We saw all six episodes of Exotic India packaged by you for the West. Of course navigated by Vikram Seth, author of the book A Suitable Boy which you as director adapted for the screen.
When I first saw your heroine Lata Mehra, it was like I’d forgotten my Bvlgari glasses and the sun got into my eyes. Why did pretty Tanya Maniktala who played Lata keep flashing her dazzling smile instead of acting?
And her mother. Did you instruct her to go dramatic like she was doing theatre?
It took me a while to get used to the mother-daughter pair as Lata juggled with three suitors. Lucky girl, all of them dying to marry her and there’s her mother wringing her hands over Lata remaining an old maid. But just when I got used to them, in came grandfather Kulbhushan Kharbanda and a skittish young wife who were so exaggerated and so dispensable that it was annoying.
In contrast, it was a relief to watch the restrained dignity of Revenue Minister Mahesh Kapoor, his plump normal wife and his wayward son Maan. Although it’s the sub-continent’s biggest storytelling cliché, the Kapoor clan’s Hindu-Muslim camaraderie with Nawab Sahib and son Firoz also exuded the same dignity. Mercifully, they didn’t look like they were on a stage in Stratford-upon-Avon.
But Mira, you, your writer Andrew Davies and yes, Vikram Seth too, couldn’t stop playing narrow politics, could you? In the communally prickly period of 1951, your narrative was strewn with slanted references to the ‘Intolerant Hindu’. An obnoxious Raja, as opposed to the genteel Nawab, wants to build a Shiv mandir next to the mosque only to provoke and stoke communal passion. Digs are blithely taken at the ‘erection of a lingam’ and getting blessings from a stone or a mango. In a Ram Lila and Muharram clash, the Hindu throws the first punch. Only a Hindu mob is shown on a rampage. I could go on and on about the imbalance in your politics but being a balanced person, we’ll also talk about where you got it right.
Unlike your jaundiced eye, I saw the Monsoon Wedding director in her element when you moved to the delightful family tales of the Mehras and Kapoors. The hunt for a suitable boy for well-read Lata and young Maan’s implosive infatuation with older courtesan Saeeda Bai are plots that are a joy ride. It’s a quick-watch human drama when you toss around dozens of family members who range from immature and impulsive to concerned and caring with a few dabs of pompousness.
You also drew polished performances from your cast. Ishaan Khatter stayed an endearing Maan irrespective of how much he erred. Ram Kapoor and Geeta Sharma make wonderfully supportive parents. Ultimately, Mahira Kakkar and Tanya Maniktala also win you over as mother and daughter. Tabu who strikes a false note at the beginning of the romance settles down like a pro to give Saeeda Bai substance. Rasika Duggal, Aamir Bashir, Manoj Pahwa, Shahana Goswami, Ranveer Shorey, Vijay Varma, Vijay Raaz, Vinay Pathak, Vivaan Shah and Randeep Hooda, phew what a galaxy, ace their acts.
With the festivities, the literate society of North India, and the club culture and snootiness of Calcutta with Christmas thrown in, exotic India is ready for export.
Mira, you’re lucky for we’re giving A Suitable Boy a 3* rating.