'A Suitable Boy' review: If only it had been in a suitable language

While Tabu and Ishaan Khatter shine in their respective roles, the English dialogue sticks out as unpalatable.
Lata Mehra from A Suitable Boy
Lata Mehra from A Suitable Boy
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Indian parents’ desire to find a suitable match for their children is the stuff of legends – you’ll find references in folklore and mythical tales, in documented history, in fiction and in reality. So when you hear the phrase A Suitable Boy, it’s not hard to imagine what it will entail. In this case, the plot is premised on a widowed woman determined to find a match for her young daughter.

Based on Vikram Seth’s massive novel, the BBC adaptation of A Suitable Boy, directed by Mira Nair and written by Andrew Davies, released on Netflix on Friday. With a runtime of six hours split into six episodes, the series follows Lata Mehra (Tanya Maniktala), a young English literature student in the fictional town of Brahmpur, whose mother, Rupa (Mahira Kakkar) is on the hunt for a good match for her. Ultimately, Lata finds herself choosing between a self-made shoemaker and salesman Haresh Khanna (Namit Das), a Brahmpur University student Kabir Durrani (Danesh Razvi) and Lata’s sister-in-law’s brother, reowned author Amit Chatterji (Mikhael Sen). There are also parallel plots, such as the Revenue Minister Mahesh Kapoor (Ram Kapoor) and his struggle within the Congress party, his son Maan’s (Ishaan Khatter) infatuation and relationship with Saeeda Bai (Tabu), a courtesan; his friendship with Firoz Khan (Shubham Saraf), son of Mahesh’s friend and colleague, the Nawab Sahib of Baitar (Aamir Bashir); as well as Rasheed (Vijay Varma), a student in Lata’s college who teaches Urdu to Maan.

The story unfolds in the political backdrop of a newly independent India, of vested interests in exploiting Hindu-Muslim tensions post-Partition, of the lead-up to the country’s first ever general elections, and of a young India, and young Indians, as they finding their footing in their world.

It is ironic then that A Suitable Boy comes across as a show that is targeted primarily at white audiences. For one, it is the language – the series is majorly in English, with bursts of Urdu, Hindi and some Bengali in between. Even if you’re willing to suspend your disbelief, there are scenes where the English dialogue becomes especially unpalatable, such as when Rasheed and Maan are in the village and converse in English with the others. While the novel this is based on was in English, one wonders if the makers could have made the series in languages native to its characters and provided subtitles for foreign audiences.

The difference this makes is quite telling in the scenes where the characters do speak in their native languages. For instance, when Saeeda Bai speaks to Bibbo (Sadaf Jafar), her helper in her haveli, or in a particularly tense scene where Firoz and Maan are accosted by a group of Hindu rioters after riots break out. Maan protects Firoz from them, yelling that Firoz is his brother regardless of whether he is Muslim, and he would kill anyone who tries to touch a hair on his best friend’s body. In the emotionally charged scene, a crazed and defensive Maan speaks to the attackers in Hindi, and I cannot imagine it having the same effect had it been in English. After all, in the most vulnerable of moments, we turn to our mother tongue.

The language and dialogue are a bit clunky at times, and almost make the characters look caricaturish. While Rupa is very determined to find Lata a suitable boy, the way her dialogues are written in some places make her frustration and horror at things being too “modern” for her liking hard to take seriously. The same goes for Lata in some scenes – you cannot help but wonder if the words given to her really express best her desires, fears, confusion and coming-of-age.

If you’re able to look past the above issues though, there are several commendable performances that A Suitable Boy offers. Tanya is a convincing young protagonist, though sometimes you just want to tell her Lata to stop smiling and being polite and give the men (or her mother for that matter) an earful. However, she grows on you, and as the series progresses, you’re able to accept her impossibly calm but firm demeanour better. It is also liberating to see Lata being unapologetic about taking her time with each of the men she is interested in, even simultaneously, and without guilt. Though she ends up choosing the ‘suitable’ man, driving home the ‘parents know best’ message, the fact that she has her independent reasons for doing so is not lost. Rupa too is equal parts annoying and endearing as a mother who is obsessed with finding her a match but also someone who understands that her daughter has a mind of her own regardless.

Among the women, Tabu and Shahana Goswami, who plays Meenakshi Chatterji Mehra, the wife of Lata’s pompous elder brother Arun, deserve a special mention. Tabu’s Saeeda Bai oozes grace, vulnerability, strength and sensuality so naturally that it’s hard to see Saeeda Bai as anyone but Tabu. Meenakshi, meanwhile, is the most playful of the lot. Smart, cheeky and sexy, Shahana's Meenakshi is refreshingly unapologetic about wanting the best life for herself, even as she has a physical relationship with Billy Irani (Randeep Hooda), a friend of her husband’s. She is not painted into a gold-digger stereotype or the vamp who’s cheating on her husband. Ishaan Khatter too shines in Maan’s skin and has the youthfulness and recklessness of being a wayward man in a privileged family, intoxicated by Saeeda, and later the ruggedness, guilt and redemption of a person who has had to grow up and see the reality beyond his privilege.

While the focus of the story is marriage and love, it is the friendships that stand out more. Firoz and Maan bring to life a lovely, non-hypermasculine, even tender friendship between two men, which is also reflected in the friendship between their fathers. Lata’s relationship with her college friend Malati (Sharvari Deshpande) is also quite relatable, as the latter’s role, though small, is memorable as a woman who is solidly there and cheering for another, no fanfare needed. Similarly, the camaraderie between Lata and her elder sister Savita, as well as her younger brother Varun is also quite lovely to watch. Many of the relationships in the series are inter-faith, and A Suitable Boy does a decent job of showing the prejudices around them as well as the futility of those prejudices – something we could all use a lesson in even today.

While A Suitable Boy attempts to bring together love, friendship, and coming-of-age without divorcing it from the politics of the time – because the personal is indeed political – it could have done more justice to its characters. While the filmmaking is quite satisfactory and doesn’t over-dramatise, the storytelling appears to drag in places, perhaps because the messages and feelings of its protagonists don’t cause enough empathy in the viewer. Watch it if you have the time to spare or if you are a fan of the novel and want to watch it come to life. 

Disclaimer: This review was not paid for or commissioned by anyone associated with the film. Neither TNM nor any of its reviewers have any sort of business relationship with the film's producers or any other members of its cast and crew.

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