Cast: Tabu, Ishaan Khatter, Tanya Maniktala, Mahira Kakkar, Danesh Razvi, Namit Das, Ram Kapoor
Director: Mira Nair
Rating: 4 stars (out of 5)
Mira Nair's A Suitable Boy, BBC Studios' first-ever series with no major European characters, does not miss a beat in funnelling a massive novel into an intricately stitched, necessarily pared filmed version. This panoramic portrait of a newly-free nation and fast-changing social segments within it has an easy-flowing quality that belies the sheer magnitude of the exercise.
A Suitable Boy, streaming on Netflix, adroitly captures the sweep of the novel without losing sight of the granular details of the human relationships, some severely vexed, others emphatically affirmative, at the core of the saga of four families negotiating changes sweeping through their homes - and the nation.
Written by Andrew Davies, the adaptation taps the narrative's innate charm and wit - best reflected on the screen in the evocative use of colours, costumes, music and language - as well as the tempered intensity, buoyancy and vagaries of young love in an age of moderation. Neither does it miss out on novelist Vikram Seth's deep insight into the tumult and scars of Partition. Personal histories and political arcs run parallel in A Suitable Boy.
Rupa Mehra (Mahira Kakkar, perfectly cast) hunts for a worthy match for her daughter Lata (Tanya Maniktala). A young drifter Maan Kapoor (Ishaan Khatter) is besotted with an enigmatic courtesan Saeeda Bai Firozabadi (Tabu). The inner turmoil of the two youngsters is mirrored by the social skirmishes in the world outside as a nation-state seeks a sustainable identity.
Lata has three men to choose from - handsome history undergrad and cricketer Kabir Durrani (Danesh Razvi), son of a math professor; UK-educated poet Amit Chatterji (Mikhail Sen), a man about town from a Calcutta family of judges; and industrious shoemaker Haresh Khanna (Namit Das), a self-made careerist who swears by hard work and material prosperity. The pulls and pressures the early 1950s girl straining to break free from societal shackles constitute the fulcrum of the tale.
A director in complete control, sparkling star turns from Maniktala and Khatter, a supporting cast of stupendous actors, an exquisitely eclectic soundscape (original score: Alex Heffes and Anoushka Shankar) and tangible visuals that evoke an era in all its diversity and splendour make A Suitable Boy a well-rounded, memorable experience.
Made up of six episodes of an hour each, the series opens with the wedding of Savita Mehra, Lata's sister. The groom is Pran Kapoor (Gagan Dev Riar), Maan's brother. Amid the hurly-burly, Lata feeds a monkey. Her mother yells out to her: "What are you doing, Lata? You have to get ready FOR YOUR SISTER'S WEDDING." The exhortation delivers information aimed not so much at the character concerned as the audience. Why does a 19-year-old college girl in the middle of a family event need to be told what exactly is on. Doesn't she know already? Wouldn't "what are you doing Lata, get ready" have sufficed?
Not to worry, A Suitable Boy doesn't continue in that literal vein. It warms up pretty quickly. Many of the key characters loom into the picture in the next few sequences, quickly setting the stage for a cracking multi-layered drama.
Nair's deft, delicate handling of the sprawling story of a mother and a marriageable daughter on one hand and a father and a trouble-prone son on the other does the novel full justice, banking on a strictly cinematic mode and abjuring slavish imitation of the written text.
The production design by Stephanie Carroll and the costumes by Arjun Bhasin accentuate the sense of place and period. The multiplicity of languages (English, Urdu, Hindi, Awadhi and a smattering of Bangla) masterfully transmit the essence of the milieu as well as the behavioural angularities of the people we see on the screen.
Nair, in what is her maiden television series but certainly not her first literary adaptation, works with technicians she has collaborated with before and employs meticulous methods to recreate a prickly era that saw the seeds of discord - between religious groups, between social ideologies, and between privilege and privation - being sown.
The array of talent in front of and behind the camera help her in the endeavour to articulate her own personal affinity for Seth's 1993 novel, which manifests itself in the strands and the characters that she opts to play up, as well as Seth's phenomenal prescience evident in the recognition of the fault-lines that have dogged the nation interminably.
For one, the cast of over a hundred actors, many of them drawn from the pool Nair created with Monsoon Wedding in 2001 and its more recent stage musical version, is absolutely fabulous. The phalanx of performers of proven mettle is led by Tabu, whose bewitching interpretation of the culture that Saeeda Begum represents is made all the more hypnotic by Kavita Seth's soulful rendition of Dagh, Ghalib and Ameer Minai.
Tanya Maniktala, with her large, expressive eyes and incandescent smile, lights up the screen as Lata Mehra, a robustly inquisitive ingenue navigating the challenges posed by a meddlesome mother, three persistent suitors and her own shifting ideas of what her future should be.
Ishaan Khatter is superbly sure-footed as Maan, a boy so hopelessly under Saeeda Bai's spell that he thinks nothing of putting the well-being of his family and the electoral prospects of his politician-father in jeopardy. He fleshes out a conflicted character that you cannot but feel empathy for despite his infuriatingly impulsive ways.
Among the other known faces on the screen, Shahana Goswami is electric as the unapologetically hedonistic, vivacious Meenakshi, Lata's sister-in-law, Rasika Dugal is characteristically solid as Lata's sedate married sister and occasional sounding board, Vivek Gomber is delightfully on the ball as Arun Mehra, Lata's supercilious elder brother and Meenakshi's husband, and Ram Kapoor is poise personified as Maan's father and Purva Pradesh's minister of revenue.
That apart, A Suitable Boy has an impressive assemblage of supporting actors who enhance the power of the series - notably Manoj Pahwa Raja of Marh), Aamir Bashir (Nawab of Baitar), Ranvir Shorey (the Nawab's trusted aide), Sharvari Deshpande (Malati, Lata's best friend), Vijay Varma (Urdu teacher Rasheed), Vijay Raaz (Rasheed's landlord father), Vinay Pathak (home minister L.N. Agarwal) and Randeep Hooda (in a brief cameo that leaves you asking for more).
Among the younger actors, Joyeeta Dutta (Tasneem, Saeeda Begum's ward), Shubham Saraf (Firoz, scion of the Baitar royal family and Maan's best friend) and Ananya Sen (the coquettish Kakoli, Meenakshi's sister) are the ones to watch.
A review of A Suitable Boy wouldn't be complete without a mention of Geeta Agrawal Sharma who, in the role of the self-effacing but unwaveringly firm Mrs. Mahesh Kapoor, redefines effortlessness. She shines as bright as anyone else in a show that has no dearth of high-impact performances, a testament to the fact that Mira Nair has a way with actors that is beyond exceptional. That of course is only one of the many things going for her ripping rendition of A Suitable Boy. It is replete with riches.