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Monday, December 11, 2023

A Suitable Boy Review: A Classic Tale Told Elegantly & Engagingly

A Suitable Boy, BBC One’s highly anticipated series has finally completed its run on Television here in the UK.

The 6-part show is set during the post-Independent India in 1950s India, based on the classic novel of the same name by Vikram Seth. It chronicles a tale of life and love.

Nineteen-year-old university student Lata (Tanya Maniktala) seems to have her life already planned due to old traditions and an overbearing mother who wants to find her a suitable husband.

Torn between romance and responsibility and inspired by rebellious writers and daring new ideas, Lata is determined to decide her own future in a newly independent India.

She seeks to boldly break free of its past. Connected to Lata through their siblings’ marriage, wayward Maan (Ishaan Khatter) wants every drop of excitement from life.

However, when he becomes infatuated with the glamorous courtesan Saaeda Bai (Tabu), the consequences could be catastrophic.

Kudos to Mira Nair and Shimit Amin (director of Chak De! India) for attempting to customise a 1,000+ page novel into a series. I’ve not read the book, but it sure is not an easy task to do.

Initially, the series begins on quite a slow-pace, but as it progresses, the momentum picks up. Slowly but surely, we become engaged and invested.

Going by the fact that this is an adaptation of Seth’s novel, the series delves into several themes, however, the major concept is of how India still reels over the British Raj’s influence.

The ruling which abolishes the Zamindari system, feudal princes/landlords and academic affairs, highlights how a foreign conquering has left an enriched country, divided.

Through characters like Arun (Vivek Gomber), Lata’s older brother and his wife Meenakshi (Shahana Goswami), we get an insight into how deep-rooted the post-colonial hangover is.

Scenes, where Arun scoffs at the essence of being an ordinary Indian and his pompous talks about England, is a stark reminder of how we as Indians are still suffering from the Britisher rulings.

Of course, there is also that constant portrayal of the conflict between the Hindu-Muslim communities.

Quite frankly, seeing such representations got exhausting as it keeps pressing on a sensitive nerve that has been showcased repeatedly in cinema.

But thankfully, this has just been skirted over quickly and full attention is not given to this theme.

Recently, people were shocked by the concept of arranged marriages (I still don’t know why) in Netflix’s Indian Matchmaking.

What the series does, though, is reiterate the problematic ideologies around arranged marriages, rather than the practise itself.

Through characters like Lata, who rebels against the conventions but yet sticks to her decisions and choices, is empowering (in a subtle way).

Nair is a master at exhibiting complex relationships en masse. Yet again, she steadily unleashes hidden secrets and manages the ensemble cast flawlessly.

At times, the matrimonial coating of composite human alliances made me nostalgic of Monsoon Wedding.

Amin is also credited for helming the fourth episode and he does a remarkable job too. This is quite a unique project for him to do and he leaves an impact.

Whilst it is difficult to customise a large book into six-episodes, a few more would’ve been sufficient to cover more underlying strands/concepts.

Given that there is apparently a hinted homosexual relationship between Maan and Nawaab Firoz (Shubham Saraf), I would’ve liked to see this theme explored more and how both characters would’ve dealt with their emotions in that era.

The directorial efforts are enriched by visual appeal. From the bright costumes, crips cinematography and period set design which try to encapsulate a view of a newly independent India.

There is a nuanced creation of India which is not swayed by unnecessary and futile exuberance. It is elegantly decorated.

It’s also delightful to hear Kavita Seth’s ghazals (which is performed by Saeeda Bai). Her deep, velvety voice adds an element of ‘Tehzeeb’. Anoushka Shankar’s background score is delightful too.

With projects like this, there is always the risk of it made with the ‘non-South-Asian viewers’ in mind. Thankfully, this is not the case.

If anything, the series deserves to be celebrated as it unites some outstanding actors from Indian cinema.

Tanya Maniktala leaves a lasting impression as Lata. Since this is her second series, she presents the character gracefully and beautifully. Maniktala is an artist to look out for!

Namit Das brings poise and sense of calm to Haresh Khanna’s character. It’s the subtleties which really bring the character to life.

Danesh Razvi as Kabir Durrani and Mikhail Sen as Amit Chatterji are deliciously charming as Lata’s ‘suitors’. They have a solid presence on screen and display confidence.

Ishaan Khatter does justice to Maan’s character. It’s his third acting appearance and he only gets better. His presence and command (as an actor) are fantastic qualities.

Interesting how Khatter plays naïve and frivolous boys who get caught up in severe circumstances which entail tragedies ahead.

Tabu presents Saeeda Bai with such finesse, ardour and her chemistry with Ishaan is sizzling and refined.

The paternal characters played by Mahira Kakkar (as Lata’s mother – Rupa) and Ram Kapoor (as Maan’s father – Mahesh Kapoor and a Congress politician), are equally formidable talents.

Vivek Gomber and Shahana Goswami are excellent as the English-influenced brother and sister-in-law of Lata. They both are such wonderful actors and their diction is very much on point.

It is also mesmerising to see other phenomenal talents like Rasika Dugal, Vijay Raaz, Vijay Varma, Ranvir Shorey, Vivaan Shah, Manoj Pahwa, Vinay Pathak and Randeep Hooda essay significant roles.

On the whole, Mira and Shimit share such a masterful yet realistic vision of filmmaking and their synergy translates to an overall engaging watch.

Every episode leaves us yearning for the following week. plus the treatment is visually impressive and will appeal to a wide diaspora audience.

As such, half a star is extra for the performances and the initiative of assembling such incredible talents.

Whilst the societal representations are questionable and debatable, the series created a short custom in Britain to sit on their couch on Sunday at 9 pm, which has now sadly ended.

⭐⭐⭐⭐ (4/5 stars)

Anuj Radia
Journalist and film enthusiast.

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