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).
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!
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).
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.