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Mira Nair’s ‘A Suitable Boy’ is a visual feast set in post-colonial India
BY PROMA KHOSLADEC 30, 2020
Welcome to Thanks, I Love It, our series highlighting something onscreen we’re obsessed with this week.
A lot of books are becoming TV shows lately, but the 2020 adaptation of A Suitable Boy is nothing short of momentous. Based on Vikram Seth’s 1993 novel of the same name, BBC’s six-episode adaptation took years to bring to the screen with director Mira Nair and at the helm.
And the result is nothing short of mesmerizing.
A Suitable Boy makes its way to the U.S. on the heels of high praise in international markets, telling the story of Lata (Tanya Maniktala) as she and her family search for — you guessed it — a suitable boy for her to marry. It has been touted as one of BBC’s most expensive productions to date and the first-ever with an entirely South Asian cast (actual actors from India, not bad accents from across various ponds). But the show’s aura comes in large part from its stunning production and costume design.
“We’d just come out of a long time British rule in India,” co-executive producer Aradhana Seth tells Mashable in a phone interview. “So right after that, everyone thought that that was a thing to follow, especially the Chatterjee family and part of the Mehras, and that was the debate.”
A Suitable Boy is set in 1951, four years after the British left India — but the influence of colonialism lingers strongly over the Mehra family in the fictitious town of Brahmpur. Filming took place in Lucknow, Kanpur, and Kolkata to create the look of postcolonial North India with distinct Islamic influences. That was the culture, the tehzeeb of the time, Seth says.
“Do films inform our times or do the times inform film? I think it’s both ways.”
She points to a scene in episode 2 when Arun Chatterjee (Vivek Gomber), who loves to go on about the glory of England, is asked when he was last in London. He falters, because he hasn’t actually been — but he’s been “living off the idea of London.” He later mocks his brother for wearing Indian formalwear instead of Western attire, even though the women around them all wear traditional Indian saris.
“I think there are 900 looks for the principal cast,” Seth says. “All those saris are very, very well-chosen — blouse, shapes — I think that there hasn’t ever been a show in India or in the West or anywhere that has done so much justice to…handloom and silk. We were using natural materials because that was the main thing at the time.”
“The thing that’s beautiful, I think, in Suitable Boy, is that everybody’s wearing those clothes in a kind of very everyday casual manner,” Seth adds. “So they wear it to tango, and they also wear it to the club, and they also wear it in college.”
At her college, the fictitious Brahmpur University, Lata meets Kabir (Danesh Razvi), the first of three suitors who vie for her hand in A Suitable Boy. Then there’s Haresh (Namit Das), a shoemaker from Kanpur, and Amit (Mikhail Sen) a poet from Kolkata. The latter two cities provided real-life locations and inspirations for the characters in them.
“If you sat down to write a screenplay or a book on your family, you would probably take a little bit of somebody and then a little bit of an uncle and a little bit from your imagination,” Seth says. “These characters are all fact and fiction. They’re always amalgams of people.”
That’s just as true for the costuming and spaces that reflect the story, she says (with a dedicated shoutout to cinematographer Declan Quinn). Nair’s team scouted half a dozen Indian cities before settling on Lucknow as the most accurate stand in for Brahmpur, and Kolkata and Kanpur providing their own tehzeeb. The production team then pored over photographs and anecdotes from the time period of the show to create those amalgams as they would relate to an audience.
“It is actually very authentic,” Seth says. “It’s elegant and dressy and beautiful, the hair the makeup. They spent…so much time looking into the hair that sometimes looks quite — I wouldn’t say casual, but it’s very well-done to get the look right. It’s hours of crafting it. And yet, when you look at it, it feels normal.”
Seth says the cast and crew have been overwhelmed by positive response to the show, especially since its characters are very much of a specific time and place in Indian history.
“I’m surprised how many young people are actually identifying with the girls and the boys,” she says. “Interesting, actually. Because you think, oh, that was then and so many things have changed. And then the discussion came up about, you know, who would you choose?”
To find out who Lata chooses amidst her opulent saris and gorgeous sets, check out A Suitable Boy on Acorn TV in the U.S.