A Not So Suitable Adaptation

Jan/04/2021 / by Radhika Iyengar

A Suitable Boy BBC drama has been one of the most anticipated screen adaptations of the year. Based on Vikram Seth’s novel of the same name (published in 1993), the miniseries has been directed by Mira Nair for BBC. The production breaks away from the BBC tradition of television drama, becoming the first screen adaptation with a non-white cast.

suitable boy
Kakoli Chatterji (ANANYA SEN), Lata Mehra (TANYA MANIKTALA), Meenakshi Mehra (SHAHANA GOSWAMI) – (C) Lookout Point – Photographer: Taha Ahmad

BBC’s earlier television productions, like the series based on Tolstoy’s War & Peace and Versailles that dramatizes the reign of Louis XIV, noticeably features a collective of a non-Russian and non-French cast respectively, each equipped with a flawless English accent. For A Suitable Boy, however, over a hundred South Asian actors were picked to bring Seth’s novel to life.

Nair is known for adapting novels for screen – layered, imagined worlds that have the ability to hold its viewers. From Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Namesake to Mohsin Hamid’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist – Nair picks narratives that resonate with her in one way or another. The Namesake for instance, captured Nair because it profoundly echoed the loss of losing a loved one, while Seth’s novel, set in early 1950s India, belongs to the decade Nair was born in. It was the decade that transformed India, as the newly-independent nation held its first democratic elections.

To deconstruct a structurally tight, character-driven tome (the original Penguin edition ran over 1300 pages) and re-write it as a screenplay is a challenging effort, taken on by Welsh writer, Andrew Davies. He is known for his adaptations of War & Peace and Pride and Prejudice. Directing a large-scale, mid-century period drama, is no small feat either. However, to condense a saga of four families set against the backdrop of a country’s religious-political climate, into mere six-part series, may seem as a disservice. As opposed to the ambling narrative of the book, the adaptation moves along quickly, rarely giving its audience time to establish a personal relationship with each character.

The beauty of A Suitable Boy is that it elicits nostalgia. It’s about a world that has ceased to exist. It’s about a country that took pride in its multicultural identity; where clothes were hand-made and the tongue spoke languages of beauty, poetry and respect. It’s about an era of steam engines and horse-driven carriages, mehfils and sherry-laced parties. It’s about a nation carving its own identity. 

In many ways, the protagonist, Lata Mehra is a personification of a young India who is trying to find herself. 

Suitable Boy Lata and Rupa
First look image of Lata (Tanya Maniktala) and Mrs Rupa Mehra (Mahira Kakkar) in BBC One’s A Suitable Boy Lata (Tanya Maniktala), Mrs Rupa Mehra (Mahira Kakkar) – (C) Lookout Point – Photographer: Supriya Kantak

Lata (portrayed by Tanya Maniktala) is a level-headed, college student whose mother, Rupa Mehra is keen on getting her married. Rupa tells Lata rather bluntly, “You too, will marry a boy I choose.” Lata, a woman who desires to chart her own path, however, appears discomfited by this. At one point, she confesses to her mother, “I don’t think I ever want to get married”, to which an alarmed Rupa responds: “What else are you going to do?” 

The idea that an Indian woman’s identity is rooted in her marriage to a man, is one that progressively weaves in and out of the storyline. 

Finding a “suitable boy” however, is a tedious project. It means finding a suitor who fits a certain paradigm. Social factors trigger a pincer effect, narrowing Lata’s choices. For one, he cannot be a Muslim. In a country born out of the bloodshed due to the brutal Partition, Lata’s mother will not have her daughter fall head over heels for a Muslim man, in particular, Kabir Durrani. Two, he cannot be an artist or a writer. When Lata begins to be courted by Amit Chatterji, a poet of repute, Rupa is conspicuously anxious. Poets, in her mind, cannot make a living.

Three, the man must belong to their community. The series subtly touches on the issue of caste-based endogamy, where Rupa informs her eldest son, Arun that Lata’s future husband has to be “from a good, respectable family from our community”. Four, he cannot be a businessman who lacks the scholarly air. Arun scoffs at Haresh Khanna, a self-made shoe manufacturer who enjoys eating betel leaf and often visits the tannery. Arun, who behaves like a white man trapped in a brown body, feels that his family belongs to a certain intellectual class, whose standards Haresh will never meet.

Women from respectable households are denied choice and the freedom to explore their sexuality. Rupa (portrayed by Mahira Kakkar) dislikes her daughter-in-law, the suave and flirtatious Meenakshi Mehra (portrayed by Shahana Goswami), who isn’t embarrassed to exhibit her sensuality. Rupa is quick to label her daughter-in-law “shameless”. The elegant courtesan, Saeeda Bai, brimming with knowledge of poetry, dance, culture and social etiquettes, is denied respect in society, because her life is an “open book” marked by the voluntary visits of men who belong to elite circles, including the Raja of Marh, and the Revenue Minister’s son, Maan Kapoor. When Lata is “seen” alone with Kabir outside, it engenders gossip.

In comparison, when Lata’s uncle makes a sexual overture at her in his house, Lata has no language to express the hurt she feels. The next morning, even though Rupa has an inkling, his misdemeanor is casually overlooked. Even today, India continues to observe women through the lens of morality, while male indiscretions are brushed aside.

As a director, Nair steers clear of scripts with plots that are solely dependent on a hero-heroine love affair. Rather, she’s drawn to creating immersive worlds populated by an ensemble, each character distinct from the other, yet crucial to the narrative spine. However, while A Suitable Boy features an enviable cast of established actors, theatre veterans and newcomers alike, it falls short of taking its viewers on an emotional journey they’ve signed up for.

The performances are wobbly, slumped by awkward dialogue delivery. The script is trite. Scenes begin and end abruptly. The miniseries comes across as a poor, white-washed rendition, adapted solely for an English audience – one that might sit up to watch a monkey relishing a fruit. It is however, the poignant and fleeting relationship between Saeeda Bai (portrayed by Tabu) and Maan Kapoor (portrayed by Ishaan Khatter), that uplifts the series in small bursts. Their intense relationship, nourished by Saeeda Bai’s heartfelt singing, leaves Maan irrevocably besotted. In a larger context, it also throws light on the country’s cultural fault lines – a relationship between a Muslim and a Hindu, a courtesan and a khandani, an older woman and a young man – can never last.

To adapt A Suitable Boy for screen may have been a well-intentioned effort. However, it ceases to make a solid impression. 

For more articles on authors and books, read traversing time and places with Anuradha Mathur.