Mira Nair on ‘A Suitable Boy’: ‘Our past was real, truthful and prickly’

Tabu plays the role of Saeeda Bai in Mira Nair’s new series   | Photo Credit: Taha Ahmad

The world of Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy is a familiar one for Mira Nair. The auteur’s latest project has been the breathtakingly beautiful BBC show based on the 1349-page tome. “It was 1951,” Mira says over a video call from the US. The filmmaker, who turned 63 on October 15, continues, “It was the year my parents got married. My father was a civil servant, he moved from Punjab to Orissa. I have lived in that time in a very real way. It is an era I have known, smelt, enjoyed and loved.”

From Kama Sutra: A Tale of Love (1996) and Vanity Fair (2004) to Amelia (2009), Mira has worked on period dramas. “I do not set out to make a period drama. For me it is quite the reverse. It is how to make a period drama, not feel period at all. How to make it breathe with life and with the unpredictability of life and yet be true in every single detail, to the time it was. Making A Suitable Boy was about how to sift through the modern mayhem of current Indian life, away from the frame.”

Director Mira Nair

Director Mira Nair  

Mira laughs heartily remembering people who wanted to be in the film, sneaking into the frame. “We dressed 200 extras for the scene. I would say ‘action’ and the extras would come out of the train in their handloom and thelas and there would be two people in sneakers, skinny jeans and backpacks in the throng. I would leap out of the chair demanding ‘Aap kaun ho? Aapko kaun bulaya? Hamare kapde kahan hai?’ (Who are you? Who called you? Where are our clothes?)”

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Making A Suitable Boy was a huge, monumental and joyful task, says Mira. “I always saw it as cinema, so the horizons were vast and there was great depth of field. In the scenes with the Ganga, with the boats and the Ghats, we are seeing three or four levels into the horizon.”

Admitting to having an acute ear, Mira says, “We spoke like how they do in A Suitable Boy. It was a polished, convent school English. It is very different from the English we speak now. You have these Mumbai people saying ‘What are you doing yaar? What’s up? blah blah blah…’ (mimes a hulking Neanderthal). It is actually how we used to speak English in the 50s, 60s and 70s. Once television came in to India, we began to sound very American. All that had to be changed; so there was a fair amount of work on verbal dialogue.”

Ishaan Khatter and Tabu in a still from the series

Ishaan Khatter and Tabu in a still from the series   | Photo Credit: TAHA AHMAD

Thanks to the pandemic, there was no dubbing. “That was the other extraordinary part of making A Suitable Boy. We did six months of post-production remotely on computers. We sent the cast microphones and they dubbed the entire of six hours. It was extraordinary. Tanya (Maniktala), Ishaan (Khatter), Tabu everyone, whether you are a big star or not everyone did pura jugaad.

Tanya plays Lata, whose mother wants to find her a suitable boy and Ishaan who plays Maan, who is in love with the completely unsuitable Saeeda (Tabu) are practically new comers. “I am unafraid of casting first-timers. I have to see the spirit of the character in the person, that they have what instinctively feels to me like the essence of the character,” Mira says.

“For instance, I could see the mercurial and charming Maan in Ishaan. It was not fake, it was coming from within. It was the same with casting Tanya. A Suitable Boy rests on her shoulders. I call Lata a dewdrop in action. She is on the brink of life, she hasn't seen everything yet. But she is also intelligent and very self-possessed. She is unlike most young girls today, who have been there and done that. Lata has a certain innocence, of observing without fully knowing what life has to offer.”

Tanya Maniktala and Mikhail Sen in ‘A Suitable Boy’

Tanya Maniktala and Mikhail Sen in ‘A Suitable Boy’   | Photo Credit: Taha Ahmad

Mira is grateful to her casting directors, Dilip Shankar, Nandini Shrikent and Karan Mally. “They cast all my films. This was a one-year casting process. This is the first international show that is entirely cast and made in India because I insisted on it.”

The script, however, was written Britisher Andrew Davies. Wouldn’t a south Asian script writer have been a more apt choice? “To be honest, yes, but I came to the party a little later when Andrew had already been picked and eight hours of script written. I loved his distillation. Andrew gave it the television pace that we needed. He was extremely porous and welcoming to my suggestions. I wanted to shift the emphasis to being a marriage of the politics of the time and the personal journey of Lata and Maan and not have just a Pride and Prejudice kind of vibe of who will she marry. Lata and Maan were the embodiment of modern India—of that India of 1951.”


Does that mean upper caste, middle class, educated families were representative of the larger Indian experience of the time? “Oh, no,” Mira clarifies. “India is based in the hinterland. But Vikram Seth’s story is resolutely set in the anglicised, privileged class. Even though several classes are depicted, the major characters are ‘English-soaked.’ I wanted to bring out the truth of these characters. The characters are who they are as Vikram wrote them.”

While Mira has joked about A Suitable Boy being The Crown in brown, one wonders what part nostalgia plays in the appeal of the show. “It was important for me to hold a mirror to what India used to be at that time—politically and emotionally. Despite the wounds of Partition, there was still a deeply syncretic and interwoven culture between Hindu and Muslim, from the poetry and music, to the friendships and the great loves. That absolutely inextricable tapestry is being threatened today. The young of today will not have any idea of how it could have been. My mother used to say ‘savere hum Id manate the or shaam mein Diwali…’ (we would celebrate Id in the morning and Diwali in the evening). That is not going to be remembered if we are not careful. Our past in A Suitable Boy was real, truthful and prickly. It was not smooth sailing because the seeds of what we are doing now were planted at that time. It was not nostalgia for its own sake, but about holding a mirror so that the young of today can remember a time from whence we came.”

A Suitable Boy will stream on Netflix from October 23

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Printable version | Dec 1, 2020 1:54:18 PM |

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