When “A Suitable Boy” was published in 1993, the 1,349-page tome about post-Independence India, written by Vikram Seth, became one of the longest English-language novels in print. Superlative reviews around the world ensured its place in the door-stopping canon of modern literary classics.
For many devoted readers, the book, set in the 1950s and featuring multiple interreligious friendships and relationships, has endured because of its myriad relatable family dramas and also for being a kind of guide to what it means to be a secular, independent citizen.
Now, after several stalled attempts, the beloved novel has been adapted into a lavish new six-part series, directed by the Oscar-nominated filmmaker Mira Nair (“Salaam Bombay!,” “Monsoon Wedding”). When it debuted on BBC One in July, it was lauded in Britain as the network’s first prime-time drama filmed on location in India with an almost entirely Indian cast. In India, the reaction was more complicated: Members of the ruling Hindu nationalist party have called for a boycott over its depictions of interfaith romance, and the police opened an investigation into Netflix, which distributes the show there.
In the United States, where “A Suitable Boy” debuted Monday on the streaming service Acorn TV, the series arrives a bit more quietly, but boycott-free.
Given the show’s epic story and production, Nair, who grew up in India but is based in New York, has jokingly described it as “‘The Crown’ in Brown.” But beyond its scale and prestige, the project clearly carries deep personal and political meaning for her.
“The main reason I wanted to do it was to make a mirror to the world that we were farther and farther away from,” Nair said in a recent video call from her home.
“The ’50s has always been a real pull for me — 1951 was the year my parents got married,” she added. “It was a secular time and a time of real idealism, taking from the English what we had known, but making it our own.”
The novel “A Suitable Boy” emerged as Hindu nationalist politics began to take center stage in India following violent clashes over the destruction, in 1992, of a 16th-century mosque in Ayodhya. Seth set the novel in the aftermath of the violent 1947 division of India by the British along religious lines, which created Pakistan. But his approach was to pen a dramatic comedy of manners, spinning a prickly mother’s attempts at Indian matchmaking into a sprawling and heartfelt saga of four upper-class families, star-crossed lovers, religious coexistence and post-Partition politics. It became the definitive novelization of India’s founding years.
After several failed attempts to have the book adapted, Seth personally chose the Welsh screenwriter Andrew Davies for the job, fresh off a successful 2016 BBC adaptation of another historical epic, Tolstoy’s “War and Peace.” As Seth continued to work on his long-gestating sequel to the novel, he entrusted his sister, Aradhana Seth, to ensure the integrity of the adaptation. (She is credited as both a producer and an executive producer.) The BBC commissioned the series in 2017; Nair, who had expressed interest from the beginning, was brought on the next year.
Humorous comparisons aside, the “Suitable” adaptation, though similar in both soapiness and sweep to “The Crown,” had nothing like the budget devoted to the House of Windsor drama, one of the most expensive shows on TV. In order to afford the locations and period detail both Nair and Vikram Seth wanted, the production was trimmed from eight episodes to six and condensed the book’s serpentine narrative.
“Every time you see something that’s being adapted, you have to go in with fresh eyes and leave the book outside the viewing room,” Aradhana Seth said.
Rather than spread the attention among the novel’s many central characters, the TV version focuses primarily on two young protagonists, Lata and Maan (Tanya Maniktala and Ishaan Khatter), who are coming into adulthood as India prepares for its first post-independence elections, held in 1952. While Maan aids in his father’s election campaign in the countryside, opening his eyes to the wider politics of caste and religion, Lata learns what it means to find her own way despite her mother’s comedic insistence on finding her a suitable Hindu boy.
“There is so much energy to Lata,” Maniktala said. “She’s fresh out of her university; she’s yet to explore the world. She lives in a bubble where, according to her, everything will be great.”
Filming was completed in India last December and Nair took a break in March from editing the show in London with a visit home to New York. Then international borders closed because of the coronavirus. In the video interview, Nair demonstrated how she toggled between multiple screens to edit with her team across the world. Even the music was scored remotely, with a full orchestra in Budapest and her composers, Alex Heffes and the sitarist Anoushka Shankar, in Los Angeles and London.
When the show premiered in Britain, it was widely praised in the mainstream press as a milestone in representation on the BBC. South Asian critics were less kind, focusing on the mannered English dialogue and overly enunciated accents, with particular focus on why an 84-year-old Welsh writer had adapted this iconic story about the birth of modern India and a young woman’s romantic awakening.
As social media criticism built, Vikram Seth broke his public silence to defend his choice of Davies, saying “race should have nothing to do with it” in The Telegraph.
“It’s a balance between getting someone very, very Indian to write it or someone very, very experienced at adapting long books,” Davies explained from his home in the British Midlands. (His other TV adaptations include “Bleak House” and “Pride and Prejudice.”) “I feel a little prickly and needing to defend my territory and not have it taken away from me as a writer. I would claim the right to put myself in the mind of people who are different from me.”
Nair, who was raised in a secular Hindu family, pushed to return more of the novel’s political themes back into the screenplay.
“Politics was front and center for me, and that was one of the biggest things that I could do was to re-shift the balance of the story,” she said. “Less from ‘will she or won’t she marry’ — ‘Pride and Prejudice’ and Mrs. Bennet, that trope — to really making Lata feel like the making of India.”
Nair also set out to integrate as much spoken Hindi and Urdu into the screenplay as allowable within the strictures of BBC broadcasting. Asked about balancing the twin demands of her unapologetic brown gaze and prestige British television, she laughed. “It was a charming tussle, can I say.”
It’s a familiar challenge for Nair. A seasoned veteran of the sometimes bruising battles for more truthful and artful representations of South Asians on Western screens, she has made several acclaimed films about India and its diaspora.
“She tends to pick topics that reflect ongoing social issues grounded in everyday realities,” said Amardeep Singh, a professor of English at Lehigh University, in Pennsylvania, who wrote the book “The Films of Mira Nair: Diaspora Vérité.” “With her attempt to take on the changes occurring in modern India, ‘A Suitable Boy’ fits very nicely into an arc that includes films like ‘Monsoon Wedding’ and ‘Salaam Bombay!’.”
The series was filmed on location amid the “grandeur and the decay” of real cities, as Nair described it, where production designers labored to hide the electrified chaos of modern life to achieve the show’s layered, midcentury Indian minimalism. An appropriated mansion in Lucknow, in northern India, was refashioned into the salon of a Muslim singer and courtesan named Saeeda Bai. Her home is the luminescent force at the center of Nair’s adaptation, the embodiment of an aristocratic Islamic court culture and literary sensuality that was in decline by the time the story begins.
Saeeda is played by one of India’s most acclaimed actors, Tabu, who made her international debut in Nair’s 2007 adaptation of the Jhumpa Lahiri novel “The Namesake.” Her character’s poetry, singing and beauty seduces the younger Maan, the dashing son of an influential Hindu politician.
“Mira is very particular about how her women are shown onscreen,” Tabu said. “Saeeda Bai is not integrated into the normal society of the time, and there’s almost this ethereal, untouchable quality of this world.”
Khatter, who plays Maan, noted that in a country as diverse and sometimes divided as India, stories of interfaith love remain a powerful theme.
“The fact that we choose to tell these stories time and again, it is that relevant to us,” Khatter said. “I myself am the son of an interreligious marriage, and it’s very much who we are.”
A few days after the filming ended last December, cities erupted in protests amid the Hindu nationalist government’s passage of a law that explicitly excludes Muslim migrants from a clear path to Indian citizenship. Sadaf Jafar, who plays Saeeda’s servant, Bibbo, participated in the protests; during a brutal police crackdown, she was arrested and put in jail, where she said she was beaten by the police.
Against the advice of friends, Nair started a public campaign on Jafar’s behalf until the actor was released nearly three weeks later. Looking back on the difficult decision to speak out in an increasingly hostile political climate for artists, Nair quoted the revolutionary Pakistani poet Faiz Ahmed Faiz: “Speak, for your lips are still free.”
The optimistic multiculturalism reflected in “A Suitable Boy” may seem in many ways like a fading relic of both literary and political history. But Maniktala, who plays Lata, said she found Vikram Seth’s story of hopeful beginnings — and kindness — both resonant and relevant.
Maniktala teared up over the phone as she reflected on her own grandfather’s trauma as a Hindu refugee forced by the 1947 partition to flee to India from what is today Pakistan. “I realize how important pain is, and the lessons” to be found in that, she said.
“The kind of empathy people had — I feel the humanity aspect has been on the decline,” she continued. “We have to remember where we came from. We can never forget.”