There were three great post-Independence Indian novels that were considered worthy of screen adaptation ever since they appeared on the scene: Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children, Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy and Vikram Chandra’s Sacred Games.
While Rushdie’s and Chandra’s works eventually saw the light of the day on screen, Seth’s 1993 novel, A Suitable Boy, had to wait for the deft hands of director Mira Nair to bring it to life on screen.
Nair has adapted Seth’s doorstopper of a novel, which has the reputation of being one the longest English language novels into a six-part series for the BBC. That’s a feat in itself. Secondly, it is the first time the BBC has had a historical drama cast entirely with people of colour.
A Suitable Boy is set in 1951, against the backdrop of a newly independent and post-partition India. At the centre of the story is 19-year-old Hindu girl, Lata, who is under pressure from her widowed mother to find an appropriate husband. A chance encounter with the Muslim boy Kabir sees Lata fall in love, but their religious differences echo the wider clashes between Hindus and Muslims in the country. When Lata’s mother learns of their affair, the relationship is forbidden. There follows a vast, intergenerational coming-of-age story, involving four families and more than 110 characters over the course of 18 months, right across India. It is a grandiose reflection of a nation coming to terms with a new identity.
The series was three years in the making, and Seth was said to have agreed to the series on condition that Andrew Davies – who has adapted everything from Pride and Prejudice to War and Peace – was at the helm. Even though the series is set almost 70 years ago, it eerily reflects the present atmosphere in India when inter-community relations have strained to their worst.
The series’ director Mira Nair told a newspaper that her goal is for viewers to find themselves enveloped in the often conflicting worlds of India, rather than consuming the show as an inconsequential period piece.
Will the series be as popular and as loved as the novel? The initial reception has been good but only time will give the final verdict.