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A Suitable Boy : Aesthetic Adaptation of Seth’s India of 1951

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Adaptation of any novel to the screen is not an easy task, and to add to that when it is a 1349 pager Vikram Seth’s novel- A Suitable Boy, it becomes hard to imagine the detailed transition of the masterpiece into a web series of mere six episodes. Accepting this uphill task in hand, Mira Nair directed the series for BBC which also happens to be BBC’s first series with no major English actors.

There was an enigmatic flair that characterised the series of events. Every time there was a feeling that something big or eventful was going to happen right then. And that’s how Meera Nair’s works have mostly been. With an aesthetic Indian flavour throughout, the series was successful in maintaining a smooth screenplay. It characterised a nation that had hangovers of colonial past as well as the desire to exercise the right to vote. Thus, portraying a newly independent India, almost about to go for its first elections, A suitable boy was a beautiful representation of countryside uniqueness that India held during the early 1950s.

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Mahira Kakkar plays the role of Mrs Rupa Mehra, the moter of Lata

Set up in the imaginary town of Brahmpur, the series starts with a wedding ceremony and centres around Lata Mehra (Tania Maniktala), a 19-year-old literature student at Brahmpur University, whose mother leaves no stone unturned to find a ‘suitable boy’ for her daughter. In a period of 18 months, the series concerns the fortunes and trials of four elite families- the Mehras, the Kapoors, the Khans, and the Chatterjis. However, in the background of Lata’s marriage is the foreground that features ‘Political in the personal’. But this is where the series fails; in intensifying these moments. The series tried to show everything from the novel and this is where Andrew Davies, the writer could have been a bit choosy. In trials to portray everything, it could not just get into the deeper portrayals of many grave issues that Seth’s novel portrayed.

The major concern with the series was its language. It was brave enough for the writer to even show the people in rural India talking in English. But the same could have catered better to a mere British Audience. We have seen many English movies with countryside talks in vernacular languages and usage of subtitles for a common understanding. This is where ‘A suitable boy’ seems to lose- in using suitable language as if it was a Birmingham Square set up in India. The little Hindi that is shown seems so real as if the actors were taking a breath after a conversational customary.

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Tabu as Saeeda Bai, a courtesan shares an intriguing relationship with Maan (Ishan Khatter)

However, it is the performance that adds charm to the entire series. And apart from the old-school charm of Tania Maniktala (Lata) or the presentation of Ishan Khatter (Maan) as a reckless, fun-loving but equally obstinate and vulnerable guy, the one performance that raises the scale of the entire series very high, is that of Tabu. Tabu plays Saeeda Bai, a courtesan who has her own dark past. Her relationship with Maan, the younger son of the revenue Minister is fascinating. Although the same has not been explored with great detail here, but showing the sensuality and desires of an older woman with grace and respect is itself very rare. And this is the space where Tabu truly excels. However, bringing Randip Hooda just for a sex scene or two in the character of Billy Irani, with minimal screen time felt like under-utilization.

The movement of different plots was ethereal. And to keep all of them connecting was a challenge for Mira Nair. Vikram Seth’s novel uses the character of Lata to navigate and portray the societal inequalities, growing religious hatred, presence of zamindari system, country-wide protests for academic freedom, and so on. But the series, even after speaking about all the above aspects, could not establish strongly, the relationship between the three Ps- Personal, Political, and the Parliament.

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The Series centres around Lata, a 19-year-old Literature student of Brahmpur University

In short, A suitable Boy was ephemeral. Undoubtedly beautiful, the series ends up with Lata finally choosing a suitor for her among the three choices she had-a jaunty Kabir Durrani (Danesh Razvi), a realistic Haresh Khanna (Namit Das), and the writer Amit Chatterji (Mikhail Sen). The series was not merely confined to find a suitor but successfully portrayed beautiful friendships like that of tender and the non-masculine relationship between Firoz and Maan or even ones like Lata and Malati, Mahesh Kapoor (Ram Kapoor) and the Nawab of Baitar (Aamir Bashir) and so on.

Seth in his novel used couplets for the content page too. A couplet read:

‘Browsing through books, two students meet one day.

A mother mopes; a medal melt away.’

So, an adaptation of a literary masterpiece of this sort to a series is challenging. However, the series neither missed out on the novel’s insight into the scars of Partition nor fails in running parallelly, the personal histories and political arcs.

Watch the trailer here to get a hint about what awaits you

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