'A Suitable Boy' Looks Pretty, But What's up With The Dialogues?
Never has a show that looked so good disappointed so bad.
In September 2019, when it was first announced that Vikram Seth's A Suitable Boy would (finally) be adapted into a series, with actors like Tabu on board, I was excited. You don't necessarily have to have read the 1300+ page book to know that it's a masterpiece.
Who knew the end product would turn out to be a such a massive disappointment despite the brilliant ensemble cast?
Streaming on Netflix India, A Suitable Boy is directed by Mira Nair and stars some of Hindi cinema's most talented actors - Tabu, Rasika Dugal, Namit Das, Vijay Varma, Ram Kapoor.. Even newcomers Tanya Maniktala and Ishaan Khatter kind of make their mark. But, turns out, having a whole bunch of talented actors means nothing if your script is fundamentally flawed.
I'll be honest - my main issue with the series is just how NOT Indian it is, despite being a story set in a post-Partition India. The most defining period of our history, you know?
All Right, I'll Say It - What Are Those Dialogues?!
A Suitable Boy is set in the India of 1950s but, for some wild reason, all the characters talk in English. Now I understand it's a BBC series. It's white people adapting the show primarily for a white audience. But at least they could have made the dialogues more palatable? More natural? The characters use words like "ruffian" unironically and utter lines like "I suppose I must go now." Literally, no English-speaking person in India talks like that.
I guess that's what happens when you get a white person to write the screenplay (Andrew Davies).
Although the show has its moments..
Full disclosure: I haven't read the book, but after the first couple of episodes, I needed to understand my disappointment better so I did go through the first 20 pages of it and guess what.. It's like Mr Davies plucked the dialogues straight out of the source material. I can't comment on Mr Davies' career credentials, but that's just not how you adapt a book for the screen.
For an average Indian viewer, the language of A Suitable Boy is not just unrealistic because of the English dialogues but also a total cringe-fest. In some ways, it's like a fancy, high production table reading of the book.
A Colonial Perspective
The cringe-fest begins with the first scene itself, which is the most 'Indian' scene ever.. if a white person were defining what 'Indian' means.
Lata (Tanya Maniktala) is playing with a *wait for it* MONKEY! There's a full-fledged Hindu wedding going on. Obviously. And, in order to explain what's happening, our main characters (Ishaan Khatter's Maan and Lata) are having a conversation where they're literally spelling out the concept of 'arranged marriage' and such for their white audience.
Honestly, it's just a little disheartening to see a story that rightfully belongs to Indians being snatched away and fetishised in such a disrespectful manner.
'A Suitable Boy' Fails Its Extraordinary Cast
The acting is top-notch, mostly. But here's my beef - the English dialogues seem to be a deterrent to the actors' performances. In several scenes, especially those involving Saeeda Bai (Tabu) and Lata, you can tell the actors are putting in that extra effort into delivering dialogues in a language that just doesn't come naturally to them on screen.
The occasional Urdu/Punjabi/Hindi dialogues sprinkled here and there are the only saving grace.
Another aspect of the show that sticks out like a sore thumb is when A Suitable Boy moves to a more rural set up. Within the urbane confines of Calcutta and Brahmpur, the English accents are fairly believable. We're assuming that in a newly independent India, Indians who stayed back are still not completely at ease with the language left behind by their colonizers (why then are they speaking to each other in English is, like I mentioned, unfathomable).
However, in the interiors, the characters have a more artificial, rustic English accent, making them seem very caricaturish.
Which brings me back to my first point - if the language is only meant to make the show more accessible for its English-speaking audience, then why do the characters in the rural areas need to have a broken English accent?
I may not have read the book but I can say with assurance that six hour-long episodes could never do justice to Vikram Seth's magnum opus. There was potential of some sort, for sure. If only Mira Nair had chosen not to pander to the limited sensibilities of the folks at BBC who green-lit the project...
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