Mira Nair’s A Suitable Boy Is An Epic Cultural Misfire

The scale of the narrative is epic, but I wish I could say the same about its storytelling. Nair’s rendition feels cold and distant, as if it were introducing a race instead of navigating it.
Mira Nair’s A Suitable Boy Is An Epic Cultural Misfire

Director: Mira Nair
Writer: Andrew Davies
Cast: Tanya Maniktala, Ishaan Khatter, Tabu, Mahira Kakkar, Ram Kapoor, Rasika Dugal, Vivek Gomber, Shahana Goswami, Namit Das, Aamir Bashir

Streaming on: Netflix

A Suitable Boy is about an inquisitive young lady flirting with a future planned by her mother. Lata Mehra (Tanya Maniktala) falls in love with Kabir Durrani, a Muslim classmate; her mother Rupa (Mahira Kakkar) reacts by setting Lata up with handpicked Hindu suitors – "suitable boys" – in other towns. A Suitable Boy is also about a mercurial young man resisting a future conceived by his father. Maan Kapoor (Ishaan Khatter), a drifter, falls in love with Saeeda Bai (Tabu), an older Muslim courtesan; his father Mahesh (Ram Kapoor), the Revenue Minister, reacts by banishing him till Maan finds maturity. Most of all, A Suitable Boy is about a democratic young nation confronting a future hastily mapped out by its former colonial rulers. It is 1951 in Brahmpur, four years since the Partition, and an increasingly communal India is on the verge of its first General elections. India is half-Lata, confident but compromising, and half-Maan, passionate but pained. Lata, Maan, their fates and their families become both metaphor and mirror for a country torn between inherited identity and inherent individualism. 

These broader analogies are made apparent in Mira Nair's six-episode mini-series: a curious adaptation of Vikram Seth's mammoth 1488-page novel. Often, too apparent. Lata and Maan are introduced at a wedding, as protagonists whose free spirits demand course correction. We then see the teething contrasts of the India-Pakistan relationship: Innocent homoerotic undertones between Maan and his best friend Firoz ("purer than love but less problematic") represent the past; the doomed sexual tension between Lata and Kabir – who, being an Indian Muslim, is shown as an aspiring batsman rather than a fast bowler – indicates the dissolution of history. Saeeda Bai's mansion bristles with forlorn blues and faded greens. Lata's family bristles with transitional tension: a nosy mother, a "black sheep" younger brother, a snooty elder brother, a diplomatic sister, a sultry sister-in-law. Each of them stands for the ambivalence of tradition: How does one distinguish between being and becoming? Lata's suitors too – a cricketer, a poet and a shoemaker – represent a move from British legacy to Indian craftsmanship. Communal riots culminate in terrace viewpoints, where horrified characters watch the sky burn. Even the opening credits are set against a blood-drenched Radcliffe Line; the red borders morph into corpses and trains, while the musical score features pensive sitar strings and tabla beats. 

The scale of the narrative is epic, but I wish I could say the same about its storytelling. Nair's rendition feels cold and distant, as if it were introducing a race instead of navigating it. Most of the show's flaws are rooted in the use of language. First, there's the brisk cinematic language. Condensing the vastness of a literary universe into visual snapshots is one of the toughest aspects of filmmaking. Every book combines the rhythm of its own world with that of the reader imagining it – a paragraph of a lover in longing relies on its own prose just as much as the physical circumstances of a reader who, through smells and sounds and memories, chooses to internalize it. The screen holds the disadvantage of containing, rather than invoking, these sentences. Suddenly the viewer sees the definition of a moment. What Mira Nair does is edit the time – the banter, stillness, reflections, regrets – of a people on the verge of creating a new time. 

As a result there is no space for subtext to breathe; every scene exists to take the text forward instead of inward. Maan experiences love at first sight because it's written, just like that, not because he experiences it. Fine actors appear in bit roles that play out like highlight packages of full-bodied lives. Without a voiceover and intertitles, one can sense the obligation of the characters to convey narrative motion. For instance, when we first see Mahesh Kapoor with the Nawab of Baitar, Mahesh is speaking at him. He seems to be conveying the history of his Muslim friend to familiarize viewers with the era: "When your father and brother moved to Pakistan four years ago…". When Maan attempts to meet Saeeda Bai during Muharram, Feroz intercepts him and heatedly explains the significance of Muharram to him. The exposition sounds amateur and stilted. This is also related to a more literal problem in the show's language. 

I'm not entirely sold on "creative license" – especially cultural appropriation – for art to be globally accessible. But context matters. I didn't mind, for example, Chernobyl being filmed with English-speaking actors in a Ukranian setting. The essence of the show was systemic tragedy, the sensory horrors of which are universal and bereft of language. More importantly, English was a mother-tongue for most of the lead cast; there were no local actors pretending to converse in a secondary language. Yet, the same license for something like A Suitable Boy infects the very DNA of the premise. The concept of a voice is central to the evolution of a young country. For better or worse, the sound of this voice is inseparable from our reading of its stories. 

Acting is a linguistic medium – the use, or misuse, of language defines the anatomy of a performance. A character can learn any language, but it's futile if he or she doesn't appear to think and behave in that language. In that sense, the BBC-produced A Suitable Boy is a distinctly brown series, and I don't mean that in a South Asian way. Homegrown Indian actors here are made to sound like brown-faced Western actors. The term "brown" automatically implies the existence of White as a default setting – a default skin-colour, a default storytelling style, a default audience. A case can be made that the Kapoors and the Mehras are colonially hungover; only a few years after independence, their soul is still white. (Maan even takes Urdu lessons to acquaint himself with Saeeda Bai's love; Lata is an English literature student). 

But it's clear that the Indian characters, despite their milieu, are speaking in both a literary language and a commercial one. It's the kind of anglicized English they use – written by an Indian author, yes, but also adapted by a British screenwriter – that makes the most casual exchanges look stagey and performative. Irrespective of whether English is the tongue of the actors involved, the aristocratic grammar is not. The lines ("this has turned into a rather melancholy outing") are recited, not delivered. For a better idea, imagine if I narrated this review, verbatim, on video. The formal sentence construction is written to be read, not spoken or heard. One can of course choose the Hindi-dubbed version on Netflix, but that's even more jarring – the gait and faces are fashioned to the sounds of English.

Consequently, the performances feel laboured. Extended cameos by Manoj Pahwa, Ranvir Shorey, Vijay Varma and Vinay Pathak are derailed by the "Slumdog Syndrome": son-of-the-soil Indians giving oral exams. Ishaan Khatter and Tanya Maniktala try their damndest to undo their dialogue with expressive eyes and exuberance. But they remain prisoners of their words. Maniktala in particular displays a bewildered, cosmopolitan air, as if Lata were constantly reacting to Instagram statuses rather than real people. In a crucial scene, Lata responds, "Well, I should certainly hope so!" – while running, breathless, alongside a moving train, on a railway platform. Maan's standout moment features him in a riot, fending off a rabid Hindu mob in a language they understand rather than the one viewers are supposed to. The better parts feature Tabu's Saeeda Bai speaking (and moving) in Urdu – the chasm in language and culture, after all, defines her relationship with Maan. Hers is the only character whose emotions seem to dictate the language she speaks – upset in Urdu, intimate in English, distant in Hindustani. Namit Das, as one of Lata's suitors, is remarkable too, because he speaks in a vernacular that aids his character's unpretentious personality. 

At one point, a group of Indian college kids perform William Shakespeare's Twelfth Night. This is when the ethnic disconnect of A Suitable Boy truly comes to the fore. I couldn't tell the difference between play rehearsals, the bard's lines and the series itself. They speak with the same studied intonations and theatricality. When the drama teacher gets distracted, a couple of them in the background break into Hindi. The respite is ironic. The masks within the masks are off – a fleeting glimpse of the most suitable version of A Suitable Boy

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