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A Suitable Boy review: Mira Nair crafts an unsubtle and tedious adaptation

Based on the first episode, the BBC miniseries is a melodramatic rendering of Vikram Seth’s masterpiece

Tanya Maniktala and (right) Mahira Kakkar in 'A Suitable Boy'
Tanya Maniktala and (right) Mahira Kakkar in 'A Suitable Boy'

A Suitable Boy, one of the finest (and longest) novels ever written in the English language, is a test match of a book: endless and structurally mighty, intricate yet digressing, its romance as much in the uneventful as in the unforgettable. Seth, who had written his first novel, The Golden Gate, entirely in sonnets, kept his language simple in this mammoth masterwork relayed by an omniscient third-person narrator. The author’s poetic observations—on shoemaking and on shayari, on caste and community—are rendered ever more acute by the spareness and precision of the prose. For a hefty novel (the original Penguin edition weighs in at 1349 pages, in tiny type) A Suitable Boy feels surprisingly springy.

That can, in no way, be said for this television adaptation. Directed by Mira Nair, a BBC miniseries of the same name condenses the big book into six episodes—an unenviable and uphill task—and based on the first episode, appears to be taking the clumsiest approach. Nuance is shoved aside for points of plot. The result is less a good day’s play and more a highlights package. While the show may eventually stumble upon its metre, it isn’t looking promising. Lovers of the novel will be underwhelmed by this spelt-out rendition, and those who haven’t read it may never do so based on this introduction.

A Suitable Boy is centred around a mother seeking a groom for her younger daughter. Set a few years after Partition, it sees Lata Mehra, student of English Literature, choose between three diametrically varied suitors. Revolutions rise and exhale in the backdrop as India, like the heroine, comes warily and unsurely of age. The book features self-aware political satire with incisive social commentary, and characters to die for, and learn from. Amit Chatterji, for instance, the poet jousting for Lata’s hand, taught me what an acrostic was—and remains, thus, my favourite suitor.

The show feels like an amateurish stage play, a high school-quality musical minus the music. This is partly because of the expository and entirely functional nature of the dialogues—“You are the Revenue Minister, I am the Home Minister," informs a man, as if politicians were gnats—but more so because of cardboard accents. Not far removed from Apu of The Simpsons, here we have a cast of mostly talented Indian actors trying, bafflingly, to sound browner. The cadences are unforgivable as characters try to add weird Hindi-esque lilts to English sentences. In this day and age, for Indian actors to take a Peter Sellers approach for an adaptation of an Indian masterpiece is utterly confounding. Is it the BBC’s revenge on Indians for writing better English?

The justification from the makers may be that many of the English lines in Seth’s book aren’t actually spoken in English, or by English-speaking characters. Yet if we make courtesans and pawnbrokers speak English to represent Urdu or Hindi, why rob them of their fluency? In Basu Chatterjee’s Byomkesh Bakshi series nearly 30 years ago, characters meant to be speaking in Bangla instead speak lovely Hindi. The Personal History Of David Copperfield, one of this year’s finest films, stars Dev Patel as Copperfield without once referring to his colour. That is the thrilling, startling future, yet A Suitable Boy appears keener to nod in a way the sahibs will recognise.

Brief subtitled moments, where characters speak a line or two in Hindi, feel like actors taking a breath away from the conversational costumery. These don’t last long, and neither do the show’s scenes—as it hurries to tick off plot points from the book, the scenes come at us like fragments. There is little flow.

Tanya Maniktala, who plays Lata, has an all-conquering smile, though one wishes she wasn’t made to beam at absolutely everything. Lata from the book, for instance, would surely not have grinned while her bossy elder brother snapped at her younger brother. Mahira Kakkar is excellent as Lata’s overwhelmed mother but visibly handicapped by the Hindi-in-English lines, whereas Shahana Goswami does well as Lata’s glamorous sister-in-law Meenakshi because she’s clever enough to speak English as if it’s English.

Ishaan Khatter is an utter revelation as Maan Kapoor, the dashing gadabout, smitten with the world at large—“It’s a hoot," he laughs, when accused of thinking everything’s a joke—and specifically with Saeeda Bai, the courtesan. Played by Tabu and first introduced to viewers with a ghazal she sings, Saeeda Bai lifts the series—perhaps because the makers are forced to linger at least briefly on the song. Without Maan and Saeeda Bai circling one another, the first episode may well have been staged at a South Mumbai theatre, one of those evenings where you applaud politely because you know some of the actors.

Similarly, some of us know these characters. A swooning re-reader, I feel hard done by this feeble adaptation, and by the way farce and satire have been turned into thick political allegory, pointing too hard and too obviously in one direction to make a point. A Suitable Boy is not, as a title card before the series would have you believe, a mere “Partition novel" or “Hindu-Muslim story". Playfulness has been sacrificed for obvious melodrama, scarcely the object of this sprawling, sublime novel. Seth wrote his Contents page in couplets— “Browsing through books, two students meet one day. / A mother mopes; a medal melts away"—but this soap-operatic version of the same events feels immediately tedious.

In the first chapter, Seth writes of a girl praising a young boy’s voice. “Like a bulbul," she says, and then, in an aside to Lata, she whispers, “In a china-china shop." It’s a silly gag, but one that is wonderful to read out loud, and one that rings true to clever girls who call sweet young men ‘cads’—short for Cadbury’s, like the chocolate. A Suitable Boy will eventually come to Netflix India, and I may write again after watching all the episodes, but, for now, this series doesn’t make room for cads or bulbuls. Just bull.

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