Can the contemporary and yore exist in the same frame? Well, Mira Nair achieves the impossible. In her cinematic adaptation of Vikram Seth’s tome A Suitable Boy, she takes you back to 1950s where the book and hence the series is based, yet brings out its contemporary relevance in the present world. Simultaneously, the underlying threads, especially the communal discord, pulsate, as do the beauty of Urdu language and the distilled wistfulness of an era gone by.
The readers of the book may find the six-episode series a trifle dissatisfying. However, the lovers of cinema will actually be besotted by the visual and aural beauty. The richness of handlooms, the textures of those times, the timeless ghazals; it’s a veritable feast out there. Equally fetching is the wide-eyed beauty Tanya Maniktala with her high voltage smile, as Lata. Tanya is fresh as a daisy, the quintessential beauty, epitomising the charm of bygone times. Her search for a suitable boy takes us not just from one suitor to another, from Brahmpur to Calcutta, but also from one dramatic moment to the next.
The opening rushes make us believe it’s yet another Hindu-Muslim love story. For, it’s not just Lata who is in love with a Muslim boy, in the parallel thread there is the tale of this young man Maan Kapoor (Ishaan Khatter) besotted by a courtesan Saeeda Bai. With Tabu playing the enchantress Saeeda Bai, the woman whose admirers cut across generations, who wouldn’t be enchanted?
Pairing Ishaan Khatter with Tabu is both a brave and experimental choice. But the play off works well and despite the age gap, there is chemistry between the two consummate actors. Ishaan Khatter once again proves what a terrific actor he is. Actually in the series, streaming on Netflix, there is a deluge of the best that Indian film industry has to offer. There are so many of them with several like Randeep Hooda, Vijay Raaz, Sheeba Chaddha appearing only fleetingly. Shahana Goswami as one of the series’ most spirited characters Meenakshi Chatterjee brings oomph and vitality to the storyline. The surfeit of known faces and names (Ram Kapoor, Namit Das, Vijay Varma, Rasika Dugal) does appear a bit distracting. But with fresh faces at the centre of the emotional tapestry, it’s both a clever move and a balancing act.
Thematic balance too is achieved, as the series veers between celebratory and tragic facets of life. If communal tension is woven into the leitmotif, so is harmony. Fissures between religious communities are offset by co-existence. Personal and political too are interwoven. Remember it’s the Nehruvian era where politicians too had scruples. So Ram Kapoor as a revenue minister who brings the zamindari system down would not use his clout to save his son Maan. Yes certain twists like the relationship between Saeeda Bai and Tasneem are fairly predictable.
The all-important question, however, is a bit of a puzzle. Whom will Lata choose? The handsome Kabir Durrani (Danesh Razvi), the celebrated poet Amit Chatterjee (Mikhail Sen), or the self-made shoemaker Haresh Kapoor (Namit Das), the question teases us and keeps the interest going. In the face of interesting choices that Lata has, her final selection of a husband might appear a tad too conservative. Her understanding of love too has shades of pragmatism rather than passion. But then a suitable boy is a suitable one. Many might read it as recommendation of parental choice and arranged marriage.
Whatever may be the flaws (like the uneven accent of its characters) in this comforting tale, written for the adaptation by Andrew Davies, Mira is more than successful in transporting us back in time. Drenched in nostalgia, its vintage feel is suitable for more than the period in which it is set.