Movie: A suitable boy
Cast: Tabu, Ishaan Khatter, Tanya Maniktala, Rasika Dugal, Mahira Kakkar, Ram Kapoor, Vivaan Shah, Shahana Goswami, Namit Das, Ranvir Shorey, Randeep Hooda
Direction: Mira Nairo
Stream on: Netflix
One of two things that happen when Mira Nair tries to make an Indian movie in India. She crafts a story that is beautifully authentic and inspired by India (think Salaam Bombay! or Monsoon Wedding). Or she tries to imitate an India that was, in which case the result is beautifully plastic (think Kama Sutra).
Nair’s new web series is about an India that was. The show diligently tries to belong to the former lot, but tends to the second category.
Perhaps the challenge was to adapt Vikram Seth’s book of the same name. A huge work of fiction made up of nearly six lakh words seems difficult to capture in six episodes.
Or maybe, just as it was abundantly clear in the case of Kama Sutra, Nair was making an Indian film in India for the West (you could say that idea defines all of her Indian-focused works, but anyway Salaam Bombay! or Monsoon Wedding managed to fall into a captivating narrative rhythm).
The problem with A Suitable Boy is that, despite so much story to tell, the story tends to slack. It’s a script borrowed from one of the most eventful phases of Indian history—the early 1950s when a newly independent nation discovered sovereignty—yet it struggles to capture that essence. The screenplay was written by Welsh veteran Andrew Davies, who seemed so out of his comfort zone by adapting Pride And Prejudice, Vanity Fair, Bleak House of Sense And Sensibility and, not to forget, co-writing House Of Cards. Still, an element of laziness seems to take over the narration as Davies tries to craft an Indian story.
The language is also a big problem. Based on an English novel and adapted by British author Davies, the language of the dialogues is English. It seems okay to see upper class Indians speaking the language at home and beyond — even Tabu’s beautifully executed courtesan Saeeda Bai looks decent in English dialogue. The problem with choosing English audio to watch the show is that it seems very inconvenient when Vijay Varma’s Urdu teacher talks to his ward in the language, or when the ‘kattar’ Hinduvaadi politician (played by Vinay Pathak ) vigorously makes a point in English.
On the other hand, watching the show in Hindi presents another problem. Since it was recorded in English, there is of course no correlation between lip movement and the words spoken. Seen with Hindi dialogues, the ironic Indian story looks like a product of screwed up sound engineering, on the verge of being ridiculous.
Davies’ story, based on Seth’s novel, begins on a bright note. We meet Lata (Tanya Maniktala), a literature student who is strong-willed, intelligent and free-spirited. Her mother insists it’s time for her to get married, though she can’t help but fall in love with Muslim boy Kabir Durrani (Danesh Razvi), a university history student. Lata’s problems in life are far removed from those of Maan (Ishaan Khatter), the youngest son of Finance Minister Mahesh Kapoor (Ram Kapoor). Maan sees the stately Saeeda Bai (Tabu) performing at a family party and falls head over heels for her.
These love stories go hand in hand with a socio-political portrait of India that the story tries to compose. Mahesh Kapoor is looking for a law that will render the Zamindari system obsolete. The year the story begins is 1951, and the embers of the Hindu-Muslim tension that began during the Partition are still very much alive.
The episodes unfold as these subplots roll out and more, as various characters join the plot. Despite so many characters and narrative threads, you soon begin to realize that telling the story has no life. Very little happens in Lata and Maan’s life that can be considered surprising.
The series works because of its production earnings and acting. Besides, for all the flaws you can discover in the script, Mira Nair delivers the minimal quality you would expect from a cinematic product tagged with her name. This is a very nice show, and Nair’s eye for detail in setting up the details of a specific social milieu is always commendable – from her days in Salaam Bombay! and Mississippi Masala. Here too she shows the nuances.
Nair has put together an interesting cast and her acting ensemble does a brilliant job of bringing the characters to life, culminating in a majestic performance of Tabu as Saeeda and Ishaan Khatter’s spirited portrayal of Maan Kapoor.
The fact has been established long before the end of the first episode that Tanya Maniktala has a dazzling smile. Only she wouldn’t have had to flash it every chance – her screen presence looks promising enough. The advantage of having a talented cast who repeat roles is that almost every frame shows a nuanced turn of acting. Actors like Ram Kapoor, Rasika Dugal, Namit Das, Mahira Kakkar, Shahana Goswami, Aamir Bashir or Manoj Pahwa don’t have to convince in any role. The show takes huge advantage of that fact. Then there’s Randeep Hooda, Ranveer Shorey, Vinay Pathak, Vijay Varma, Kulbhushan Kharbanda and Vivaan Shah, adding appeal with limited but decently effective footage.
Despite these great performances, you realize the obvious truth as the episodes roll. A Suitable Boy struggles to be a story that holds your attention. The series seems overwhelmed by the opportunities it could have scaled, only managing to portray India as a culture and country in a way that many Western filmmakers have done before.
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