeks to forge its destiny, so does a spirited, young woman named Lata whose mother insists on finding her a suitable boy. There is the first bloom of romance here but also horrific communal violence, heartbreak and tragedy. Director Mira Nair and reputed Welsh writer Andrew Davies take on the formidable challenge of cleaving and compressing this into a six-hour miniseries. They deliver a sweeping, sumptuous saga, which has rough, clunky stretches but is ultimately wonderfully satisfying (though I was rooting for a suitor different from the one Lata finally chooses).
A Suitable Boy is the closing presentation of the ongoing Toronto International Film Festival (September 10 to 19) and was available for viewing on the festival's digital platform for 48 hours. I binge-watched because there was no choice but also because I was hooked by the dozens of characters and their tangled lives. The cast is large and exciting – a terrific Ishaan Khatter as the willful, passionate Maan Kapoor plays against the sublime Tabu who is Saeeda Bai, a courtesan who is both poetic and practical. There's Rasika Dugal, Vijay Varma, Vivek Gomber, Ram Kapoor, Vijay Raaz, Randeep Hooda, who mostly has to flaunt his muscles and seduce, and newcomer Danesh Razvi, who has all the makings of a Bollywood hero. And at the center is the sparkling debutant Tanya Maniktala, who plays Lata. We often said about Madhuri Dixit that her smile lit up the screen. Tanya is a direct descendent.
There has been considerable debate about Davies, who earlier adapted Pride and Prejudice and War and Peace for television, whitewashing material that Mira described as 'The Crown in brown.' That doesn't happen because Mira's vision is too strong. In an interview with Variety, she said that by time she got involved, eight scripts had already been written for eight hours, which were then distilled to six. I wonder how differently an Indian writer might have approached the narrative but the storytelling is rooted and authentic. Mira has a great generosity and fluidity with the characters. She isn't afraid of melodrama. A Suitable Boy is 'filmy' in the best sense of the word.
The series is mostly English with a smattering of Hindi and Bengali. The language does get in the way – it's odd to see characters in an Indian village speak to each other in English. In some scenes, the dialogue is painfully banal and the accents are decidedly odd. Intriguingly, some of the performances are also broad – Shahana Goswami is lovely as Lata's sexy, scheming sister-in-law but a few moments are so shrill that she seems to have stepped out of some other production. The usually reliable Manoj Pahwa is also a few notches too loud.
I haven't read the book so have no point of comparison but what keeps the series running is high emotion. In stretches, it might feel like a soap opera but the sentiment on screen lands. The characters and the choices they made whirled in my head for days after. I also found pleasure in the sheer beauty of the visuals – production design by Stephanie Carroll and costumes by Arjun Bhasin – and the music by Alex Heffes and Anoushka Shankar.
There is so much to savour here. You can see the series on Netflix India in October.