Filming Vikram Seth’s ‘A Suitable Boy’: Will Makers Say ‘Sooth’?

A Suitable Boy lends itself to a screen adaptation for the most part with its romance, family intrigue, violence.

4 min read
Hindi Female

Vikram Seth’s 1993 novel, A Suitable Boy, is long.

It’s not the kind of long felt by English literature students plodding through Milton and Melville or by Twitter addicts suddenly faced with narrative long-form. This is the kind of long that gives you wrist ache, sinks in bathtubs, weighs down totes and handbags, and cracks its own spine, seemingly overwhelmed by the weight of all it contains.

The words “doorstopper” and “epic” and “rambling” and “exhaustive” are thrown around quite often in blurbs and review copies. A few novels that have been thus described include Mark Danielewski’s House of Leaves (709 pages), Stephen King’s The Stand (823 pages), Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind (1024 pages), and Tolstoy’s War and Peace (1225 pages). Even David Foster’s Wallace’s Infinite Jest, notorious for its 388 end notes that sometime contain further footnotes and for a specific kind of reader-ly demographic it attracts, clocks in at 1079 pages.

A Suitable Boy is 591,552 words long, spread over 1488 pages and 19 chapters, the chapters further divided into sub-parts. And it is a goddamn delight.


Plotting the Plot

There is not a smidgeon of doubt about the literariness of Seth’s novel. The contents page summarises sub-plots with rhyming couplets. A courtesan and her admirer deploy Ghalib and Wali Dakhani as flirtatious banter. A headstrong young woman tries to distract herself from the frustrations of love with Wodehouse.

A zamindar sits reading The Marginal Notes of Lord Macaulay in his crumbling ancestral library. An ambitious socialite pair wield Mann’s Buddenbrooks in a show of cultural capital at a cocktail party. A young English professor fights his hidebound college committee to have Joyce included in the syllabus. If it were not for the novel’s formidable length, it would be assigned reading for Indian literature courses throughout the country.

Even aside from the innumerable references, direct and indirect, to world literature, the book’s very plot and tone are highly reminiscent of two greats of English realist fiction: Austen and Dickens.


The Shadow of Austen and Dickens...

Austen’s influence looms quite large over the novel. One of the plot’s central concerns is the question of marriage – Mrs Rupa Mehra’s quest to get her 19-year-old daughter Lata “settled” – and the negotiations a new generation must make between old entrenched structures of caste networks and traditional family values and newer ideas of agency and choice.

The four central families of the book – connected through matrimony and more diffused forms of social networks – form the cast around which Seth weaves his comedy of manners and the narrative voice is suffused with the gentle irony one has come to expect from Austen. Consider this bit of focalisation from a wedding scene at the beginning of the book:

“Mrs Rupa Mehra’s joy was unconfined. She gobbled the congratulations down like forbidden gulab-jamuns. She looked a little speculatively at her daughter, who appeared to be laughing at her from a distance. Or was she laughing at her sister? Well, she would find out soon enough what the happy tears of matrimony were all about!”
Vikram Seth in A Suitable Boy.

Consider, also, this exquisitely observed description of political expediency when the Zamindari Abolition Bill is passed in the House midway through the novel:

“The Socialist Party had to vote, however reluctantly, in favour of the bill on the grounds that half a loaf was better than none, and despite the fact that it somewhat assuaged the hunger that would have allowed them to flourish.”

Dickens’ brand of social realism, on the other hand, is most evident in Seth’s deep understanding of the complicated grid formed by class, caste, religious, and political interests and how these are supported and undermined by turns by all too human impulses.

Our cast of characters live out the drama of their lives in one of the most tumultuous periods of Indian history: immediately after Independence from British rule and leading up to the first national election of 1952. It is a little disconcerting to revisit this novel in 2019 and find a vast majority of the issues it discusses – hunger, poverty, communal strife – frighteningly relevant. Also disconcerting? PM Nehru is mentioned more in our day to day life now in post-2014 India, than in this novel set during his tenure.


From Book to Screens: Lost in Translation?

Mira Nair’s six-part BBC series adaptation of the novel is all set to start filming in Delhi soon and her casting choices are very promising, if a little unsurprising: Tabu, Naseeruddin Shah, Shefali Shah and Rasika Dugal have already signed on but the hunt for Lata Mehra and her three suitors remains unfinished.

A Suitable Boy lends itself quite readily to a screen adaptation for the most part. It has romance, family intrigue, political machinations, and large-scale violence. Seth’s gorgeous description of the Nawab Sahib’s decaying haveli, the Gangetic ghats where our young couple go boating, Saeeda Bibi’s mehfil and the stateliness of the House where parliamentary bickering unfolds is easy to imagine transformed into inspiring sets and some of his crackling dialogue can be transplanted right from the book to the script.

There will be a few losses, of course. No voice over narration in the world can capture each nuance of Seth’s ironic narrative voice and many of his Dickensian colourful supporting characters (Makhijani! Ustad Majeed Khan!) might be cut.

The thing I am looking forward to the most? Vigorous, violent fights between Team Kabir, Team Haresh, and Team Amit!


(Neha Yadav is currently pursuing a PhD in literature. When not engaged in narrative nit-picking in her professional capacity, she can be found doing it for the sheer pleasure of it.)

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Topics:  Vikram Seth   A Suitable Boy 

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