By Kabir Altaf
Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy has long been one of my favorite novels– like literary comfort food. As I wrote in an earlier piece, the novel is an epic portrait of 1950s India, featuring such diverse subjects as religious communalism, land reform, Hindustani classical music, legislative elections and even the craft of shoemaking. Though the core story is the efforts of Mrs. Rupa Mehra to find the titular “suitable boy” for her daughter Lata, Seth provides a layered picture of the new nation-state of India, coming into its own after the end of British colonialism and the harrowing Partition of British India into two new countries on the basis of religion.
As a devotee of the novel, I anticipated the BBC television adaptation (directed by Mira Nair) with great eagerness but also with some trepidation. The possibility always exists that an adaptation–with all the constraints of producing a limited TV miniseries– will not be able to do full justice to a much-loved literary work. I am happy to report however that fans of Seth’s novel will not be disappointed. Nair’s version is above all a faithful recreation of the novel for a television audience. All of the elements– from the performers to the sets and costumes– were faithful to my mental picture while reading the book. The adaptation is also notable for being the first BBC production to feature an almost entirely South Asian cast, as well as substantial dialogue in Urdu/Hindi.
As is inevitable, the constraint of telling the story in six episodes (each of one hour’s duration) forced the scriptwriter– Andrew Davies (famous for his Pride and Prejudice)— to focus on the core plots revolving around Lata’s romance with the “unsuitable” Muslim Kabir and Maan Kapoor’s doomed affair with the beautiful courtesan Saeeda Bai Firozabadi. As a consequence, the story loses some of the richness and depth brought to it by Seth’s concern for the social context of the era. To its credit, the adaptation does include the mosque/ temple controversy–sadly perhaps even more relevant in contemporary India than at the time the book was written– and the communal riots on Muharram/Dussehra (all of this is discussed in much more detail in my piece referenced above). However, entire characters and subplots had to be sacrificed. As a student of Hindustani classical music, I particularly missed the character of Ishaq Khan (Saeeda Bai’s sarangi accompanist) who becomes unable to play the sarangi due to pain in his hands and determines to learn vocal music from the celebrated Ustad Majeed Khan. This subplot allowed Seth to describe the social dynamics present in the world of Hindustani classical music, where relatively “higher-caste” vocalists like Majeed Khan considered accompanists like Ishaq to be of a subservient social status– not only because the instruments are made of leather (considered polluting) but also because of their involvement with courtesan culture. I also missed some of the minor characters such as the siblings of Firoz– the Nawab’s son and Maan’s best friend– and some of the Chatterjee children.
Strong performances were given by all the actors, particularly by the young romantic leads: Tanya Maniktala as Lata and Danesh Razvi as Kabir. However, the breakout star of the serial was Ishaan Khattar as Maan. Khattar conveyed Maan’s obsession with Saeeda Bai (Tabu) to perfection. Their scenes together were the highlights of each episode. Tabu was electric as the doomed courtesan who is perhaps experiencing real love for the first time, but with someone whom she knows she cannot have both because of her profession and her religion. Maniktala and Razvi eloquently portrayed Lata and Kabir’s infatuation and the angst of their forbidden love. Finally, Mahira Kakkar was excellent at conveying Mrs. Rupa Mehra’s desperation to get her daughter settled appropriately. Shubham Saraf as Firoz and Shahana Goswami as Lata’s glamorous sister-in-law Meenakshi were also standouts.
Another element of the series that must be appreciated is the music, composed by Anuskha Shankar– daughter of the great sitarist Ravi Shankar. This was particularly important in the scenes in which Saeeda Bai sings the famous ghazals of Daagh and Ghalib. In particular Dagh’s ghazal “na-rawaa kahiye na-sazaa kahiye” features as a theme song for Saeeda Bai and Maan (whom she calls “Dagh Sahib”). Aficionados of Hindustani music will also note the cameo appearance of Ustad Shujaat Khan– the son of the legendary sitarist Ustad Vilayat Khan. Personally, I found this cameo a bit distracting, since as soon as I noticed him, I was brought out of 1950s India to the present.
Overall, fans of Seth’s novel will greatly enjoy the BBC adaptation. It will also hopefully serve to introduce the book to a new generation of readers.
The writer has a M.A. in Ethnomusicology from SOAS, University of London.