A Suitable Boy Movie Review: Lost in translation
The film's major problem is the affected, anglicised setting of the universe
To adopt a novel to the screen is no easy task. It’s more so when the novel is one of the longest in English literature, spanning more than 1,400 pages. Set in 1950, the era of the new India, director Mira Nair attempts to distill the sprawling universe that is A Suitable Boy into a six-episode mini-series for the BBC. The adaptation is BBC’s first series with no major white characters (Mira Nair once remarked it was The Crown in brown.) But it’s also the most expensive BBC series yet. This opulence translates to the screen: the aesthetics brim with the beauty of the rich… but where is the soul?
A Suitable Boy is set in an India that has just discovered freedom. It is a period of metamorphosis, a coming of age for the nation. There is the hangover of the colonial past, co-existing with the desire to exercise newly discovered democratic rights. This tumult is to be captured with the narrative arcs of Lata (the charming Tanya Maniktala), who is studying English literature and is being pressured by her mother to get married. On the other hand, there is Maan (Ishaan Khatter), the reckless son of a politician who falls in love with the courtesan Saeeda Bai (Tabu). But the series rarely delves into the cultural depths the story scape provides, settling to skate through the surface.
Director: Mira Nair
Cast: Tabu, Ishaan Khatter, Tanya Maniktala, Mahira Kakkar, Danesh Razvi, Namit Das, Ram Kapoor
Streaming on: Netflix
The major problem is the affected, anglicised setting of the universe. Most of the characters speak English. One might argue that some of the major characters belong to the uber elite, and hence English suits them better. But when almost every character in the series uses English like it were their first language, it makes the world you know so foreign (The novel has been adapted to the screen by Andrew Davies). The anglicisation goes beyond the language. Lata and her romantic interest Kabir (Danesh Razvi) kiss in public, with no attempt to be clandestine. A similar situation repeats later with Amit (Mikhail Sen), on a busy road. You see people walking about in the background, seemingly uninterested in the couple. I can’t imagine it being the case in reality, where at least the characters themselves would have had certain inhibitions. As the series progresses, it exudes so much of the West that it feels like you are watching a Downton Abbey set in India.
The performances add charm to this largely languid series. Ishaan Khatter shines as the reckless angry, young ‘Maan’ and I quite liked Tanya Maniktala who balances Lata’s confusion and confidence with lovely control. It is also fascinating to see the equation between Maan and Firoz—their body language so refreshingly free, laced with innocent homosexual undertones. And then, there’s Tabu, who plays the older concubine Saeeda Bai. Her relationship with Maan is the most intriguing of the lot. It isn’t explored with great detail here, but to depict an older woman’s sensuality and desire with respect and dignity is itself a rarity in Indian cinema. This is a space the gorgeous Tabu truly excels in, even if this isn’t necessarily her best performance.
Film adaptations, by and large, don’t offer the experience books give, as they streamline the vision for the viewer. On the other hand, words on a page, even with detailed descriptions, leave room for the reader’s imagination. Books also offer moments of introspection which allow you to process and understand emotional dynamics. Mira Nair’s adaptation, however, feels rushed, with the narrative moving forward without embellishing emotional arcs. There’s a moment between Lata and her mother after she has chosen a man she wants to marry. The mother who has so far refused to accept her daughter’s choices says, “You need to choose for yourself.” It’s a line that feels unintentionally funny. As we are not privy to moments of deep reflection, some of the ‘twists’ seem to come out of nowhere, leaving us more bemused than shocked. In this adaptation of A Suitable Boy, the intent feels lost in translation.