The veteran period drama director is the perfect choice to tackle the sprawling Indian epic ‘A Suitable Boy.’
Here’s a sentence that isn’t necessarily massive news: the BBC has commissioned a new period drama. Over the years, a healthy mix of longer form series (Call the Midwife, Poldark) and limited series events (Howard’s End, the newest adaptation of Little Women) set in varying points of history make up a good portion of their programming. But newfound inclusion and a great director are two ways to create deserved buzz around a more-or-less expected project.
The fact that the BBC has gone this long without featuring a hugely diverse cast isn’t particularly surprising. Many shows from popular western networks still don’t, even those that have some level of inclusivity. That changes with news that Mira Nair (Queen of Katwe) is helming an adaptation of Vikram Seth’s epic novel “A Suitable Boy,” which will be the first BBC production to feature an entirely non-white cast. Nair will be collaborating with the team of another BBC period adaptation, War & Peace, which includes writer Andrew Davies.
“A Suitable Boy” is notable for being one of the longest books ever published in a single volume, clocking in at 1,349 pages. Set in post-independence, post-Partition India, the book tracks the lives of four families in a story that spans 18 months. At the center of it all is Lata, a 19-year-old university student. Between having a domineering mother who is adamant to find Lata a husband, and an overly opinionated brother, Lata longs for independence. She is forced to choose between three suitors, and the drama kicks off from there.
Nair, who spearheaded critically-acclaimed films Salaam Bombay! and Monsoon Wedding, is the perfect director for A Suitable Boy, owing to her experience crafting family dramas with deftness and nuance. In most of her films, the little details that create the believable, identifiable worlds of every story matter, and character dynamics drive each narrative. Directing, in Nair’s own words, is about being “foolishly obsessive” and having “something to say,” which absolutely shines through in all of her work in a way that prioritizes the conflicts her characters have within themselves.
Despite being absolutely capable of creating feel-good inspirational stories, as evidenced by Queen of Katwe, Nair’s other works confront issues of personal identity and the struggle to affirm it. A direct comparison for A Suitable Boy is Monsoon Wedding, which is also set around an arranged marriage and is infused with much darker themes that bubble beneath the surface as an extended family gets together for the supposedly joyous affair.
The Namesake and The Reluctant Fundamentalist, which also happen to be adaptations, are other examples of the confronting but realistic nature of Nair’s work. They also deal with similar themes, such as the multiplicity of cross-cultural and multi-generational identity politics. The Namesake just takes a more personal approach and depicts a Bengali family grappling with culture and tradition. The Reluctant Fundamentalist more pointedly comments on the aftermath of post-9/11 as its Pakistani protagonist faces racism and xenophobia in America.
Monsoon Wedding, The Namesake, and The Reluctant Fundamentalist are all modern takes compared to A Suitable Boy. That being said, there are similarities to be drawn between these films’ shared themes of religion, family, and gender politics. Beyond that, A Suitable Boy will also cover issues of social class and land reforms in a changing India after Partition.
There’s a lot to cover for an eight-episode series, but there’s little to worry with Nair behind the wheel of A Suitable Boy. She has shown an ability to make films that are honest, sometimes to a painful degree, but are definitely grounded and empathetic.