Photo Courtesy of BBC.

A Suitable Boy Review: Suitable Indeed, but for a Western Palate

From layered themes to sublime actors and resplendent sets, A Suitable Boy checks off every element needed to tell a story of this scale. But it falls short on one key metric: an authentic, linguistically realistic script.

Nov 1, 2020

A Suitable Boy is, above all, a coming of age saga: post-independence India, at the cusp of her first election, struggling to find her identity as a secular nation after a gruesome partition, and twenty year old Lata, struggling to find a suitable husband to spend the rest of her life with. Based on an eponymous novel by Vikram Seth, this BBC series condenses the 1300 plus page epic into six hour-long episodes. From layered themes to sublime actors and resplendent sets, A Suitable Boy checks off every element needed to tell a story of this scale. But it falls short on one key metric: an authentic, linguistically realistic script.
This story, like numerous Indian sagas, uses the theater of the traditional Hindu wedding as the stage to reveal deeper truths about identity, religion and gender roles in India. It is no coincidence that Lata and Maan, the two characters of “marriageable age”, fall for people who happen to be Muslims, and by extension, completely “unsuitable” in the eyes of their traditional upper-caste Hindu families. Maan’s passionate relationship with Saeeda Begum, an older courtesan, and Lata’s blossoming romance with college sweetheart, Kabir Durrani, display a youthful tenderness that makes you root for their relationships. The forbidden romance painfully reflects post-partition Indian society’s complex Hindu-Muslim dynamic, where political tensions marred ancient cultural bonds.
Simultaneously, Maan’s father, the Revenue Minister of India, is contesting the general election in a country that is trying to straddle its Hindu and Muslim identities. In a scene that bears an eerie resemblance to India’s Babri Masjid demolition of Dec. 1992, communal tensions come to a boil when the Raja of Marh orders the construction of a Hindu Shiva temple right next to the local mosque. However, what stands out amidst the bloodshed, silent disapprovals and religious tensions is the enduring warmth that forms the fabric of the Hindu-Muslim friendships between the motley characters. Firoz and Maan’s friendship, although rocky, becomes an exemplar of the inherent bonds between the two communities. In the face of political and inter-personal strife, their friendship remains fiercely loyal.
The sets transported me to the charming streets of Calcutta in the 1950s, the elaborate costumes, from Saeeda Begum’s embellished shararas to Lata’s simple cotton sarees, revealed deeper facets of their personalities. There is no doubt that this series is a cinematographic treat bursting with color and a truly nawabi opulence that is worth watching simply for the passion that pours out of each frame. While I was captivated by these powerful themes and intricate sets, I couldn’t help but wonder why I still remained unconvinced about the authenticity of the characters’ painful inner struggles.
To me, what failed to paint a realistic picture of their emotional journeys was the script and dialogue. The characters speak almost exclusively in English with pretentious colonial accents and colloquialisms that feel both unrealistic and forced. For a story that explores the very fiber of Indian identity, the use of English dilutes the “Indian-ness” of the characters, often reducing them to caricatures. The show has received widespread admiration by the likes of Vogue for being “the BBC’s first period drama with an all non-white cast.” But while that is commendable, the story behind the camera is quite different. The scriptwriter Andrew Davies is highly acclaimed, but is after all a British man who brings a foreign, colonial lens to the Indian context. The series tells the story of India in the 1950s, but it is an India that has been made palatable to a British audience.
Considering the caliber of the seasoned actors on the cast, from Tabu to Vinay Pathak, A Suitable Boy had the potential to truly transport viewers to a historical moment in India that was laden with potential and trauma that continues to play out in modern Indian politics. Yet the use of English curtailed the show’s cultural nuance and the extent to which the characters could express their raw emotions in a language that seemed more natural. The few moments of respite from the anglicized, artificial dialogue came with Saeeda Begum’s mesmerizing Urdu ghazals, which unveiled her complex emotional landscape far better than her dialogues could.
The show ends the way it began: at a traditional Hindu wedding mandap, decked out in luxurious crimson and gold. After a tumultuous journey of growth, Lata finally finds a suitable match, but not without her fair share of “unsuitable options” that reveal the deeper biases of Hindu families of the time. The struggle to preserve India’s fabric as a multicultural, secular country plays out on two battlegrounds: the intimate relationships between the main characters, and the broader political landscape of the Indian election.
As the director Mira Nair explains, in India’s current political landscape of Hindu-Muslim tension, this show is a reminder that “we came from a cloth that was deeply interwoven.” In Maan’s devoted friendship with Firoz, or Kabir’s boundless love for Lata, we see the inherent synergies between the two communities, and simultaneously, in the show’s historical setting, we see the seeds of the communal tensions that plague India today.
Despite its powerful message and staggering production value, the show ultimately caters primarily to a Western audience. It fails to capture the essence of India in the years post partition, leaving the audience craving for more authenticity.
Siya Chandrie is a Contributing Writer. Email her at
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