SHOMA A.CHATTERJI | 29 OCTOBER, 2020
A group of Indian women directors could be broadly categorized as the Other. They are Indians. Yet, they are not Indians. They have their roots in India, but work mainly from beyond the borders of the country, mostly with foreign funding, with Indian themes, subjects, and actors. The technicians are often a blend of the East and the West.
Mira Nair, Deepa Mehta, Pamela Rooks and Gurinder Chhadda among others are notable examples of this ‘school.’ Their films often unfold the cinematic and cultural consequences of what can be termed an 'arranged marriage' between the outsider's general outlook and the insider's particular insights, both the 'outsider' and the 'insider' in this case, merging in the same individual.
So long as these directors choose their own contemporary living place and the people within it as subjects, they face no ideological confusion. But place them in India, and they seem confused and make unwitting blunders that scar their films.
Mira Nair is Indian but she has been a NRI living beyond Indian shores for several decades. However, her “look” at any story is that of an “outsider” looking ‘in’ which worked fine when she made Namesake authored by Jhumpa Lahiri who is herself an immigrant like Nair.
But when it comes to A Suitable Boy, set in an India immediately after the Partition and Independence in 1947, she chooses to focus on the “period” rather than on the Indianness of the story and its characters. The fact that the characters mainly speak in English is perhaps the most un-Indian quality of the film that sticks out like an ugly thumb.
But then, it is a BBC production so English, perhaps, was mandatory. Andrew Davies, a master of adaptation who adapted this novel for Nair’s series, is a full-blooded British citizen who really cannot internalize the ‘feel’ of the film as an Indian will and this shows up in the entire film.
I have not read Vikram Seth’s original tome A Suitable Boy running into more than 1300 pages and published in 1993.This liberates me from the responsibility of drawing comparisons, positive, negative or neither, between the book and Mira Nair’s web series of six episodes released on BBC One 17 years after the publication of the novel. The story goes that the author had resisted most of the previous attempts by filmmakers to buy the film or television rights of the book. What made him finally agree to Mira Nair’s persuasion would make for an interesting story.
Looking back at events taking place in an India in the early 1950s just before India’s first general elections, A Suitable Boy seems almost funnily outdated to this writer. Had it been made soon after the novel was published, the time leap between the web series and its audience may not have appeared as passe as it now appears.
Few urban mothers today would compel their daughter/s to marry a boy who she chose for her. Few modern, sophisticated and educated girls in 2020 would wait for their mothers to choose a “suitable” boy for her as she can very well choose one for herself, and later bother whether he was “suitable” or not.
Like any Bollywood family drama, the film opens on a grand marriage, interspersed with a Holi sequence, colourful, naughty and angry, closing with another marriage.
The story boils down to which of the three suitors will Lata (Tanya Manektala), a very pretty, sari-wearing young girl of 18 studying English literature at the fictitious city Brahmpur’s university will marry. Her mother Rupa Mehra (Mahira Kakkar) is worried about finding a suitable boy for her as soon as the elder daughter is married off. Lata is annoyed with all this pushing and pressurizing and decides not to marry at all.
Interestingly, she promptly falls in love with Kabir Durrani (Danesh Razvi) and the two have a roaring affair cleverly meeting at the break of dawn. Expectedly, all hell breaks loose when their secret is out and the two are forced to part ways. The second “suitable” boy which Lata’s mother finds most unsuitable is the noted poet Amit Chatterjee (Mikhael Sen) the brother of Lata’s loud and sleazy Bengali sister-in-law.
The third suitor is Haresh Khanna (Namit Das) the shoemaker considered ‘unsuitable’ by Lata’s snobbish older brother Arun, (Vivek Gomber) besotted with his adulterous wife Meenakhi (Shahana Goswami).
There are several sub-plots which are so extensive, elaborate and glamorous that they can easily be labelled parallel plots. One is the torrid affair between Maan (Ishaan Khatter) and the ageing courtesan Saeeda Bai ((Tabu) which impacts on Maan’s family in general and his father Mahesh Kapoor (Ram Kapoor) in particular because he is the revenue minister and is planning to stand for the forthcoming elections.
The second in the religious fair where friendship with his close friend with Nawab Saheb (Aamir Bashir) is also threatened.
Maan is forced to flee to a village and unwittingly turns into the village hero but is forced to return to the city. His friendship with the Nawab’s son Firoz Ai Khan (Shubham Saraf) stands threatened. The schism between the Hindus and Muslims resulting from a temple being built right beside the masjid is shown more as a distraction from the romance and the glamour factor and less as a comment on future politics in the country.
You have everything that goes to make a mainstream masala film a box office hit so it is indeed sad that it is being streamed on a OTT platform as a web series. Let us take a sweeping look. There is romance, communal strife, exploitation of the poor peasants by the landlords which leads to the presenting of the Zamindari Abolition Bill by Mahesh Kapoor, intimate scenes of sex between Meenakshi and her part-time lover Billu Irani (Randeep Hooda) who we are not given any clue about, intimate scenes between Maan and Saeeda Bai, the little boy getting lost in the fair and then found, the lost child’s parents approaching a Godman for a solution, the budding romance between Feroz and Tasneem nipped in the bud by Saeeda Bai because of a secret that makes marriage between the two taboo, the elections in the village where the opportunist Waris (Ranvir Shorey) suddenly turns coat and stands for the elections himself, Rasheed, the Urdu tutor going crazy and then killing himself, and last but never the least, the very grounded, sweet and successful Haresh Mehra giving up chewing paan which Lata does not care for, the conflict between the Home Minister and the Revenue Minister and even a very obese Raja whose keep Saeeda Bai is.
The songs are really good specially the ghazals and nazms belted out by Saeed Bai. A Suitable Boy is the classic example of a film that is technically almost perfect – wonderful locales – Lucknow, Calcutta, Brahmpur and a village. The lush green lawns of the Mehra and the Kapoor homes, spanning the interiors of the University hall, library and so on, the lavish interiors of some of the homes, are great for the eyes specially in these dark days.
The cinematography is good too filled with all the colours of the rainbow in its varied manifestations. But it is the acting that runs away with the top prize and kudos to Mira Nair for putting together an ensemble of some of the best actors many of who she has reduced to glamorous extras. Among these “extras” are Vinay Pathak, Ranvir Shorey, Viay Raaz, Manoj Pehwa, Barun Chanda, Randeep Hooda and perhaps a few more which is truly sad as lesser names could have filled the bill easily.
Tanya Manektala as Lata with her very sweet looks, lovely smile and large eyes is really good. Ram Kapoor as Mahesh Kapoor, presenting an image when political leaders were honest, committed and loyal is excellent in a major role. Ishaan Khattar as Maan is good in a colourful role where he is constantly caught between his love for his parents and wanting to live life on his own terms.
Danish Rizvi a Kabir Durrani is given short shrift in the end to help wean Lata away from him while Namit Das is great as Haresh Khanna. Rasika Duggal as the worried mother and Vivek Gomber as her attitude-filled son are organic in their performances. Tabu is very good as Saeeda Begum but her looks are too jaded and perhaps called for some correction through make-up.
The script however, decides to paint the characters in too sharp shades into the good and the bad and the greys are conspicuous by their absence. Arun is a snob while his wife is loud and sizzling. Rashid is too good but his father is an exploiter. Lata is too good to be true but the poet Amit Chatterjee disguises his attitude with his intellectual snobbery.
The biggest drawback of A Suitable Boy that either strips itself of a genuine Indian identity or presents Indianness at a time and place to a Western audience which no longer exists is the use of English as the lingua franca of the film.
Indianness is an internal and abstract value. It goes deeper than clothes, language or eating habits. It is that mental unity where differences melt. It is in the filmmaker’s blood and mind. It is a matter of inner compulsion. It is something that can neither be crushed nor suppressed by an Indian filmmaker even if he wishes to crush or suppress it. It is a birthright into which an Indian filmmaker is born. It is the nativeness that marks him as different from others. It is a connecting link between generations. But this is sadly missing in this film.