A Suitable Boy Review: A Rather Unsuitable Adaptation of Vikram Seth’s Timeless Novel

Suitable boy reviews

Mira Nair’s newest adaptation stint A Suitable Boy has finally hit Netflix. Based on Vikram’s Seth’s timeless novel-of-the-same-name, the series has a runtime of six hours split into six episodes. The adaptation is also BBC’s first series with no major white characters, although sadly, even with a cast all brown, the series itself couldn’t have been more white. Everything, from the sets to the dialogues. is meant to cater to the expectations of a white audience, erasing all aspects of realism from the original story. The series neither captures Seth’s poetic observations nor his prosaic precisions, altogether making it a rather unsuitable adaptation of the novel.

Written by Andrew Davies, who is best known for the original British drama House of Cards, the series is directed by Mira Nair. It stars Tabu, Ishaan Khatter, Tanya Maniktala, Rasika Dugal, Ram Kapoor among a cast that features more than 100 actors. The series first premiered on BBC One on July 26 before hitting Netflix on Friday, and is Nair’s first web series adaptation.

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The Plot

The plot of A Suitable Boy is set in the newly independent India and follows Lata (Tanya Maniktala), who is a young English literature student in the fictional town of Brahmpur. Coming from a typical North-Indian family from 1950s, she is forced to choose between several suitors put forward by her mother (Mahira Kakkar). In fact, the title of the series itself refers to this desperate persistence of the mother, Mrs Rupa Mehra, searching for a ‘suitable boy’ for Lata. It is the pressures faced by an early 1950s girl straining to break free from societal shackles that constitute the fulcrum of the tale.

There are also several parallel plots, such as Minister Mahesh Kapoor (Ram Kapoor) and his struggle within the Congress party, his son Maan’s (Ishaan Khatter) infatuation with a courtesan named Saeeda Bai (Tabu); his friendships with Firoz Khan (Shubham Saraf) and Rasheed (Vijay Varma), and many more. But in an attempt to address every element of the source material, the series makes a mistake of juggling more plotlines than six episodes can frankly handle.

A Dazzling Cast

The women actors deserve special mention for their efforts to bring their characters to life. As the seductive courtesan Saeeda Bai, Tabu is, as always, phenomenal. She oozes grace, strength, vulnerability and sensuality so naturally that it’s hard to see Saeeda Bai as anyone but Tabu. Newcomer Tanya Maniktala as Lata is also positively enchanting. It is liberating to see her character being unapologetic about taking her time with each of the men she is interested in, even simultaneously, and without guilt. That even though she finally chooses a man her parents approve of, the message that she has her own independent reasons for doing so is not lost upon the audience. As Lata’s sister-in-law, Rasika Dugal is characteristically solid. And so is the smart and cheeky Meenakshi, played by a talented Shahana Goswami.

Seth’s novel focused on the granular details of the human relationships, and while Nair’s adaptation fails to capture this aspect on most counts, the friendships portrayed in the series do impressively stand out. The friendship between Maan and Firoz brings to life a tender and non-hypermasculine relationship between the boys. The same applies to the friendship between their fathers as well. Lata’s relationship with her college friend Malati, although given quite less screen-time, is heartwarming to watch: here are two women cheering and supporting one another, no fanfare needed.

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An Overall Unsuitable Adaptation

As an Indian viewer, the series feels too far away from the lived realities of people in this country. The sets and locations are lavish, but the script gets clunky at times, making the characters look caricaturish. In an attempt to make the costumes extravagant and the characterisations bold, the series lets go of the actual history of post-partitioned India. The sleeveless blouses, the night clothing, men and women openly smearing Holi colours on each other’s bodies, the intermingling of the two sexes in public spaces, the way even upper-caste women talk to men, all of it looks exceedingly haywire and inappropriate if one merely takes the time and context into consideration.

There are scenes where we are told that Lata is participating in a Shakespearean play and there is absolutely no hesitation to this news from her home. Now, remember that we are in the 1950s India, that too in a conservative North-Indian family if Lata’s mother’s conventional sensibilities are anything to go by. Even in today’s time, a college play where a daughter has to act opposite a male student (sometimes enacting scenes that put her in what can be called a compromising position) is a news that is taken with a pinch of salt in most middle-class Indian families. Seth’s book clearly depicts the kind of obstacles that young women like Lata have to overcome to even reach the venue, one which the series completely overlooks. And it is in these omissions that one gets to see how the adaptation whitewashes the country’s social realities, only to become a ‘fun’ watch to the western eye.

So, watch it if you have time to spare and want to see something that is aesthetically pleasing to the eye. But if you are looking for a faithful adaptation, this isn’t your cup of tea, for by showing only the rom-com and colourful parts, the makers end up making it look like a high-school-musical version of the novel, sans the music.

Views expressed are the author’s own.