By Sahir Avik D’souza
When you have a book that spans 1,349 pages in hardback, and you’re tasked with adapting it into a six-hour TV series, how do you decide what to put in and what to leave out? This was screenwriter Andrew Davies’s struggle with Vikram Seth’s doorstopper A Suitable Boy, as he adapted it into the BBC series that was released on Netflix India last Friday. Happily, though, Davies has retained the essential human stories of the book, as well as its vivid characters.
A Suitable Boy, the book and the series, is about two young individuals, Lata (Tanya Maniktala) and Maan (Ishaan Khatter), their families and friends, and a young, newly independent nation in the making.
This is a big group of characters and Nair and her casting directors have cast upwards of a hundred actors in the series. Most everyone is well-cast; and with the majority being Indian actors (as opposed to Indian-origin actors), we don’t have to squirm as non-natives put on their best Indian accents: remember poor Richa Moorjani in Never Have I Ever pronouncing ‘prank’ as ‘prenk’?
But while accents aren’t a problem here, English still is. This is a BBC series, and Nair has said in interviews that the BBC were very clear that only twenty per cent of dialogue could be in non-English languages and no more. So Nair has budgeted her Hindi/Urdu for the scenes where it is absolutely essential: when Maan visits the village in Rudhia, for instance, or when he is confronted by angry rioters in the street, or in the Urdu ghazals sung by the courtesan Saeeda Bai (Tabu). But the rest of the time, the cast must speak in English with only occasional smatterings of Hindustani. This becomes slightly jarring when one character speaks in Hindi only to be replied to in English.
So Nair must rely on her cast to tide us over these necessary hurdles and, for the most part, they succeed. Khatter, in particular, is the stand-out star: he makes the lines his own (even when he’s handed situationally clumsy dialogue, such as when he has to discuss ‘delusions of grandeur’ in a courtesan’s home) and he brings Maan to life. Then there’s Tabu, regal as Saeeda Bai, and Mahira Kakkar, both funny and sad as Lata’s mother Rupa Mehra, who has an unfortunate tendency to manipulate everyone around her by getting teary-eyed at the drop of a hat. Vikram Seth based Rupa Mehra on his own grandmother; in the series, Rupa’s deceased husband’s framed photograph is actually that of Seth’s grandfather, who also died early.
The rest of the cast acquit themselves pretty well. Ram Kapoor, in my opinion a character actor of unsung talent, plays the politician Mahesh Kapoor, Maan’s father, and all his contradictions: his progressive and secular world view, his more conservative attitude to social class and familial relationships, and his alternating exasperation with and dependence on his wife.
The character of the wife (always referred to as Mrs. Mahesh Kapoor) is played beautifully by Geeta Agarwal Sharma. I was particularly attached to Mrs. Mahesh Kapoor when I read the book and though Agarwal Sharma is taller and broader than I had imagined her, I thought she really captured the timid and loving wife of this forceful political leader. I also enjoyed Namit Das, who plays the unlikely Haresh, one of Lata’s suitors. Das’s realization of this man is tender and he affords sympathy to a character whom we don’t immediately root for.
At the centre of this bustling cast stands Tanya Maniktala as Lata. Lata is a difficult character: she is a regular, middle-class, English-educated young woman of the 1950s and she deals with regular, middle-class pressures of those years: finishing her exams, finding a suitable boy, and hiding any unsuitable romances from her mother.
There are no major surprises in her story (as there are in Maan’s); instead, hers is a quiet life. But Maniktala is still a little raw (this is only her second role) and is just not convincing as Lata. I can’t put my finger on exactly what it was about her that didn’t sit well; I think it was just too demanding and lengthy a role for so new an actress.
The series speeds past pretty well. Davies makes no significant changes to the storylines he chooses to retain from the book. But he does hurry them up, which works in some cases and doesn’t in others. In the case of Rasheed (Vijay Varma), Maan’s socialist friend, particularly, I got the feeling that Davies had simply raced through his plotline without much interest.
We meet Rasheed’s father, who is played by Vijay Raaz, but he is unable to provide heft to this portion of the series because all the important scenes in Rasheed’s life occur offscreen. This filmmaking choice ends up shortchanging Rasheed and making the conclusion to his story laughably ineffective. Then there’s the subplot involving Lata’s paedophilic uncle, which, slightly incongruous even in the book, is developed a bit here but with no real point.
In a swirling saga this big, I suppose it was always going to be difficult to allow all the characters to shine equally (as they do in the book). It will be interesting to see what people who haven’t read the book have to say about the series and how it holds up for them; I realize that I can’t talk about it without comparing the two.
Nair is a very good filmmaker. She knows how to get her actors to play off each other and how the smallest of gestures can produce the most meaning. Particularly touching is an early moment between Maan and his close friend Firoz (a dashing British actor named Shubham Saraf) involving a rose petal, which has a tiny mirror-image coda at the series’s end. Or there’s the time Maan leaves home and his mother runs after the retreating cycle-rickshaw. Or the shot of the blossom falling off its stalk as a character dies (perhaps a little forced, but sweet nonetheless).
Above all, A Suitable Boy is about an India that almost nobody who will watch it knows: a new country, juggling extreme poverty in the villages and Anglicised life in the cities. If you want a fuller and richer experience of this period I would point you to the book (which I wrote about here). The series is like a highlights reel for it – but a moving and confident set of highlights it is.
Sahir Avik D’souza is a student writer based in Mumbai. You can follow him on Facebook and Twitter @sahiravik