Director: Mira Nair, Shimit Amin
Writer: Andrew Davies
Cast: Tanya Maniktala, Tabu, Ishaan Khatter, Mahira Kakkar, Rasika Dugal, Vijay Varma, Ram Kapoor
Cinematographer: Declan Quinn
Streaming on: Netflix
First consider the numbers. A Suitable Boy is an adaptation of Vikram Seth's book which at nearly 1500 pages is one of the longest novels ever published. The series was originally constructed as eight parts, which director Mira Nair then condensed to six. There are over 100 characters. The plot, set in 1951-52, hopscotches between the fictional city of Brahmpur, Calcutta, Delhi and Lucknow. The story revolves around four families who are connected by marriage and friendship – the Mehras, Chatterjis, Kapoors and Khans. And at the center of this sprawling saga is Lata, a smart, spirited 19-year-old literature student, whose mother insists that she will find her a suitable boy.
It's a lot. So much in fact that many characters could carry their own spin-off series – like Saeeda Bai, a courtesan based on Begum Akhtar, played with exquisite grace and ache by Tabu. Saeeda is an artist in the way that Umrao Jaan was. She is also a survivor. Put to work at 15, she understands the brutal ways of the world. But she finds solace in her music and poetry. Maan, Saeeda's lover, the hot-headed and passionate son of a reputed politician, could also sustain his own narrative. Maan is much younger than Saeeda but that or their religious and class differences mean little to him. He is besotted. Ishaan Khatter as Maan combines vitality with child-like naivete and vulnerability. Maan is tempestuous, unpredictable and flat-out foolish. All of which makes him fascinating.
The story hints that Maan and his closest friend Firoz were intimate at some point – in the first episode, Firoz brushes a rose petal off Maan's shoulder with the affection of a lover – but this isn't explored further. Perhaps because there are so many other entanglements of the heart to dive into. Chief among them, Lata and her three suitors – there's Haresh, the shoe man, steadfast, stable and generous, a man who offers a calmer rapport; Amit, the suave poet, charming and elegantly intellectual; and my favorite, Kabir, the college friend, cricketer, poetry lover and unfortunately, the most unsuitable because he happens to be Muslim.
The ebb and flow of human relationships plays out against the backdrop of a newly independent India. As Lata seeks to forge her destiny, so does the country, still reeling from the horrors of Partition. A Suitable Boy was written through 1992, the year of the Babri Masjid demolition and published in 1993. Seth, writing about characters in the 1950s spoke to that time but also to the early '90s, capturing the tragic fraying of secular India. Sadly, the patterns of history repeat themselves. The scenes of the local Raja stirring trouble by building a temple in front of a mosque or an opportunistic fixer playing the religion card to win elections could be from present day.
Every episode of A Suitable Boy is stuffed with plot, passion, conflict, faith and the endless push and pull between tradition and modernity, love and duty and above all, family. It is, as Karan Johar told us nearly two decades ago, all about loving your parents. The tumultuous story is brought alive by a busload of terrific actors – among them, Rasika Dugal, Vijay Varma, Vijay Raaz, Ram Kapoor, Shahana Goswami as Lata's siren sister-in-law Meenakshi, Randeep Hooda who mostly has to show us his muscled chest and seduce and newcomer Danesh Razvi who has all the makings of a Bollywood hero. And then, there is Tanya Maniktala as Lata – a lovely, lively actor. We often said about Madhuri Dixit that her smile lit up the screen. Tanya is a direct descendent.
However, some of the performances that these actors deliver are bewilderingly broad – in one scene, Meenakshi and her sister Kuku enter a maternity ward singing. Both border on caricature. Manoj Pahwa, a superb actor otherwise, goes a few notches too loud playing the Raja. As does Mahira Kakkar as Lata's mother. In some scenes, she's affectionately fussy. In others, she's uncomfortably shrill like this was a soap opera.
There are stretches of clunky passages in the six hours but the biggest stumbling block is language. A Suitable Boy has been produced by the BBC, primarily for a Western audience. The series has been written by the acclaimed British writer Andrew Davies. The language is mostly English with a smattering of Hindi and Bengali. It's odd to see characters in an Indian village speak to each other in English. In some scenes, the dialogue is painfully banal – a stand-out is Meenakshi telling her lover, 'Nothing suits you except your birthday suit. Come on, get your things off,' or Lata saying plaintively, 'This is a stupid world we live in.' And the accents are decidedly odd. When characters speak Hindi, like Vijay Varma's Rasheed with his father played by Vijay Raaz or Saeeda Bai with her maid Bibbo, the flow is much more natural.
What helped me get past the language hurdle were the sweeping emotions. I was hooked by the many tangled lives. Mira isn't afraid of melodrama. A Suitable Boy is filmy in the best sense of the word. The scenes between Maan and his parents, who are heartbroken by his wayward ways, are moving as is Maan and Saeeda's doomed love story. 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.
I haven't read Vikram Seth's novel so I have no point of comparison. But Mira and her crew have delivered a visually sumptuous saga which, despite the sizable bumps, is ultimately satisfying.
You can watch A Suitable Boy on Netflix India.