The thing about Mira Nair’s A Suitable Boy is that you turn to it to have an immersive experience but from the first minute itself it seems a little off. By the second, you have already put your finger on what the problem is- none of these dialogues should be in English. While Nair has expressed her frustration as a director over the balance BBC expected her to maintain in terms of language since the show was primarily made for a Western audience, I couldn’t help but wonder “Are we really STILL doing this? In the time of streaming services, subtitles, and Parasite winning the The Academy Award for best film?”. Of course the Indian tongue has been colonized well, and of course I talk to my friends and lovers in English, so why shouldn’t Lata be angry and in love and confused in the language as well? But there is something very unsettling about an Indian parent getting angry about rishtas in English. When Rupa Mehra starts talking about matches and wedding planning, you almost start expecting her to say “My poor nerves” at some point. The fact that she is not a parody of Mrs. Bennet in sarees but a completely different character from a different cultural space does not shine through- the British lens is too powerful from the get go. The dialogues are too apologetic- sometimes they touch on Urdu, Bengali and Hindi, but the words are not brave enough to take the leap.
This seems to be a theme that stays, because the courage to explore the chemistry between Firoz and Maan is also lacking. I will be honest- I came to the show asking to be overwhelmed by the love between Ishaan Khattar’s Maan and Tabu’s Saeeda Bai. I was convinced, before Tabu even graced the screen with her gorgeous acting skills, that my love for Urdu, ghazals, and passionate eye contact will make me feel giddy about the two of them for days. However, it was actually the chemistry between Maan and the Nawab’s son Firoz that swept me off my feet. From the first episode itself, when the two of them are having a conversation and Firoz sweeps a rose petal off Maan’s shoulder, the chemistry is off the charts. Every single time the two of them were in the frame together, I was on the edge of my seat because the sexual and romantic tension would almost become a third character on screen. In one full sequence, they are both on the bed and the comfort with which their bodies are navigating that shared space almost betrays that they have probably done a lot more than that at some point. I have not read the book by Vikram Seth, but I could not resist constantly wondering if there is a story we aren’t getting insight into. If there is a love, a past, a connection between Maan and Firoz that is toned down for the sake of the narrative. While the title canonically talks about a suitable boy for Lata, it is almost impossible not to feel like at the end of the day, maybe that’s all Firoz and Maan long for too- and can find in each other.
Ofcourse, the actual focus on Saeeda and Maan is lyrical and layered, and it is only enhanced by the fact that Tabu and Ishaan are the best performers even amongst a multi talented and brilliant cast. Though much of what will happen to them is quite predictable, it doesn’t end up taking from the experience because you realize that the characters themselves can predict it too- but they are choosing to surf on the waves of love anyway- so you end up wanting to take that journey with them. Theirs is also the story that is most closely connected with politics and social realities- and the show makes multiple statements on privilege through this. There are so many characters and so many sub-plots that some end up not being tied in the most rewarding way, while others make you want spin-off shows. All members of the Chatterji family, for instance, are absolute show stealers. Ram Kapoor as Maan’s father and India’s first revenue minister is also great and had me wishing I could follow him into the parliament and get to know more about that part of the story every time he was on screen.
There is also something unsettling about the communal tension that is captured in the story- through it is a story set in the early 1950s, it could have existed today just as easily. There is a mandir being built, minorities suffering from police brutality, and politicians profiting off the evil of religious division. This theme also makes its way to Lata’s life, as one of her potential life partners is Muslim- and that is almost all the story feels a need to tell us about him. While there are glimpses from his life, they aren’t enough to actually build a complete persona for Kabir. Which I couldn’t help but relate to the fact that Firoz and Maan actually do experience communal violence. The other two suitors for Lata are Amit the poet and Haresh the shoe businessman- just like Maan also has the girl from Benaras and Saeeda- none of whom, by the way, he has long conversations with through eye contact like he does with Firoz.
While a lot of people have written about how they aren’t happy with the person she ultimately chooses, I had a problem with the criteria of selection itself. The problem for me was that I saw her have almost no chemistry with any of the three men. It felt like the show pitted passion against sustainability and declared only one ‘suitable’- is that what happened with Maan and Firoz behind the scenes too? Were they interpreted as not being suitable for each other because their relationship would be too passionate? They would be too in sync, too in love? Why can you not have the place to grow with someone who you also feel butterflies in your stomach with? While I understand the importance of logical deductions even in the matters of love, there is an argument to be made for the fact that companionate love does not need to be devoid of passion or moments of being swept off your feet. Lata declares in an earlier episode, “We should follow our own hearts!”- and mine, after 6 episodes, has led me down the road of believing maybe Firoz was the suitable boy for Maan all along.