CHENNAI: One of the biggest traps when adapting a literary novel to screen is the director’s temptation to include just about everything in the text. Mira Nair’s “A Suitable Boy,” based on Vikram Seth’s 1993 1300-page magnum opus, falls precisely into this trap.
Produced by BBC Studios and now streaming on Netflix, the six-episode miniseries has a canvas too big for comfort, and Nair does not seem to be quite in command. Too many characters, some merely flitting in and out of frame, seem like a jigsaw puzzle, and it is difficult to understand how each one is related to one another. What is even more annoying is that they converse in English, perhaps a production ploy to attract a Western audience.
Set in the fictional university town of Brahmpur in 1951, four years after the British left the partitioned subcontinent, the series tries exploring the sense of freedom emerging at the political, social and personal levels. Even as new equations are forming among parties professing different ideologies, and the youth are experimenting with newer notions of romantic love, writer Andrew Davies’ core plot to place the life of 19-year-old Lata (Tanya Maniktala) in the context of a bewildering choice of suitors loses its way in the melange of men and women.
Her sweetly domineering mother insists that she, and she alone, must have the right to choose a suitable groom, but Lata falls in and out of love with three men, each affair accentuating her confusion. There is Kabir Durrani (Danesh Razvi), a handsome history undergrad and budding cricketer who Lata is passionately fond of. Poet and British-educated Amit Chatterji (Mikhail Sen) and disciplined, self-made shoemaker Haresh Khanna (Namit Das) also compete for her affections in a story which conveys the dilemma of a girl fighting to free herself from societal shackles. But Nair goes overboard here. Scenes of Lata kissing Kabir in a public place in the extremely conservative 1950s India appear like the director’s desperate attempt to prove a point. I am sure she could have taken the liberty to digress from the novel.
“A Suitable Boy” has other tracks, too. A respected politician’s son, Maan Kapoor (Ishaan Khatter), who is infatuated with an older courtesan, Saeeda Bai Firozabadi (Tabu), plays a role in the series. Lata’s arrogant brother and sister Savita (Rasika Dugal) are part of the motley group. It is her marriage that kicks off the series mirroring the political-religious animosities of a new nation and the personal battles of the youth.
Nair’s debut into television (though not her first in literary adaptations) meticulously details the period, with Stephanie Carroll leading production design and Arjun Bhasin dressing up the characters. The street scenes in what was then called Calcutta appear wonderfully authentic, replete with its quaint trams and hand-pulled rickshaws. Refreshing performances — particularly Maniktala’s — pep up the visual appeal. Yet, “A Suitable Boy” is certainly not in the same league as Nair’s 2001 Venice Golden Lion winner “Monsoon Wedding.”