A Suitable Boy is a more than suitable tv series, which, coming from someone who has read and adored the eponymous Vikram Seth novel, is saying a lot. Seth’s 1993 saga—because at 1500 pages (250 pages longer than War & Peace), it’s definitely more than a book—is set in post-Partition India, and tells the story of an adolescent girl in a fledgling country looking for that rarest of entities: a suitable boy. The story seems simple enough: Lata Mishra (Tanya Maniktala), a charming 19-year old, has to choose between three boys – Kabir Durrani (Danesh Razvi), a handsome cricketer who studies with her in college, invites her to poetry readings, and—most significantly—happens to be Muslim; Amit Chatterjee (Mikhail Sen), a flirty poet and intellectual, who is Lata’s sister-in-law’s brother (and is hated for it by her mother, who hates her daughter-in-law); and finally, Haresh (Namit Das), the pudgy fumbling shoemaker who is all heart and loves Lata with adorable innocence. But who will she choose? Seth forces us to read 1500 pages to find out. The tv series enlightens us in just six 45-minute episodes.
Directed by Mira Nair (who also made Monsoon Wedding, Salaam Bombay, and The Namesake), A Suitable Boy is characteristically Nair-esque. It’s technicolor sets, vintage sarees, and classical music all provide for an insistently Indian experience. But like with all Nair creations, the Indian-ness is a tad overdone and betrays the series’ target audience: the West. This should be no surprise since the show is a BBC production and is written for tv by British writer Andrew Davies. Which brings me to the logical follow up: Yes, the show is in English. There are bits and pieces of Hindi and Urdu, which erupt in tenderer moments, but for the most part, everyone—from the upper class down to village farmers—all speak English, albeit differently accented versions of it. And though there’s no doubt I would have preferred it all in Hindi, there seems no point criticising the show for its choice of language and accompanying audience. I’ll just say that after the first episode or two, you get used to the English.
Coming to the show itself: the first episode is shaky, as if unsure of itself, and seems to gear the watcher up for disappointment. The acting feels forced, the dialogue alien, the sets seem too bright, and the lives too simplified. But power through, and you won’t be disappointed. After that initial stumble, the show picks itself up and dusts itself off: Its characters settle into their personas, you get used to the English (and are thrilled with the occasional spurts of Urdu), and the plot starts thickening, sketching itself out and drawing you in. Before you know it, you’re hooked.
Lata, whom you were unsure of, suddenly beguiles you into being on her side. The mother (Mahira Kakkar), whom you had considered a repository of unnecessary melodrama, reveals a touching depth. Mann Kapoor (Ishaan Khattar) and Firoz Khan (Shubham Saraf) pique your interest with their homoerotic friendship. Saeeda Bai (Tabu)’s jaded Urdu shayari adds a whiff of melancholy. L.N Agrawal (Vinay Pathak) plays the part of villainous Congress politician. And your feelings for Meenakshi Chatterjee (Shahana Goswami), Amit’s sister and Lata’s sister-in-law, ebb and flow, swinging from irritation to awe.
If you’ve not started seeing this already, the story holds in it much more than would a basic love story. The plot is not meant to be anything as simple as a girl choosing between three men. Rather, it’s an entire world, a bygone era replete with all its nostalgia, as experienced by what are essentially four families: The Mehras, The Kapoor’s, The Khan’s and The Chatterjee’s; and the action spills over from the fictional town of Brahmpur to the palpably real Kolkata to the rather hastily sketched Lucknow. The scope of the plot is sweepingly historical, and its purpose is just as much to give us a sense of the politics and struggles of post-independent India as it is to see Lata navigate love and marriage. It’s a coming-of-age story in more ways than one: not just for our chirpy heroine but for our contentious country as well.
Because as it’s shown to us, India in the 1950s is indeed a contentious place. The zamindari bill is passed, creating discord among elite landowners, most notably the Raja of Marh (Manoj Pahwa). A temple is built abutting an ancient mosque, fomenting communal violence in an already-tense post-Partition environment. And the 1952 elections, contested by the Congress Revenue Minister Mahesh Kapoor (Ram Kapoor)—son of erstwhile mentioned Maan Kapoor—are brought alive with actual footage of Nehru addressing the masses from a podium.
All in all, six episodes felt like too little, and I couldn’t help but want more. It’s a complex world, and inevitably calls for the dedication of more time, greater depth. But in spite of being so short, the show does justice to the book. At all times, I felt we were given just enough to understand this strange new world, and left in the dark just enough for the characters to continually surprise us with their quirks.