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September 18, 2020

BBC adapts a modern Indian classic, with mixed results

By RISHABH KUMAR | September 9, 2020

coconut-trees

SnapMeUp / CC BY-SA

The lush landscapes in A Suitable Boy offer an authentic depiction of India in the 1950s.

Over the summer, like most people trying to deal with the anxiety-inducing, consistently weird times we’ve been going through, I succumbed to rewatching my favorite comfort shows ad nauseam. However, one new show managed to pull me out of binge-watching and return to the good old days of watching something new on a one-episode-per-week basis as it came out — the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) adaptation of A Suitable Boy.

My interest was piqued for a number of reasons: It was the first BBC period drama with an entirely non-white cast, it was adapting a modern classic in Indian literature — Vikram Seth’s novel of the same name — and it was attempting to convert a 1,300-page story into just six episodes. 

While the show was successful in displaying 1950s India in its aesthetic splendor and vibrancy and had some fantastic performances from its cast, it struggled to adequately transfer all the themes of the original text.

A Suitable Boy is the story of Lata Mehra (Tanya Maniktala) and her aristocratic family. It traces her search for love — or as her mother Rupa (Mahira Kakkar) calls it, “find[ing] the suitable boy” — through her life at university, while living with Savita (Rasika Dugal), her sister, and Pran Kapoor (Gagandeep Singh Riar), Savita’s husband.

Running parallel with her story is that of Maan Kapoor (Ishaan Khattar), Pran’s brother, who falls in love with tawaif (courtesan) Saeeda Bai (Tabu) and faces the social repercussions of his love for this older, Muslim woman. The lives of these families weave across the developing social fabric of the time, from the attempts for equity and land reform fought for by Pran and Maan’s father, the rise of Hindu fundamentalism and anti-Muslim violence and bigotry, and attempts at decolonizing everything from academia to government to the concept of modernization and development.

Sounds like a lot, right? Though on paper it may seem impossible to adequately represent all these plotlines together, the show flows surprisingly well, moving from small domestic quarrels, to heavy parliamentary debates, to violence on the streets with dexterity and authenticity. 

For example, in the first episode, we witness Maan and his best friend Firoz (Shubham Saraf) pass the new temple being constructed by the Hindu fundamentalist Raja (king) of Marh right next to the centuries-old mosque. While Firoz, a Muslim whose family suffered severely during the Partition, expresses worry about the religious tensions it would create, Maan, imbued with his modern distaste of any religious discussion, says, “Since when have you become such a mullah [Muslim preacher],” and laughs it off. 

But in the following scenes, we see Maan’s father, the Gandhian freedom fighter and politician — a representative of the old guard — trying to convince the Raja to not build the temple, attempting to use his political clout to stop it, but ultimately failing in the face of the Raja’s economic power and social authority. This is followed by heartbreaking scenes of peaceful protesters against the temple being shot by the police under the Raja’s orders. Thus, in just one episode, A Suitable Boy is able to deftly demonstrate the ties between the personal and political, and how the machinations of a few powerful characters can manifest or implicitly allow violence.

Another big selling point of the show is its impressive production. Supported by its £16 million budget, director Mira Nair portrays India of that time vividly, with big set pieces, beautiful palaces and lush landscapes, juxtaposed with dense markets and crowded city spaces. Thus, they not only added to the authenticity of the story but effectively highlighted how important different geographies were for people’s lives: the freedom that the lush, green lawns of her university represent for Lata, compared to the dreary, rain-drenched, more claustrophobic environment of her home.

However, while the show is able to demonstrate these concepts well in terms of its internal world, the ethos of a period drama often lies in its relevance to the current era, which is where A Suitable Boy struggled. 

It becomes so stuck in representing that era authentically that it fails to help the audience draw parallels to how those histories continue to affect us today. Take the construction of the temple: The show chooses to deal with these religious tensions by casting century-old stereotypes of the modernizing patriot (Maan’s father) keeping the peace and the traditionalist king (the Raja of Marh) trying to break it. It’s all a rather simple good versus evil story, and it’s localized to a specific town. 

In the book, though, these religious tensions play out in a far more radical sense, shown in one of the only moments in the story that the guarded, secretive discourses of elite life are threatened to the point of destruction. It acts as a demonstration of the Partition of British India after its independence into India and Pakistan, how it birthed Hindu fundamentalism and threatened the stability of both newly-founded countries. I felt very little of that threat in the show, since it seemed to be so busy in ensuring its historical accuracy that it failed to consider the original text’s thematic nuances. 

Furthermore, it failed to bring these themes to a contemporary audience. A Suitable Boy has been compared to BBC’s most famous period drama The Crown, but the success of that show lay in how its depiction of Britain’s past — from its colonial conflicts, Euroscepticism and conflicting attitudes towards royalty — could be felt so acutely even today. And while all of A Suitable Boy’s plot deals with contemporary issues as well (arranged marriages, the politics of religion and the influence of Western ideas), it all feels localized and limited to that time and space. And due to the restricted runtime of the show, it can’t be dealt with too heavily. 

And one could sense that it was purposely trying to keep things simple in all the little things. The orange-saffron hue in half the scenes, the constant sitar in the background and the long shots of the lively bazaars and temples felt like a way of creating a picture of India that’s more familiar to Western audiences.

Yet I was left wanting more when it was over. I became invested in the characters, especially the performances of the ever-villainous Raja of Marh and the mysterious, elegant courtesan Saeeda, played by the iconic Bollywood star Tabu. It will naturally struggle to convey all the subtlety and nuance of the original given its short runtime and overemphasis on the historical context, but it nevertheless makes a compelling watch. That said, its decision to focus more on the authenticity and realism of fact and less on the contemporaneity and relevance of fiction wasn’t necessarily the right choice.

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