Vikram Seth’s 1993 novel A Suitable Boy is (checks copy) 1,398 pages long. Mira Nair’s 2020 mini-series version of it is (pulls out adding machine) 352 minutes long. That’s (incorrectly guesses what division symbol looks like) 3.97159091 pages per minute! I’ve waited (uses all fingers and toes plus two of the hound dog’s paws) almost 30 years for an adaptation of this thing to come to fruition in one format or another and I’m tremendously relieved to tell you that it was just about worth the wait.
Nair (and screenwriter Andrew Davies) correctly deduce what Seth was up to: nesting a simple “who will she end up with” story inside a tangled multi-family, multi-class, multi-generational epic set in India immediately following its independence. And it really is simple: will widowed Mrs. Rupa Mehra (she knits!) find a husband for Lata, her university-student daughter, after being disappointed by the marital fates of her other children? Will Lata have a mind of her own when it comes to whom and how she marries? Will either woman find the titular suitable boy? (The title is actually a little ambiguous; there’s a case to be made that it refers to another character altogether, but I’ll shut up about that for now.)
It’s one of the most expensive productions ever made by the BBC, and I think it shows; every frame is jammed with period detail and to call it “lush” would be the understatement of the year. Some details aren’t as immediately visible but are sometimes more telling; in a single episode, you see three very different characters reading three very different books: the Quran, Thomas Hardy and Mickey Spillane. And in case you missed my newsletter about such things (I don’t have a newsletter), any opportunity to see the great Tabu in anything is an opportunity you should never, ever pass up.
In the transition from page to screen, Nair and Davies omit pages and pages (and pages and pages) of politics, and several narrative strands from the novel’s plot have disappeared completely. A huge chunk of Seth’s scrupulously detailed research gets tossed as well, although I was relieved that a bit of the excruciating, delightfully detailed twenty-page primer on how to make a leather shoe made the final cut.
But the basic story emerges from the book-to-television transition relatively intact. While I do think the cuts end up scaling the story down (and lightening it up, though it maintains the book’s darker turn in the final third) a little too much for its six-hour length, that sounds more critical than I intend; it’s still been a thrill to watch, if only for the way the at-its-heart simple story unfolds as pleasurably and skillfully as in any Dickens doorstopper.
Vikram Seth’s long-promised sequel to A Suitable Boy—titled (wait for it…) A Suitable Girl—is a decade overdue. Each new year brings rumors and promises of its impending publication, and each year flips to the next with no A Suitable Girl. I’m not sure we’ll ever see it. But in the meantime, this adaptation of A Suitable Boy is suitable enough.
Currently streaming on Acorn, due on PBS later this year…I think.
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