A POET BEFORE he became a novelist, Vikram Seth prefaced “A Suitable Boy” with an apology, in verse, to the reader for its sheer bulk: “Buy me before good sense insists/You’ll strain your purse and sprain your wrists”. On its British publication in 1993, the 1,350 pages of Mr Seth’s family saga, set in the newly independent India of 1951, at first aroused gawping curiosity. Then readers got to know and love the hulking beast. Mr Seth’s immersive yarn of four intertwined clans tugged by the competing claims of passion and kinship, ambition and tradition, was ignored by the Booker prize judges. It soon won other awards and, more importantly, a secure place in the affections of a worldwide audience.
So readers will be intrigued by the six-part television adaptation which has just begun to air on BBC One in Britain (Netflix has the global streaming rights). Directed by Mira Nair, whose previous films include “Monsoon Wedding”, “The Namesake” and “Salaam Bombay!”, and scripted by Andrew Davies, the go-to guy for classic adaptations, the series boasts an (almost) all-Indian cast of 110. Art-directed by Sonal Sawant and Prasad Surve, sumptuously shot by cinematographer Declan Quinn, “A Suitable Boy” makes use of moodily atmospheric locations in India, Lucknow prominent among them. The show’s faded visual elegance suits the condition of Mr Seth’s professional, and patrician, classes as they negotiate a post-Raj climate of political freedom and social reform in the fictional city of Brahmpur by the Ganges.
The BBC has made much of the series’ Indian credentials. It was Mr Seth himself who stipulated that Mr Davies, the Welsh-born veteran of costume-drama triumphs from “Pride and Prejudice” to “War and Peace” and “Les Misérables”, should write the screenplay. The corporation has previously compressed Mr Seth’s epic into an award-winning broadcast event. A radio dramatisation in 2002, recorded with a local cast in Pune and Mumbai, proved that Mr Seth’s elephant could indeed fit inside a modest box.
Ms Nair and Mr Davies have matched that feat of sorcery, although over six hours rather than five. Crucially, they also give their version a sense of space and flux to balance the domestic intimacies of its marriage plot. From communal riots and political fights over the feudal privileges of zamindar landowners to the flashy modernity of middle-class Calcutta, the viewer glimpses a changing India.
The literature student, Lata (played with a sort of demure defiance by Tanya Maniktala, in only her second screen role), at first falls for a dashing student cricketer, Kabir Durrani. But he’s a Muslim, and so beyond the pale for many Hindu families of the 1950s, even such an educated one. The Partition of 1947, which led to the creation of Pakistan as a Muslim-majority state amid widespread bloodshed, casts a shadow over the series from its opening titles onwards. “So many Muslims have gone away” from Brahmpur, the viewer hears, while Hindu nationalists inflame tensions with a plan to build a temple beside an ancient mosque. Ms Nair and Mr Davies never shortchange viewers beguiled by the Jane Austen-esque charm and ruthlessness of the hunt for a matrimonial jackpot (“First-class results don’t help with men,” Mrs Mehra warns the high-achieving Lata). However, at intervals they gently shift attention towards the wider historical landscape of Mr Seth’s novel.
Mr Davies does away with its sprawling subplots. As a counterweight to Lata’s story, he places his script’s second focus on a wayward politician’s son, Maan Kapoor (played by rising actor Ishaan Khatter). Passion, in Mr Seth’s vision, will forever battle reason and good sense, with glorious but heartbreaking outcomes. Maan becomes obsessed with a courtesan, Saeeda Bai (a show-stealing performance by the Indian movie star Tabu). An accomplished singer of love poetry as well as a scandalous “lady of repute”, Saeeda embodies the courtly culture of the Mughals—sensual, sophisticated, Islamic with a Sufi tinge—which this modernising India now finds a decadent throwback. For Saeeda, the classical Urdu of her songs is “the language of my soul”. She insists her young lover learns it, and Ms Nair makes sure that the viewer hears that Urdu in addition to Hindustani, the historic lingua franca of northern India, and English.
When Lata parts from the unsuitable (and half-hearted) Kabir, she stays with relatives in Calcutta, meets the worldly poet Amit Chatterji and enters the next phase of her romantic education. In the city, a comic interlude features the English wife of a company boss coping with a plate of hilsa, a much-loved Bengali fish. Hilsa are notoriously hard to bone cleanly; Ms Nair and Mr Davies too have had to prove their prowess as virtuoso filleters. Fans of the novel may miss the excised stories and characters; the flavour, though, remains authentic, and the presentation stylish. “A Suitable Boy” passes every test for a televisual meal. It should also prompt newcomers to discover the banquet that awaits them in Mr Seth’s wrist-spraining original.
“A Suitable Boy” is being broadcast in Britain on the BBC now
By The Economist https://www.economist.com/prospero/2020/07/28/a-concise-brilliant-adaptation-of-a-suitable-boy