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How Mira Nair turned 'A Suitable Boy' into 'Indian Matchmaking'

The cartoonish English is reason enough to avoid this BBC miniseries adapted from Vikram Seth's novel, as are the exotic Eastern tropes

Tanya Maniktala and Namit Das in 'A Suitable Boy'
Tanya Maniktala and Namit Das in 'A Suitable Boy'

Halfway through the recent Netflix hit Indian Matchmaking, I realized why those enjoying the show—a documentary series about a high-profile matchmaker and her clients across India and the diaspora—kept referring to it as a “guilty pleasure”. Far from endorsing arranged marriages, as some feared, the show captures matchmaker and clients at their worst. The camera is pointedly unflattering. Watching the father of a prospective groom with an ill-buttoned shirt stretching over his paunch, I felt sorry for these obvious, flabby targets.

Mira Nair’s BBC miniseries A Suitable Boy—starting 23 October on Netflix—is guilty of the same vicious pointing and laughing. It is based on a Vikram Seth novel, one of the finest English works of the 20th century, an intimately detailed book set in the early 1950s that looks closely and without judgement at its characters, at the varied ensemble making up an unsteady, underage India. Aghast by the first episode, I wrote a review here in July, but this series demands a fuller evisceration.

Mrs Rupa Mehra wants to marry off her younger daughter, thereby seeking the appropriate young man of the title. The book gives us a complex, admirable figure, a young widow who strove to raise liberated, free-thinking daughters, yet was also forced to wear the pragmatic pants in the family. She is a character of great literary breadth—the most layered and lovely part, arguably—but the series turns her into a gag, a woman widening her eyes to screech bigotedly about Muslims. The book doesn’t forgive her prejudices, but places her concerns in the context of the time.

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The language underlines the caricaturing. Characters speak English as if they had never spoken it, wearing consonants as uncertainly as trying trousers on for the first time. The mix of self-consciousness, theatrical exaggeration and woodenness is unforgivable. More importantly, while the book mentions what line is spoken in what language (allowing Indian readers to translate internally if they so wish), the show makes locals speak clumsy, oddly accented English, as if for a laugh. This condescension is cruel, as shopkeepers and watchmen who would have spoken perfectly fine Hindi, Urdu or Bengali have to contend with weak English. (Netflix’s Hindi-language dub only makes Mrs Rupa Mehra sound like a Balaji Telefilms mother.)

The heart is lost. Faiz Ahmad Faiz’s immortal “Aur bhi dukh hain zamaane mein mohabbat ke siva” is swapped for the mundane “There are many other sorrows in this world besides love.” The flat, subtitle-grade translation jars especially when contrasted with occasional moments where characters use their own rightful tongues, minus the overwrought school-play English. The most consistent performance, for instance, comes from Geeta Agrawal Sharma, playing Mrs Mahesh Kapoor, a fretful, breathless wife and mother who speaks only in Hindi.

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For those who haven’t read A Suitable Boy, the cartoonish English is reason enough to avoid the series, as are the exotic Eastern tropes. The pace is inconsistent and tiresome. This costume drama, however, gets the costuming right. Production designers make post-Partition India look rather fetching, as characters lean back on rexine sofas and potter around crumbly havelis. The luminous Tabu inhabits a particularly dreamy palace, though playing a courtesan who—the book takes pains to point out—is not conventionally attractive. The series, with fond attention to waistcoat buttons and jazzy sari-pantaloon combinations, may be more cover than book.

The novel, which rhymes and illuminates and enchants, is anything but skin deep. Lata Mehra—the lady “in need of a husband”, as Jane Austen would say—is an intelligent but diffident girl, free-thinking as well as eager to blend in. Her suitors are compelling in their own ways, but in the series, those who aren’t picked turn conveniently nasty. This makes Lata’s choice appear passive, as if selecting the least unsuitable instead of whom she prefers best. In the book, Lata actively and independently chooses the mousy but ambitious suitor she sees herself in, the man she feels most comfortable talking and writing to.

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A novel longer than the Bible could never fit in six episodes. Veteran screenwriter Andrew Davies conflates the book’s “best” bits in slapdash fashion. There is a significant difference between Lata’s roguish brother-in-law, Maan, playfully dunking a pompous literature professor in a tub of Holi colour and, as shown in the series, doing the same to the home minister. Nair could have excised digressions about child-abusing uncles (territory she herself covered with far more impact in Monsoon Wedding), and added nuance to the politics.

The series draws clumsy parallels between the communal strife of the time and current Hindu-Muslim tension, with little insight or impact. The book, critical of the early Congress government while cleverly commenting on the demolition of the Babri Masjid, viewed varied political, ideological and administrative factions with increasing empathy, offering us a glimpse of the inevitable turmoil surrounding a three-year-old India.

Besides Sharma, some actors rise above the accents. Shahana Goswami has a blast vamping it up as Lata’s outré sister-in-law, Meenakshi. Tabu is characteristically magnetic as the tormented Saeeda Bai. Tanya Maniktala, who plays Lata, despite beaming indiscriminately at everything, appears winsome by the time the curtain falls. Mahira Kakkar, as the all-important Mrs Rupa Mehra, valiantly tries to make her screechy character ring true. Rasika Dugal is sunny and winning as Lata’s older sister, Savita, and Gagan Dev Riar, as her husband Pran, is deftly understated, particularly striking in scenes of mourning near the end of the series.

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In the middle stands Ishaan Khatter as Maan Kapoor, lost and unmoored and irresistible. He takes up more pages of the book than one would expect, and here too emerges as the de facto hero. His performance is precisely calibrated yet lightly worn. While compressing Maan’s narrative leads to lurid melodrama, Khatter finds an assured pitch and sees it through. He glides with nonchalance and easy charm, never tripping over language or love. Nair may have failed at the adaptation, but she has, at least, singled out a suitable boy.

Stream of Stories is a column on what to watch online. Raja Sen is a film critic and the author of The Best Baker In The World (2017), a children’s adaptation of The Godfather.

@rajasen

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