23rd October 2020

A Suitable Boy Review: It Is A Magnificent Melodrama

A  Suitable Boy(6 episodes) Streaming on Netflix  

Starring  Tabu as Saeeda Bai,Ishaan Khatter as Maan Kapoor,Tanya Maniktala as Lata Mehra

Directed  by Andrew Davies

Rating; **** ½ 

How does a filmmaker, no matter how gloriously skillful , compress an epic  novel  into  the cinematic format  without  losing the flavour  of  the  original source-material?  Deepa Mehta tried and failed with Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children.

 Mira Nair scores a  resounding success with Vikram Seth’s beloved  1993  novel  about  a young pretty educated  girl Lata Mehra(debutante Tanya  Maniktala) ’s search for  a bridegroom  in  1951 when India  was still recovering  from its recent amputation.

Seth’s  glorious novel and now the  befitting screen version choose not to centralize  the  political upheavals of those times. Instead  A  Suitable Boy is  dizzily buoyant and  brimming with  a  joiede  vivre as  it weaves in and  out of lives  from two  related upper middleclass families, theMehras and  the  Kapoors  both privileged and  aware of it.

Be warned. If  you haven’t read the novel(and who hasn’t!) you  will find it excruciating to figure out who’s who.By the time you do, the  series , spinning a web of romantic anecdotes in a world of rapidly-changing  morals  and politics, is over.

How I wished  it would go on a bit longer! At the end  of  the last episode Lata finds her match. I wanted  to know how well her marriage works, how much of  her doubts and certainties  about  marital  equations were  proven  to be right.  Mira Nair adroitly  pulls us into Lata’s life:  her overbearing family, her best friend and  of course  her three suitors Kabir(Danesh Razvi), Amit(Mikhail Sen) and  Haresh(Namit Das).

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 Each  of  the three wannabe husbands is played  by actors who look supremely  comfortable in  their parts, but Namit Das is specially engaging as  a smalltown humble sincere shoemaker with  ambitions of marrying  above himself.It  is  an emphatically  empathetic character  in a series teeming with enough  characters to populate  a small  village. They all seem  far removed in their clothes,  moral  preferences, etc from  the world we know  .In fact Lata’s mother Rupa(MahiraKakkar) is hysterical in her emotional extravagance. 

The  heightened emotions of  a culture  grappling with a statehood that  straddles them between their Indianness and lately  banished Britishness, are  brilliantly contoured in  Mira Nair’s  sumptuous   character studies .Each character, big or small , is  wonderfully well-sketched.A large part  of the warmth that they exude , even when  portraying a moral reprehensibility(Lata’s elder brother played by Vivek Gomber is a pompous ass,Lata’s  sister-in-law played by ShahanaGoswami is  a horny bitch) comes from the  actors who are so …so…Vikram Seth and  yet so  Mira Nair!

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My problems as an audience were with  the  other family, the Kapoors.Although  their politics and  sexual politics are  finely enmeshed  in the  plot(and yes, Andrew Davies has  done an exemplary   job of  adapting Vikram Seth’s lurching lilting epic novel) the  pivotal part  of Saeeda Bai, the  tawaif who holds the key to the  Kapoor family’s near-ruination is  played by the  incomparable Tabu with less passion than  expected.

 I am  afraid Tabu has not done with her role what is expected  from her. Her Saeeda Bai  comes across  as jaded, and  that’s not just the  character’s  personality. It’s more to do  with this  super actresss’ inability  to cross  from competence into the realm  of resplendence as  she  usually does.Even when she lip-syncs  those raw guttural  Ghazals she doesn’t quite  get the  sur right.

Ishaan Khattar as  the scandalous heir of  the Kapoor family and Saeeda Bai’s paramour hits all the right  notes. His Maan Singh   is  young, callow, passionate,earnest and  idealistic  . And though  sizzles in  his  frantic  intimacy with  Tabu, I saw more chemistry in Khattar’s scenes with his screen-father  Ram Kapoor(brilliant) and his Muslim best friend Firoz(Shubham Saraf).

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Though  the splendid  series scores steeply in period details(the  1944  hit song Do naina matwaretihare and  the 1950 song  O gore  gore banke chore  figure prominently ) it is the inter-personal relationships that  finally hold together Mira’s magnificent ode to  that long-gone  mood of heightened  romance which navigated  the lives of the well-to-do  after the birth of  a new nation. Even in a sequence  such as  the one where   the  pregnant  Savita(Rasika Duggal,as usual  a natural) discusses  suitors, marriages pregnancy and periods with  her inexperienced sister Lata, the  emotions are relatable , yet heightened.

 Lavishly  mounted but never unduly embellished with  props or  A Suitable Boy is a suitable tribute to  that era post Independence when a certain section of Indians was  not sure how British it  should remain. The  cultural uncertainties  of the times render themselves ably to  a plot that is so  confidently conventional as to seem just the  opposite.By the time Lata rushes to the station to  stop her  love from  leaving, we  realize  how compelling romantic  clichés can be   in the  right hands.

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