There is something about the first few decades of India’s incarnation as an independent nation which holds a romantic fascination for our collective desi imagination. One thinks of a world of black and white movies, of carved wooden swings creaking gracefully in colonial style verandahs, and of blue skies unadulterated by a haze of pollutants. Those early post-independence decades evoke memories of koyels singing after glorious monsoons, and images of young innocent girls in elegant embroidered saris with lips unblemished by lipstick, with long thick braids sporting dainty parandhas. Their colleges, if they were allowed higher education, were waiting rooms for their supreme goal of marriage.
A Suitable Boy is a charming ode to those Indian fantasies about the ‘good old days.’ Written by Andrew Davies and directed by Mira Nair, the six-part series, on Netflix later this year, is based on Vikram Seth’s 1993 book of the same name. It reproduces a suitably aesthetic, decorated version of that newly independent era in the 1950’s, when a young nation’s hope was alive and throbbing. However, being a Mira Nair production, it also takes a few sly swipes at the pretensions and the peculiarities of the times.
The series follows the intertwined fate of four upper crust Indian families– the Mehras, the Kapoors, the Khans and the Chatterjees. These are the Indian elite, the IAS officers, the zamindars, the movers and shakers of Indian politics.
The story follows the enchanting ingenue Lata Mehra (Tanya Maniktala), a 19-year old university student forced to choose a suitable husband from three potential suitors.
It starts of course, with a wedding! No Indian series, particularly one produced by the BBC, is considered authentically Indian these days without a Big Fat Indian Wedding popping up somewhere.
The bride is Kavita (Rasika Dugal), Lata’s older sister, who is being married off to the staid, bespectacled professor son of Mahesh Kapoor (Ram Kapoor), the Revenue Minister of Brahmpur, a fictional city near Lucknow.
“I don’t see any big thrills on the wedding night, do you?” quips Meenakshi (Shahana Goswami) Lata’s sister-in-law, and we know we are in a Mira Nair film, with tart asides and irreverent moments that liven the humdrum, bourgeois setting.
Gentle satire is Nair’s forte – Lata’s older brother Arun (Vivek Gomber) waves a hand at the wedding assembly and declares in a snobbish British accent, “Look around you! A sea of brown,” upon which his younger brother Varun (Vivaan Shah), retorts, “Just like us!”
Lata’s mother Rupa (Mahira Kakkar) is dead set on finding a suitable boy for Lata, before her daughter turns 21 – the median age for spinsterhood according to Rupa.
“You have to marry a boy I choose for you, just like I chose for your sister,” she harangues Lata.
Lata on the other hand, is one step ahead of mum and bolder than her era permits. She falls in love with Kabir (Danesh Razvi), who thrills her but wrecks her peace of mind, and who turns out to be Muslim – strong indications of a ‘big romance’.
While Lata wrestles with social taboos, Rupa suggests another sensible option – Haresh Khanna (Namit Das), a footwear businessman who represents the rising class of aspirational Indians building on opportunities in their newly minted country. And since good (or bad) news comes in threes, Meenakshi presents her brother Amit (Mikhail Sen), as another option.
There is no better way to aim a wide-angle lens at a culture’s norms and idiosyncrasies than the process of getting a daughter married. Lata has to choose between running away with Kabir, her forbidden Muslim boyfriend, or marrying Amit (an affected, narcissistic, English poet, who embodies the Anglophilic legacy of the Raj), or settling for her mother’s favorite – the ambitious, pragmatic, paan-chewing entrepreneur Haresh Khanna, whom Arun contemptuously calls ‘that shoemaker.’
Weaving in and out of Lata’s story is a parallel thread involving the Revenue Minister’s black sheep son, Maan Kapoor (Ishaan Khattar), who indulges in wayward behavior such as pushing the Home Minister into a fountain under the pretext of playing Holi, and falling in obsessive love with local ghazal queen and courtesan, Saeeda Bai (Tabu). Mahesh Kapoor is just as bent on making a man out of this family embarrassment as Maan is on resisting respectability.
Added to the mix are the Khans, a landed Nawabi family of Brahmpur whose friendship with the Kapoors predates the partition. This bond is further cemented by the one between Maan Kapoor and Firoz Ali Khan (Shubham Saraf), Khan’s son, a connection between the families that holds steady despite deep cracks appearing in religious harmony between Hindus and Muslims. The scenes of a Shiv temple being erected right next to a masjid give the viewer a chilling sensation of time collapsing, evoking memories of Babri Masjid–– it could be a communal riot scene from 2020.
The heart of the series, however, lies with the marital misadventures of Lata and the lovesick shenanigans of the Saeeda Bai-obsessed Maan Kapoor. A Suitable Boy does not attempt social commentary or thoughtful insight into the consequences of Independence. All the poverty and drudgery of the 1950’s, the Zamindari Abolition Acts which tried to free oppressed peasantry, the rise of the communist party and the sowing of the political seeds of communalism, are sketched in like incidental fillers to the main theme – a recreation of the 1950’s with vivid cinematography, great acting, and the romance of forbidden love and difficult choices, leading to some critics calling it an orange-filtered version of India.
A Suitable Boy was a first for a BBC production – a drama on colonial India with an entirely Indian cast, and the compelling performances of the cast hold the series aloft like the Tiranga, the tricolor national flag.
Ram Kapoor and Tabu give accomplished performances and newcomer Tanya Maniktala captivates and delights as Lata. (The story of how Tanya, a young, 22-year-old copywriter in Delhi landed the lead in Mira Nair’s production, is a fairy tale in itself.)
The series has received some flak from Indian reviewers for its mannered English accents and attempts to sound ‘browner.’ With the 21st century craving for authenticity in cinematic depictions, whether it’s accents or settings, the tradition of speaking beautifully enunciated English in an Indian setting for the pleasure of a Western ear occasionally jars, the way a missing button on a costume would. Mira Nair softens the blow with occasional snatches of Hindi and Urdu. In the final analysis, the accents don’t detract from the crafted charm of the story which is the kind of escape to a faraway place of beauty and intrigue that we all sorely need in these challenging times.
Jyoti Minocha is an DC-based educator and writer who holds a Masters in Creative Writing from Johns Hopkins, and is working on a novel about the Partition.
Edited by Meera Kymal, contributing Editor at India Currents