'A Suitable Boy' on Netflix is a vibrant cocktail of politics, ambition, love and betrayal in 1950s India
Sprawling. Monumental. Sumptuous. Panoramic.
Many superlatives have been used to describe Vikram Seth’s award-winning 1993 novel A Suitable Boy that spans across 1,350 pages (1,488 in paperback), and is one of the longest books ever written in the English language.
Hence, when filmmaker Mira Nair, along with screenwriter Anthony Davies (of Pride and Prejudice and Les Miserables fame), began to adapt the expansive book to screen, they knew that distilling 1,350 pages of exquisite prose and enormous depth into six episodes was going to be a ‘monumental’ task.
The constraints led to Nair calling A Suitable Boy “The Crown in brown” — referring to BBC’s narrow budget for the show that calls for grand production design, lavish colour palettes and costumes, and a ‘sumptuous’ narration along the lines of The Crown (Netflix series on the Queen’s monarchy).
To fully enjoy the six-part mini-series, one has to look at it independently and let go of comparisons with the leisurely and lyrical book. Not to say that Nair’s work is staccato or prosaic. It is anything but that.
She paints the series in sweeping brush strokes — leaving out some of the nuances and a few of the book's 110 characters — but is able to capture the evocative mood, sublime silences, and quiet melancholy running through A Suitable Boy.
A slice of history
Set in 1951-52 India — a newly independent nation nursing the wounds of Partition, soaked in Nehruvian socialism, and struggling to find its feet amidst socio-political and religious chaos — A Suitable Boy is as much a commentary on modern India as it is on the familial, social, and romantic ties that are formed or broken due to it.
The story involves four large families — the Mehras, Kapoors, Khans, and Chatterjis — that are intertwined by friendship or marriage.
Their paths cross in this ‘sprawling’ saga of politics and prejudice, truth and falsehood, poverty and ambition, love and betrayal.
The series is primarily in English (given it was made for a British audience), with a smattering of Hindi, Urdu, and Bengali.
At the core of A Suitable Boy is the free-spirited Lata Mehra (a sparkling Tanya Maniktala) whose overbearing mother Rupa Mehra (Mahira Kakkar) begins her search for a ‘suitable’ match for her 19-year-old daughter.
Seth writes, “A desperate mother ventures to deploy // Fair means or foul to net a suitable boy”
First (and forbidden) love
The setting is Brahmpur, a fictional town in Purva Pradesh (present day UP), and Lata is a student of literature at the local university, where she chances upon Kabir Durrani (Danesh Razvi) — fellow student, star cricketer in the university team, and a strikingly handsome young man.
The two are naturally (and somewhat intensely) drawn to each other.
They fall in rapturous love and spend time discreetly (boat rides at dawn, et al) away from the prying eyes of family until Rupa finds out about Lata's liaisons and is flabbergasted.
Seth writes, “A couple glides down river in a boat // A mother hears that mischief is afloat.”
Kabir is Lata’s first suitor, but religious differences threaten to derail their journey. In a country torn apart on religious fault lines, their union is forbidden.
The poet and the shoemaker
Lata's mother transports her to Calcutta to live with her snobbish elder brother Arun Mehra (an almost caricaturish Vivek Gomber).
There she meets her second suitor — the cerebral poet with a colonial hangover Amit Chatterji (Mikhail Sen), who charms her with sweet verses and long walks. Seth notes, “Calcutta simmers in a stew of talk // A cemetery affords a pleasing walk”
In the middle is a third suitor: a self-assured and skilled shoemaker Haresh Khanna (Namit Das), who aspires for a steady job, social status (the members-only club-going types) and Lata’s hand in marriage. In that order.
Who will Lata choose from the three?
This forms the crux of the narrative. Nair does justice to all three suitors with equal screen time, but possibly compromises a bit on building their individual dynamics with Lata.
Some episodes may feel a bit rushed and could have created more impact if the scenes were allowed to linger. But ‘Crown in the brown’ it is!
A grand, doomed romance
Parallel to Lata’s track runs the story of Maan Kapoor (a flawless Ishaan Khattar), the wayward son of Revenue Minister Mahesh Kapoor (an earnest Ram Kapoor). The Mehras and Kapoors are connected by marriage.
Maan falls hopelessly and helplessly in love with courtesan Saeeda Bai (a venerable Tabu), whom he sees at a music performance in Holi.
The Maan-Saeeda Bai romance forms a substantial part of A Suitable Boy, and needless to say is one of the show's highlights.
Their track involves stunning production design, vibrant colours, extravagant costumes, soulful Hindustani music, and the architectural splendour of erstwhile Lucknow (nawabon ka shehar).
Saeeda Bai enchants Maan with Urdu poetry and ghazals; Maan reciprocates with an almost feverish intensity and frequent visits to her resplendent haveli, much to the dismay of his politician father.
Their chemistry is electrifying, but their love is doomed.
Sufi singer Kavita Seth is the voice of Saeeda Bai, and her rendition of Dagh Dehlvi ghazals will leave you — just like Maan — spellbound.
The background score (sitar by Anoushka Shankar) is mellifluous and moving. Don't miss the elaborate opening credits.
Other notable characters
Other members of the all-brown cast, a first for BBC, who stand out are Shahana Goswami (Lata’s sexy and scheming sister-in-law Meenakshi Chatterji), Rasika Dugal (Lata’s elder sister married to Maan’s brother Pran Kapoor), Aamir Bashir (Nawab of Baitar who has a history with Saeeda Bai), Randeep Hooda (Meenakshi's rich Parsi lover), Shubham Saraf (Maan’s close friend Firoz), among others.
The Maan-Firoz track was much talked about when A Suitable Boy was published.
On screen too, it stands out for its delicate yet suggestive portrayal of a same-sex bond. There’s affection and assault, conflict and resolution, love and betrayal — a brief but beautiful interlude.
Seth writes, “Someone is stabbed in Brahmpur someone dies // While private shame is viewed by public eyes”
Who will Lata choose?
Despite the multiple recurring sub-plots, the show never loses sight of its overarching theme: Who will be Lata's ‘suitable boy’?
Though a lot has been said about the ending, with readers and viewers claiming that they felt short-changed, it may not be all that difficult to gauge — without giving out any spoilers — why Lata chooses "the calmer, less frantic love” over the uneasy and unsettling one.
Barring the occasional banal dialogue and the oddly accented English, A Suitable Boy is a satisfying watch, with exceptional visuals and endearing performances.
If you get past the first two plot-setting episodes, you’ll look forward to the rest. And by the time it ends, you’ll be left wistful and nostalgic!
Edited by Asha Chowdary