It takes a while to warm up to Mira Nair’s multi-character adaptation of Vikram Seth’s 1993 novel A Suitable Boy.
You start off wondering, why is Lata Mehra such a 1000-watt smiley? It’s almost like getting the sun in your eyes when she flashes that brilliant smile of hers practically non-stop. Until you get so used to it that you begin to find everything endearing about Lata.
Why is her mother Rupa Mehra so dramatic that she seems to be doing theatre? By the time you share all the passions of the mother and daughter as Lata juggles with three suitors, you’re so comfortably settled that you cheer and tear at the ongoing drama.
In contrast, you straightaway feel at home with Revenue Minister Mahesh Kapoor, his wife and his son Maan for just being so effortless as a family that has its swings with destiny. That feeling of normalcy also comes from Nawab Sahib and his son Firoz, close friends of the Kapoors.
But Mira’s exaggerated characters continue to make cursory interruptions. Like Lata’s foreboding grandfather played by Kulbhushan Kharbanda and his skittish young wife who come off as cartoons and annoyingly dispensable ones at that.
Disturbingly, in today’s times when a one-sided narrative is no longer accepted blindly, there are cringe moments in Nair’s re-creation of an India freshly bruised after Independence. Writer Andrew Davies starts off with Mahesh Kapoor commiserating with Nawab Sahib over a temple coming up near a mosque as a deliberate act of provocation. Nair keeps at it, sprinkling the ‘Hindus provoking Muslims’ thought unrelentingly. A Muharram-Ram Leela clash has the Hindu initiating the first push, in communal riots Hindus attack Firoz. There’s not even an attempt to keep the see-saw balanced. There are jokes about ‘erection of a lingam’ at the temple and a dialogue during a visit to a Baba that you can get blessings even from stones and potatoes which are clear digs at one religion. Pujas and festivals are positioned for smiles while offering namaaz on a train or at a kotha are serene. The Muslim lover’s family is not hung up on religion, it’s Lata’s family that has issues. The Raja is obnoxious, the Nawab is gracious. Getting cosy with courtesan Saeeda Bai necessitates embracing her culture too as young Maan Kapoor is told, “Urdu is the language of great poets, how can you not know it?” It’s such a lop-sided presentation of two religions with distinct cultures that by the time Nair gets to the part where Maan knifes friend Firoz leading to an expected chill in the friendship between Kapoor and Nawab, you’re resigned to the narrative. Therefore, the generosity of Nawab and golden-hearted courtesan Saeeda Bai in providing the healing balm at the end come as no surprise. That’s how Nair, Davies and Seth would like to tell the tale of post-Partition India.
While her politics is too slanted for comfort, Nair story-telling skills come to the rescue when she’s in Monsoon Wedding mode. Her multi-layered family tales are the delightful sequences that make the six-episode adaptation a breezy watch. The hunt for the suitable boy for Lata and drifter Maan’s self-destructive infatuation with older courtesan Saeeda Bai are plots that are a joy ride. It’s a relatable, quick-watch human drama when Nair tosses around dozens of family members who range from immature and impulsive to concerned and caring with a few dabs of pompousness.
Nair is professionally polished in getting a bunch of performances from a galaxy of actors. Ishaan Khatter as wayward Maan stays endearing irrespective of how much he errs. Ram Kapoor and Geeta Agarwal Sharma make believable parents. Ultimately, Mahira Kakkar and Tanya Maniktala also win you over as mother and daughter. Tabu who’s one note false at the beginning of the romance with Maan settles down like a pro to give Saeeda Bai substance. Rasika Duggal as Lata’s sister is perfect from the word go. Aamir Bashir as the polished Nawab, Manoj Pahwa as the disgraceful Raja, Shahana Goswami as flirty sister-in-law Meenakshi, Ranveer Shorey as Nawab’s lackey Waris, Vijay Varma as Urdu teacher Rasheed, Vijay Raaz as his father, Vinay Pathak as Home Minister Agarwal, Vivaan Shah as Lata’s younger brother Varun and Randeep Hooda as Billy Irani who’s around only for a romp on the bed with Meenakshi, make an exhaustive list of performers who ace their acts.
With the politics, festivities and upper crust society of fictional UP-type towns mixed with the club culture, fun and snootiness of Calcutta with Christmas thrown in, A Suitable Boy is exotic India packaged for export.