With such a great star-cast that featured the likes of Tabu, Ram Kapoor, Ishaan Khatter, Namit Das, Vijay Varma, Vinay Pathak, and more, A Suitable Boy was a much-awaited BBC production that was finally available to stream on Netflix yesterday. This adaptation of Vikram Seth’s novel of the same name was highly anticipated, but the final product is quite disappointing.
A Suitable Boy is at its best when it focuses on a few characters. There is a sensitivity to their portrayal then. But in the larger scheme of things, so much is lost when it tries to do everything and cannot do so through just six episodes. Tabu, Ram Kapoor deliver reliably powerful performances, and Mahira Kakkar as Mrs. Mehra gave a charming performance. Vijay Varma proves that he’s an actor to look out for but is vastly underused in this show, and Ishaan Khattar fits his role perfectly. So many actors have minimal parts throughout the show, with little to say and little to do.
The very first episode sets out to familiarise the audience with some of the many main characters in the story, especially lingering upon Lata and Maan. Vivek Gomber plays the colonial apologist brother of Lata, who despises the “sea of brown.” He pompously speaks English with a near-perfect British accent, and it makes sense for him to do this. For everyone else, the English dialogues just seem jarring. The few moments where the mothers slip into Hindi seems like the most comfortable scenes in the show.
When BBC decided to adapt the series, they did well in bringing Mira Nair to direct it but having Andrew Davies write the screenplay felt like a misguided choice. He is famous for his adaptations of other British period drama classics like Pride and Prejudice and Vanity Fair. And I think the problem lay in this very fact that A Suitable Boy seems to be written as a British period drama as well, not an Indian one. The dialogues seem forced and lacking human warmth, and English most definitely doesn’t seem like the right choice for most of the characters on the show and feels incredibly out of place in certain situations.
Another key issue with the series is the pacing. The first few episodes ramble along slowly, and then from the fourth episode, it seems like there is a rush to fit in everything in the remaining two episodes. It is quite slow and boring in the beginning and then suddenly, things just seem to keep happening continuously without a minute to breathe. I’m sure that adapting a thousand-page book into six episodes wouldn’t have been an easy task, but in what seemed as though the pressure to fit in as many plot points as possible, the series seemed all over the place with no consistency.
There are weddings, there is a Holi celebration, there are religious festival demonstrations, there are tensions between Hindus and Muslims egged on by a very nationalistic Hindu minister, there are reformation measures dealt down by the elite ruling class. It’s impossible not to draw parallels to today’s India, but in doing so, it feels even more problematic. There is a noticeable lack of nuance. Towards the end of the show, it is painfully annoying to listen to Lata complain to Maan, who is in jail, about her inability to choose a life partner when she actually does have an ample choice of suitors and quite a comfortable family to fall back on in any case. Her consistent worrying about her marriage amid political turmoil, when Maan is in jail because of a death that almost happens, felt so forced. If the show was trying to cleverly connect the domestic and the national, it fails thoroughly.
A Suitable Boy is nice to look at, it has beautiful people and some beautiful sarees. But it is utterly unremarkable and for a show about India, quite unrecognisable to most Indians in the country today.
Now streaming on Netflix.