'A Suitable Boy' Was a Sprawling Saga, but Mira Nair's Version is Bland and Tedious

The six-part version can’t make up its mind about who it is mainly for and the result is confusing.

At the heart of the 1,349-page novel, A Suitable Boy, lies a simple question: Who will Lata marry?

As if writing a joint entrance exam, she has three options: her multi-talented college flame, Kabir Durrani; an acclaimed, charming poet, Amit Chatterji; and an ambitious shoe businessman, Haresh Khanna.

Setting his novel in the early 1950s, telling a sprawling story of a postcolonial state — including the abolition of the Zamindari system, the family dynamics of the provincial elites, the modern aspirations of their younger generation, Hindu-Muslim tensions, the courtesan culture, the oppressed villagers, and much more — writer Vikram Seth might have pondered a niggling, yet common, contradiction: How to tell a distinctly Indian story in a foreign language and medium, the English novel?

As the Indian novelist Raja Rao once wrote, “One has to convey in a language that is not one’s own, the spirit that is one’s own.”

The adaptation of the Seth novel, a Netflix mini-series directed by Mira Nair, A Suitable Boy, seems oblivious to such a concern.

A novel allows us to construct our own images and sounds — our own films — but a motion picture, in contrast, allows limited imagination. By taking a story marked by socio-political transmutations and imposing on it a uniform foreign language — the Web series is largely in English, with an occasional smattering of Hindi and Urdu — Nair renders her piece distant. This linguistic limitation consistently ails the six-part show. But that is not the only problem with Nair’s version. 

Like the novel, the series opens to the fictional town of Brahmpur in Purva Pradesh, a state in the Indo-Gangetic Plain. Mahesh Kapoor (Ram Kapoor), the Revenue Minister, gets his elder son, Pran (Gagan Dev Riar), married to Savita Mehra (Rasika Dugal). Once the wedding is done, Savita’s mother, Rupa (Mahira Kakkar), has a new preoccupation: finding a suitable suitor for her younger daughter, Lata (Tanya Maniktala). Mahesh’s close friend is Nawab Sahib (Aamir Bashir), a compassionate, erudite man, now a bystander to the decaying feudal world. The Chatterjis are the fourth family, connected to the Mehras through another marriage: Savita’s sister-in-law is Meenakshi Chatterji (Shahana Goswami), a vivacious young woman in Calcutta. The Chatterjis include Meenakshi’s brother, Amit (Mikhail Sen), who falls for Lata.

On the literal periphery of this milieu — yet crucial to the story — is a local courtesan, Saeeda Bai (Tabu). Mahesh’s younger son, Maan (Ishaan Khatter), a young directionless man, is first smitten by, and then obsessed with, her. Among the interwoven subplots, much like the novel, is the Jane Austenian question: Who will Lata marry?

A still ‘A Suitable Boy’.

For a web series with such a dense plotline, Lata’s abiding confusion is crucial, for it can act as a narrative cord binding the audiences to this story. Moreover, each new suitor, whether it’s Kabir, Amit, or Haresh, promises a new possibility. Most compelling fictional features share a simple commonality: that one scene should make us want to see the next. But A Suitable Boy lacks an essential immersive quality right from the first episode.

It is most evident in the exposition-heavy set-up, where people describe characters and scenarios, as if they’re not talking to each other but to the audience. So, we don’t see the characters up-close or evaluate them ourselves. Most figures are cursorily sketched, reducing their individual journeys to a sum total of actions and consequences — as a result, we don’t get the sense of intimacy and interiority, the bridge that connects their coherence and irrationality. Or something as fundamental as the reasons for relationships.

Also read | Mira Nair on ‘A Suitable Boy’: I Would Joke, It’s ‘The Crown’ in Brown, on a Slim Budget

Take, for instance, the bond between Kabir and Lata. It starts off as a formulaic Bollywood romance: the guy follows the girl, she feigns disinterest, he follows some more, the girl relents — they spend some time together and fall in love. Their relationship, then, feels unconvincing and hollow. Which is disappointing but not a deal-breaker. That comes when the characters are themselves clueless. When Lata talks about Kabir, it’s mostly in terms of their break-up (or vague references to his passionate demeanour), and later, when Kabir is asked why he likes her, he says, without a smidgen of self-awareness, “Because she’s Lata. I love her because I can’t help it. I’ve no idea why, I just do.”

A still ‘A Suitable Boy’.

Middling acting sinks the show, too. A Suitable Boy has a vast array of characters, and it needed credible actors to hold our attention. But barring a few impressive performances — such as Danesh Rizvi (Kabir), Sen, Namit Das (Haresh), and Mansi Multani (the Mehras’ family friend) — the rest of the actors are either borderline competent or forgettable. The show’s centrepiece, in particular, Maniktala’s Lata, lacks screen presence and magnetic versatility; her perpetual pleasant demeanour, mimicking a performance-in-a-performance, dilutes our intrigue.

Even Tabu — always reliable, often great — turns in a tepid performance, devoid of arresting specificity and detail. Good actors, like good salesmen, make us buy anything; better actors, when off-screen, make us miss their presence. With the exceptions of Rizvi and Multani, no other actor in A Suitable Boy even comes close. 

Besides, for an adaptation of a 1993 novel, some of its plot points suffer from narrative fatigue: the objections to an inter-faith marriage, a drunk young man moping about lost love, the overt familial pressure inherent to an arranged alliance. Granted, the novel is about these things, but the adaptation plays it straight — sometimes way too straight — oblivious to the many similar stories in Hindi cinema.

Which brings us to the main question: Who is the target audience here? Is it the Indian audience, given the rooted nature of the source material? Or the Western audience, given the series first premiered on BBC nearly three months ago?

Presumably the latter, as the show’s default language is English. But this lack of consistency and clarity is worrying — and informs the entire series — leaving us confounded. The English dialogues, for instance, flatten the show, where different characters — such as the elites or courtesans or servants — deploy similar vocabulary and diction, removing subtle linguistic differences that mark a diverse country like India.

A still from ‘A Suitable Boy’.

The background score (by Alex Heffes and Anoushka Shankar), filled with prominent sitar strains, conveys the feeling of an exotic foreign documentary, where you expect to see snake charmers, yogis, and spices any minute. Some parts of A Suitable Boy do resemble the set-up of an Indian arranged marriage, where the bride is the show itself — decked up, carrying a plate of snacks — trying hard to impress a suitor, the imagined gora babu.

A gifted director once, Nair hasn’t made a good feature in a really long time (her last impressive outing was Namesake, more than 14 years ago).

The show suffers from significant narrative incoherence. Spanning multiple stories and settings, the different segments are painted from the same brush. We move from the havelis to villages to factories — from Brahmpur to Rudhia to Lucknow — but that jaded sameness persists.

More than anything, A Suitable Boy is bland and, consequently, tedious and boring. The novel’s vast political sweep, too, is reduced to a series of checkboxes. A land reform act here, a communal riot there, a few Urdu ghazals, some pastoral struggles, a shoe factory, an intricate family tree — yet even after the six-hour long series, we get scant insight into a recently independent country and its people, trapped in their own freedom struggles. A drama about a postcolonial nation, made in 2020, that can’t shake off its fundamental colonial hangover — the irony is stark and striking.