Ishaan Khatter on A Suitable Boy: Rarely do you get a character with so many shades
Ishaan Khatter, Ram Kapoor, Vijay Verma, and Shubham Saraf discuss their characters and favourite scenes from A Suitable Boy
Just four films old, Ishaan Khatter is winning the globe. His debut feature, Beyond The Clouds (2017), was with legendary Iranian director Majid Majidi. Now, he appears in A Suitable Boy, Mira Nair's sumptuous, but mannered adaptation of Vikram Seth's novel. Streaming on Netflix, the six-part miniseries traces the interlinking destinies of four families in the wake of Independence. Lata (Tanya Maniktala) is our protagonist, her mother’s obsession to find her a suitable groom giving the show its title. Equally central is the journey of Maan Kapoor, Lata’s unbiddable, slaphappy brother-in-law.
The son of an influential political family, Maan is shown lurching through life until he falls hard for Saeeda Bai, an older courtesan played by Tabu. Their affair, not unlike Lata falling for a Muslim boy, unfurls over the tense backdrop of a politically-nascent India.
"This was the first time I was drawn more to a character than the larger picture," Ishaan says. "Maan is a kaleidoscopic figure; he goes in every direction that you can imagine. He is charismatic yet deeply flawed and unpredictable. Rarely do you get the opportunity to play a character with so many shades."
In one scene, Maan arrives late from Saeeda Bai’s place. His father, Revenue Minister Mahesh Kapoor (Ram Kapoor), begins by chastising his wayward son. Then he mellows, teasing him gently and letting him take money from the drawer. The scene succinctly captures the bittersweet dynamic between father and son. It also prepares us for a later outburst, when Maan returns home after disappearing for several weeks.
"A father-son relationship is never easy," Ram says. "It's never one-dimensional. It's a complicated relationship built on love as well as a lot of pressure and demand. I have a son who is much younger than Ishaan, but I can imagine something like this happening when he grows up."
While filming, Ishaan says he was playing the scene at a different pitch. Mira intervened and asked him to change up the tone. "She thought I was playing it a little seriously," Ishaan reveals. "Instead, she asked me to just charm him. You can see in Ram sir's performance that he wishes to reprimand his son but can't."
Another character of note is Maan's childhood best friend Feroz. As the show progresses, Feroz, the son of a rich Zamindar, falls in love with Saeeda's sister. This leads to a misunderstanding and a moment of shocking violence. Significant too is the latent erotic attraction between the two friends. In the opening sequence, Feroz brushes off a rose petal from Maan's suit. Later, they lie in bed together and discuss matters of the heart.
"We spent a lot of time working on the nuances of this relationship," shares actor Shubham Saraf, who essays Feroz. "It's a form of pure, selfless love that exists between two incredibly close friends. It can't really be defined in words."
Ishaan adds, "It's a delicately-balanced dynamic between these two. Mira wanted us to walk a thin line as performers to portray it correctly. Sometimes, the smallest of choices and interpretations would completely change the meaning of a scene."
A major criticism against the show has been the affected, high-flown English everyone speaks in. This isn't limited to the leads, but extends to minor characters in remote settings. To that end, some relief comes in the form of Vijay Verma, who plays the Urdu teacher accompanying Maan to his village. As they sit and chat outside a hut, Maan asks him if he shares his feelings for Saeeda Bai. "Tauba mera majal," Vijay retorts in chaste Urdu. "I dare not."
"It's an interesting moment for me because it's so contradictory to who I am," Vijay laughs. "I love Tabu, so it's the best acting you'll ever see." He recalls legendary actor Mehmood Ali's famous dictum. "Someone had asked Mehmood Sahab what acting was and he replied, 'Take a rose and pretend it smells awful'. That's the performance I have given you here."