A very neat adaptation of a literary masterpiece

A very neat adaptation of a literary masterpiece

Ishaan Khattar and Tabu.

When someone writing a review is just grateful that the work in question was made at all, you really can’t expect a keen eye for flaws. Yes, I’m one of those people from the bygone era who actually bought ‘A Suitable Boy’ more than two decades ago and read all 1,349 pages of it more than once (straining my purse and spraining my wrists, to filch Vikram Seth’s words). And so, I more or less smiled through the BBC’s six-hour mini-series pretty much like Tanya Maniktala, who plays Lata Mehra, the 19-year-old heroine for whom a suitable boy is being sought.

Since the period drama, released last week in India on Netflix, is made for an international audience, who better to bring the novel to life than Mira Nair, perhaps the most successful Indian-born director in world cinema? The masterly Andrew Davies, noted for his adaptation of the BBC’s Pride and Prejudice (1995) and War and Peace (2016), does a fine job of cramming the events, interweaving the lives of four families and scores of subsidiary characters into the screenplay.

And while they all live in a newly independent India well connected by the railways, the characters in A Suitable Boy really inhabit different worlds, each with its own distinct quality—leisurely Brahmpur, with its bungalows and servants and lazy cricket-match afternoons, the Calcutta of the Chatterjis, with its Westernized refinement, the fading aristocracy of Baitar, and impoverished rural India, with its heat and bleakness. The BBC series recreates all this with a great deal of authenticity, although the decision to have all the characters speak English is definitely questionable. We do see the occasional switch to Hindi or Urdu, but many characters would’ve been far more real without the burden of English.

There are some good performances by the actors, notably Ram Kapoor as the idealistic minister, Ishaan Khatter as the reckless Maan, and Shahana Goswami as the outrageous Meenakshi.

Despite the constraints of having to condense such a huge expanse into just six episodes, the BBC series manages a fairly successful adaptation.

It could’ve been more nuanced had it been longer, certainly, but it does leave you with enduring images from the novel: a harsingar tree bereft of its mistress, and the reproach in Kabir’s anguished eyes.

Had I been one of the couplet-spouting Chatterjis, I might’ve said:

Too rushed, you say, and too much angrezi?
Well, at least they made it, good ol’ BBC!