A few years after partition, two countries were born. Alongside the pride of the independence won, there lay the injured soul of a country, wounded and divided on the grounds of religion. It would never heal. Vikram Seth's A Suitable Boy is a book that narrates love stories and the consequent search for a suitable partner, in the climate of imperialism, colonialism and nationalism. The screen adaptation is crafted by the prolific Mira Nair and screenwriter Andrew Davies. The series begins in 1950, when we meet a spirited university student, Lata (Tanya Maniktala), and her mother, Rupa Mehra (Mahira Kakkar), or as everyone calls her, Ma, at Lata's sister's wedding. The women are draped in fine fabric, the men in high-waisted suits; they sip wine discuss politics. Lata's age and single status seem to trouble her mother. At the onset of the six-part miniseries, Ma declares, "Lata too will marry a boy I choose", but Lata may not be in the mood to marry.
This is the 'modern' India in the making — things seem to have changed and everyone is in search of the meaning of freedom. Though Lata has the luxury to choose a husband, she must procure her mother's approval. The traditional mother is out here to map Lata's life, stating the importance of finding a suitable boy. The huge canvas holds together the simplest of stories — the search for a suitable boy for Lata, enlivened by discreet competition between three candidates.
Lata is a young girl, open to love, but unconditionally. One cannot miss her bright smile and the sweetness she treats people with. A lady with a keen interest in literature — there is something that says she isn't one to follow norms. Ma seems to be looking for a suitable match in every man; that is her sole driving force. She sticks to her family values and shuns the idea of love marriage — her elder son did so, and she never approved of his wife. We meet his wife, Meenakshi (Shahana Goswami) – the unapologetic, sensual, fun loving being. She doesn't admit to cheating on her husband but she is having a little fun. She knows her way around her mother-in-law. She helps Lata enjoy the music at their parties, and also her unmarried years. She, with her sister and brother, bring in the defiant high-class Bengali culture — with the sarees, parties and dinners. Though her husband Arun's 'Englishness' seems to be of a certain maintenance, he has never been to the country — an absolute paradox!
The women live in their own worlds, away from the political structure; yet they are conditioned to think and behave in a particular manner (perhaps by themselves). With Lata's head full of her mother's constant pressure to like a boy, Ma's bitter-sweet drive to get Lata married and Meenakshi's fun-loving self, the women are the layered characters of the series, and at centrestage is Lata. They are still expected to stick to the qualities of 'Indianness', while the men cannot get rid of their 'Englishness'.
The central plot follows the nation-building that was going on at the time the book is set, and how the question of women's rights and their place in India after Independence was one of the issues that was the central focus for the leaders pursuing democracy — "India is a free country now," says Lata. By the end of the first episode, Lata find the most unsuitable boy she could: a Muslim, Kabir Durrani (Danesh Razvi). We see their budding love against the backdrop of religious riots and turmoil, and their romance is soon interfered in by her mother. "He is a Muslim, Lata," she says, as if this is self-explanatory. Lata too is a victim of the prejudices of forbidden love.
On the other hand, we have the traditional Savita (Rasika Dugal), the elder sister, married to Lata's university professor Pran, and well settled in family life. Pran's mother is the wife of a politician, always behind the curtains, the caretaker, the mother figure of the family, who seems to live in her husband's shadow. The two sisters have an enormous array of friends and relatives who themselves set in motion dozens of subplots, involving local and national politics.
The men and women help to confirm the hypocrisy that left women in a position of passive subversion. By the second episode, we meet the courtesan, Saeeda Bai (Tabu), beautifully draped in a shimmering red saree, with her mesmerizing voice — some envy her youthfulness, some respect her and others secretly desire her. Maan (Ishaan Khatter), Pran's brother, seems to be drooling over her beauty. Though we see a homoerotic undertone to his friendship with Firoz, the filmmakers did not want to dig deep into that love affair. Saeeda, who has been sexually exploited and also tattered from broken relationships, wishes to guard Tasneem (Joyeeta Dutta), her younger sister, from a similarly disgraced life. Saeeda Bai is seen as a symbol of strength and independence, who lives outside the barriers of the patriarchal society. She is treated as the sexy-female object, primarily positioned as a site for male desire and marginalized on the account of her disrespected work.
Lata and Tasneem have a few similarities: both coming-of-age; suitors approach them both with their love; but where one receives them with delight, the other is kept far away from them — for the sake of a dignified life. The women of the series are empowered — but to an extent, they are to be taught the proper way of being.
After falling for the unsuitable boy, Lata later meets the tall, dark and handsome Amit Chatterjee, a England-published poet, trying too hard to woo her. Ma doesn't approve of him as a match — perhaps he does not have a favourable job and also, he belongs to Meenakshi's Bengali family. Lastly, there is London-returned self-starter Haresh Khanna (Namit Das), a sales executive in the footwear industry whose shoes and work ethic are more to Lata's mother's liking.
Like any other narrative of the 1950s, the women here too seem to know their boundaries: freedom comes at a cost. Eventually, Lata falls for the boy who ticks all her boxes, and her mother's too. Haresh has a steady job, there are no religious clashes, he is a self-made man and he respects her family. What would have happened if Kabir Durrani was given a chance? What would have happened if they had run off? Where would the story have led? Well, I certainly would not try altering the ending of a 1500-page-long a novel. The women seem to live on the safer side, with no risks taken, no rebellious deeds: Lata doesn't take the road less taken.
Nair is known to communicate the aura of a place through her lens: the houses, the mansions, the early-morning river banks, the dusty roads, and the estates of Calcutta and Brahmpur, and the steam engines. There may be a few self-explanatory scenes and others that weren't dived into — but perhaps that is the only way to condense a 1500-page novel into a six-part series. A Suitable Boy is worth a watch.