Image: BBC One

Mira Nair’s A Suitable Boy: A Valiant Effort That Falls Just Short

By:
Jeevan Sangha (@jeevanksangha)

When the trailer for BBC One’s television adaptation of Vikram Seth’s magnum opus A Suitable Boy released, I was ecstatic. 

I never had the guts to tackle the robust novel which clocks in at 1349 pages -- one of the longest books written in the English language -- so a six part series was perfect for me. When it finally released, I was eager to jump into the story and see what the hype was all about. 

A Suitable Boy, lunges quickly into a multi-family saga about love, honour and politics, just a few years after Indian independence and the Partition. 

It boasts a star-studded cast including Tabu, Ishaan Khatter, Vijay Varma and Ram Kapoor, along with vibrant visuals of the fictional city of Brahmpur. 

With a mere six episodes to work with, Mira Nair wastes no time in the first episode. The protagonist, a bright English Literature university student named Lata, quickly establishes herself as someone who is averse to her mother’s desire for her to get married. 

Within minutes, a myriad of characters are introduced to the audience with very little time to remember their relations to the others. (Hint: check out the character chart of the BBC One website). Although it took some time to immerse myself in Lata’s world, I soon became aware of the beauty of this story. 

The show has deeply compelling character arcs to work from. What opens as a love story between a Hindu girl and a Muslim boy, turns into a exhibit of the multiplicity of identities and symbols from a precarious period in Indian history. 

We’re introduced to a passionate romance between a sophisticated and much older tawaif, and the son of a local politician -- an Indian man whose mind is still colonized from the remnants of the British Raj and the rise in Hindu nationalism which hauntingly rings true in the present day. 

We are also presented a sympathetic view towards Muslims still in the country, who are now starkly aware that they are a minority. In the background, we see politicians scramble for votes while simultaneously doing what they can to secure their families. 

The series is primarily in English, with the adaptation penned by Andrew Davies (who is responsible for adapting Pride and Prejudice and War and Peace). The English dialogue feels stripped down and lackluster particularly in the moments between Lata and her various suitable boys. 

However, the fleeting scenes and phrases in Hindi and Urdu feel like a breath of fresh air, where the actors seem to sink comfortably into their characters before they’re forced back into English. 

As a show on the BBC One, I understand the choice of choosing English as the primary language. However, as an avid fan of Indian media, I long for what could have been: an opportunity to showcase the vibrancy of Indian language, which is a powerful part of culture. 

Conversely, perhaps the awkwardness may have been mitigated if the words were adapted by an Indian writer with a deeper understanding of the ruling cultural norms. 

A Suitable Boy is a beautiful watch with lavish sets and phenomenal acting, particularly from the pitch perfect Tabu, and starry-eyed Ishaan Khatter. 

Before you know it, the ruminating tensions boil over in the last two episodes and you’re left feeling somewhat satisfied, yet still empty. 

There’s a lot to appreciate about a piece of work like this, particularly the showcase of Indian stories on such a large platform such as BBC One. Yet still, I can’t help but think about what could have been with twice as many episodes, or even multiple seasons, to do the story justice. 

More time to explore the fascinating characters gifted to us by Vikram Seth, as well as the gift of Hindi and Urdu would have given the viewers more to sink their teeth into. 

Perhaps for that feeling, I’ll just have to read the book after all. 

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