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

The acclaimed director, whose BBC One television series brought down the curtain on the Toronto International Film Festival, talks about being drawn to the Nehruvian idealism, syncretic culture and political prescience reflected in Vikram Seth’s monumental work. 

As the New York-based filmmaker Mira Nair was conferred the Jeff Skoll Award in Impact Media at the Toronto International Film Festival on September 16, she reiterated one of her favourite lines, which is her motto as a filmmaker straddling different worlds:

“If we don’t tell our stories, no one else will”.

Nair has done just that in over three decades of filmmaking – tell the stories of people moving between identities and cultures, in a wide range of genres, subjects and settings. What remains constant is the way she sculpts individual stories and relationships against a larger backdrop, which gives her films a universality of appeal. This holds true for her latest work – A Suitable Boy – as well. The six-episode, 349-minute long series, her first foray on television, is based on Vikram Seth’s sweeping 1993 novel and will soon be available to Indian viewers on Netflix.

Set in the India of 1951, A Suitable Boy focuses on the lives of two youngsters seeking personal freedom in a nation experiencing its first flush of independence in the wake of Partition. The attempts of Lata Mehra’s (played by Tanya Maniktala) mother to find a groom for her run parallel to the love affair of Maan Kapoor (Ishaan Khatter) with an older woman, courtesan Saeeda bai (Tabu). In the backdrop is a nation in political and social churn.

The Wire caught up with Mira Nair on the eve of TIFF’s closing night screening of A Suitable Boy. Excerpts from the interview:

Filmmmaker Mira Nair. Photo: Courtesy of the Toronto International Film Festival

A Suitable Boy as the closing film at TIFF – a homecoming of sorts for you?

It will be on all big screens all six hours which I am delighted about, because I have thought of A Suitable Boy as long form cinema, not just for television. September 20 will be the closing night in a drive-in – 200 cars, people in them, and a big screen. [While] I am in my little cocoon here in New York. I am sadly not there.

Does that bother you?

It’s not bothering [me]. You [have] to accept it. But it’s really sad. Film festivals are the only time when directors meet other directors, actors and just friends. That human connect I miss so much. All of us do, all over the world. Toronto is especially lively with films from everywhere.

And you have been consistently associated with TIFF, with almost all your films playing there. 

Pretty much. It was actually a fateful day when Monsoon Wedding premiered for the press [at TIFF] right after winning the Golden Lion the night before in Venice. We flew in there. It was showing there the next morning, which happened to be September 11, 2001. People came out of the screening dancing, [but] the world had changed.  The critics there associate me and Monsoon Wedding with that fateful morning, which changed the world in a sense.

 How much is A Suitable Boy itself a homecoming for you? How lived in does it feel to you?

Very lived in. I read the novel in 1993 soon after it came out. I read it twice. I didn’t want to leave my best friend at the end of it— it was that kind of a feeling. Vikram [Seth] had so extraordinarily captured that Nehruvian India [at] the moment we were trying to create [a] new country after freedom from the British. And yet we were so anglicised and spoke and dreamt in English.

He coupled all that with a very astute eye on the politics of that time. So prescient in some ways. But, besides that, the wit and the sensuality, the great depths and layers of friendship between the families – the Khans, the Mehras, the Chatterjees, the Kapoors.

It’s a world I do know, but I [have] also longed for. My parents married in 1951, the year of A Suitable Boy’s story. They travelled from Punjab to Orissa where he [Nair’s father] was an administrative officer [IAS officer], setting up the new capital of Bhubaneswar. That’s where I grew up, in those bungalows, with hardly any roads and a new airport, when I was eight years old. The idealism of that time has always attracted me.

The society that you are talking of – what hits home is a longing and a sense of nostalgia: what we were and where we have come.  Do you also see parallels with the situation now? 

I only came back to A Suitable Boy. I haven’t been holding a torch for it for the last 25 years, hoping to make it. Not at all. I moved on to my own work. Only when I heard that it was being made perhaps [that] I said, anyone but a gora [White] to make it, man! I need to make it [laughs].

Even the story of Babri Masjid is in it. The stories in it, the prescience of Vikram’s vision – the seeds were planted then. But there was the great beauty of the syncretic culture where we come from. The same cloth [from which they are cut], Hindu and Muslim, whether it be language or poetry or music or ada. That was actually the biggest magnet for me – Saeeda bai, played by Tabu, the poems put to music by the great composer Kavita Seth, who also sings them; and the poems of Dagh, Mir and Ghalib, of course.

Also read: Of Men and Other Demons

For me this is the rasa, the reason why I just had to make it. And make it with such great artistes who [are] deeply imbued [with] what I am talking about in terms of that syncretic culture. Tabu was the first one cast in my head and fortunately she loved it.

It’s all about finding that spirit in who you choose and who you bring to the party, and I swear the greatest satisfaction of making A Suitable Boy was this great cornucopia of actors. And pretty much everyone said yes. And then finding Tanya [Maniktala] to play Lata, the feisty dew drop, was also a boon. I salute my casting directors every day, Dilip Shankar and Nandini Shrikent and Karan Mally. We cast for over 18 months, [from] all over India – 110 characters and they are all great.

Tanya Maniktala who plays “the feisty dew-drop” Lata in A Suitable Boy. Photo: Courtesy of the Tornoto International Film Festival

And, of course, I have old friends. Many of them started with me so they can’t say no to me. Even Vijay Raaz, who is now a big star, did two scenes for me, memorable scenes. Or Manoj Pahwa. These are  extraordinary actors who just came and lit up the screen. That was the real joy; to see Shahana Goswami completely sparkle without any inhibition and with great skill.

You have adapted many other literary works for the screen. What is it that made this fun or [conversely] a nightmare?  

I came to it when it had already been adapted by Andrew Davies, who is a master distiller of great big tomes like War and Peace, Le Miserables. He has craftsmanship on his side in such a fantastic way and also a great sense of humour and also the television structure of the cliffhanger, and there are so many in our book. It was there but it had to be culled out.

At that time, it was eight hours [duration] and, frankly, the financing for an eight-hour, all-Asian drama in the Western world is always going to be challenging. I used to joke and say, it’s ‘The Crown in brown;, as magnificent, with as much sweep as [that] series, but the budget was some 10% of it. I don’t have the statistics, but it is always the case. You don’t have what you need when you are not a gora [White]. I am used to it and I always show it. I always give it to them: “Don’t see my struggle baby. But this is as good as anything out there”. My little Punjabiyat!

Having said that, we had to distil it further into six episodes of six hours. At that point I was deeply involved and basically added two things. One was to make the political interweave with the personal, [to say]  that it would not just be a marriage story – who will she marry,  who is the boy? It’s not only that. But it is much more interwoven with the politics of then, which is [also] the politics of now. That balance is what I tried to bring back in.

Also read: Among Netflix’s Newest Lineup of 17 Stories, Mira Nair’s Adaptation of ‘A Suitable Boy’

Also, in the process, bringing back certain characters that had not been given the time of day. Like Mrs Mahesh Kapoor, played by the most extraordinary actor, Geeta Agarwal, who is the unspoken cornerstone, the foundation of this political family and is really the glue that holds this family together. Restoring some weight to some characters. And sadly, as is often the case, killing some characters, [by] just not having them.

Secondly, I insisted on the language. It’s a beautiful novel in English that people spoke at that time. [But] if Saeeda bai would sing in Urdu, then why wouldn’t she talk in Urdu? Or the villagers. That was the discussion at every level. Vikram, thankfully, supported me, thanked me for “translating it back”, as he put it. For BBC it was quite radical to have their first big drama show in Urdu, Awadhi and Hindustani, mixed with English. But I could do this much and not more. I tried to juice it and do it as skilfully as I could and as naturally to the character as possible.

There were other things. Music is my oxygen and it’s a huge part of everything that weaves these worlds together.

Even the incidental music ties in with the larger narrative very well. 

This is a very different style for the BBC: “Is it a Bollywood thing? What are these musical interludes? Can’t we just have some kind of a singing over there?” I would say, this is not Bollywood style; this is what I do, and this is why I am doing this. Basically, it was a vocabulary that was not familiar to them. But I must say they came around and they love it for what it is.

And then I worked directly and closely with Vikram to get the balance and the nuance and the love and the complications, but most of all the friendship – the depth of it – correct between the Hindu and the Muslim characters. I did not want to fall into any traps of today. I wanted to make sure that we really got the rasa right, got what I wanted to say, which is syncretism. The structure of it was given to me and I carefully worked within.

The society as seen in A Suitable Boy is syncretic, but also at a point in time when the threads are beginning to unravel. Is there a sense of regret on how far we have come as a culture, country, society?  

Regret is like giving in to defeat. I am confronted by it – we all are – in such a direct, transparent fashion, whether it be renaming things, or pretending things just didn’t exist and, of course, the more targeted attacks we see every day. We cannot be defeated [by] this. We have to persevere, and we have to remember who we actually are. It’s within ourselves.

One episode at a time on BBC. All at a go at a six-hour screening at TIFF. All the episodes dropping on Netflix where most viewers are going to binge watch it. As its maker how would you ideally want it to be seen?

Big screen at once would be great, but the big screen can be at home. Many people have that. I just want to take you on this journey. It’s so bizarre. It opened [in the UK], and I am here in New York. And then I got a lot of texts [messages]. But I did not have the experience of seeing it [myself]. And it’s strange for me, the experience of television, because it is so disembodied [for] the filmmaker in me. I want to feel the audience. [Also], because of COVID-19, in the editing process we didn’t have people come in, we didn’t have previews, we didn’t have test screenings. Kuchh nahin (nothing). A few friends, but digitally.

But there was something interesting in the BBC method of every Sunday, one hour. The anticipation, I found, grew. That was attractive.

On the other side, the [aspect of] piracy. [The series] obviously proliferated in pretty much the whole world, made me concerned, kaisi haalat mein dekh rahe hain log (what is the quality of the print that people are watching?). This is really a sensual show. It’s a kind of visual delight. Also, it’s quite sweeping and needs to be given that much space. Don’t watch it on iPhone. But a lot of people do that and that’s tough on me!

Namrata Joshi is an independent writer and well-known film critic. She is the author of Reel India: Cinema off the Beaten Track (Hachette, 2019).