Tag Archives: A Suitable Boy

A breath of fresh Nair

In her television debut, award-winning Indian filmmaker Mira Nair has partnered with screenwriter Andrew Davies to bring Vikram Seth’s novel A Suitable Boy to the small screen. She tells DQ how she has embraced longform storytelling.

After filming on six-part BBC drama A Suitable Boy wrapped at the end of December last year, the series moved straight into post-production in early January. Director Mira Nair oversaw an editing process in London that took place 12 hours a day for two months, until she returned home to New York in mid-March as the coronavirus pandemic began to take hold around the world.

“I’ve been editing everything remotely since then and we’ve not had a day off,” she tells DQ from her home in the US as the final touches to the series are made before it is delivered to the broadcaster. “We’ve been editing, sound designing, mixing and recording orchestra in Budapest, and recording additional dialogue from almost 50 actors in India, all of whom have been shipped microphones they can use with their iPhones. It’s a whole new world. It’s been very focused and we’ve not lost a day. But it’s extraordinary. I never thought this could happen.”

Mira Nair

The experience of working remotely amid a pandemic has certainly made the final stage of making A Suitable Boy a memorable one for Nair, not least because it is also the first time the award-winning Indian filmmaker has worked in television.

Based on Vikram Seth’s classic novel, the drama is set in vibrant 1950s India and tells the story of 19-year-old Lata (played by newcomer Tanya Maniktala), who seems to have her life mapped out in front of her thanks to old traditions and an overbearing mother who wants to find her a suitable husband. Torn between romance and responsibility, Lata is determined to find her own way in life at a time when a newly independent India is also coming of age.

Connected to Lata through their siblings’ marriage is wayward Maan (Ishaan Khatter, Beyond the Clouds), who wants every drop of excitement from life. However, when he becomes infatuated with the glamorous courtesan Saaeda Bai (Tabu, Life of Pi), the consequences could be catastrophic.

Distributed internationally by BBC Studios, the series is produced by Lookout Point  and was filmed entirely on location in India, most notably in Lucknow and Maheshwar. The settings serve as a mesmerising backdrop to the story, which Nair brought to the screen by partnering with Seth and acclaimed screenwriter Andrew Davies, who previously adapted classic novels War & Peace and Les Misérables for Lookout Point and the BBC.

“I really have embraced the longform storytelling that TV allows us to do,” says Nair, who is best known for films including Monsoon Wedding and Queen of Katwe. “A Suitable Boy should not be stuffed into a two-hour running time. It’s a 1,300-page tome with several interrelated worlds.

“Now, because so many great craftspeople from cinema have come to work in television, it can have the magnificence and the authenticity [it deserves], having been shot entirely on location: the light, the sound, but also the sweep, the depth and the layers of it. To me, that was vital and that is how I would make cinema. I was aware it was television, but it was more structural awareness rather than a cinematic craft becoming different.”

A Suitable Boy tells a coming-of-age story that centres on Lata (Tanya Maniktala, right)

The adaptation of Seth’s book, one of the longest novels in the English language, has been the subject of fierce speculation ever since it was published in 1993. When Lookout Point finally secured the rights, the company discovered that Davies was the only screenwriter Seth would consider to write the scripts. Nair, who says she has read the novel multiple times, then jumped at the opportunity to direct the project.

“For me, it’s the great portrait of us, the subcontinent, at the time India had to find its voice as a free country [after Partition], and that was always an era I wish I was born into,” she explains. “It also inspired my own film Monsoon Wedding 20 years ago. I knew there were several attempts to make it into a series but it never got made and I wasn’t involved. But this time I heard it was real and I immediately wanted to throw my sari into the ring.

“Andrew had already written the eight scripts – a wonderful distillation of it – and then I got involved. For a series of reasons, we decided to make it six hours, and in that further distillation I got very involved, I was one of the architects of it, because I wanted it to be a very timely portrait of what is going on in India now.”

In particular, Nair points to Seth’s depiction of the divide between Hindus and Muslims in India in 1951 and her ambition to relate that story to events today. “I worked closely with Vikram to not change the story but to make sure we were being deeply responsible to the layered complexity of that world. The other big thing was Lata. While she is a young woman on the brink of knowing her life or herself, she has this beating heart that is as universal and as timeless as ever. She could have been a demure, coquettish character but that’s not my thing, nor Vikram’s. We wanted to make sure we captured that modernity and universality in a young girl who is yet to live her life.”

The director says she didn’t need to persuade anyone to shoot A Suitable Boy entirely on location, but that decision later impacted what could or couldn’t be done and shaped the script accordingly. More important to her was the casting, and her well-worn approach of pairing screen “legends” opposite “non-actors.”

Nair with Vikram Seth, who wrote the novel on which the drama is based

“I love that amalgam and seem to keep on doing it. So a lot of A Suitable Boy was also cast in restaurants,” she jokes. “For me, the families were so vital that they had to feel like they belonged to each other. Vikram’s written such delightful characters that you really have to scour the landscape. I love casting people known and unknown but who embody the spirit of what we are looking at. That defines a lot of the energy on set.”

Nair also felt at home on set as she was surrounded by many of the crew who have worked with her for more than 25 years in India and around the world, such as cinematographer Declan Quinn, production designer Stephanie Carroll, costume designer Arjun Bhasin and producer Lydia Dean Pilcher.

“It had to be on location. I come from cinéma vérité, from things that have to feel truthful,” she says. “Sometimes we shot in rooms where Vikram had actually written A Suitable Boy. A lot of the locations are real places in the story itself, so that informs the visual style enormously. But I think cinematically and visually. It was about the sweep and movement of it, of linking the worlds of the courtesan to the nawab to the tenement.”

Nair also wanted to depict the truth behind the wealthy and privileged lives of some of the characters, showing staff such as cleaners continuously working in the background. “I love that type of reality,” she notes. “That layer of class was vital to me. Then because of this wonderful shorthand we had [between the crew], despite not having the most luxurious budget, we could achieve magnificence because we didn’t waste time on things that didn’t have to be done. There are almost no deleted scenes. It’s crazy but true, because we couldn’t afford to. When you know how a team works, you can achieve that.”

Looking back on production, the director recalls the “gruelling” filming schedule over several months and how she was forced to use a double in the same shot as the actor for whom she was meant to be standing in when the actor hurt her ankle and couldn’t move sufficiently for the scene.

The director on set with Ishaan Khatter, who plays Maan

“It’s about stamina. But we did yoga on set, we stayed strong,” Nair says. “And the same stamina applies now because doing post-production remotely is, on average, a 10-hour day. There’s a great high I experienced filming in India because my crew have been with me for so long. The grandson of the gaffer on Salaam Bombay [Hello Bombay, 1998], my first film, was with us so we had three generations of one family on this set. It was amazing. It was very moving.

“People work from the heart because I have a relationship with so many of them. It was tough – so much of it was on water or this and that. There were the usual struggles of film production, made more so by the fact we were going to places where films had never been shot before.”

But at all times, Lata and India remained at the heart of the production, as the story of a young woman finding her voice is paralleled by the journey of a country searching for its own identity. A Suitable Boy begins this Sunday on BBC1, while Netflix has picked it up for subscribers around the world excluding Canada, the US and China. Netflix will also carry the series in the UK 12 months after its BBC release.

“What people will love, I hope, is the humanity and the heart of the story,” the director adds. “The fact is that, no matter when it might be set, it’s us on there because we have all travelled through adolescence and made mistakes or follies to find who we are. That tale of coming of age, or coming of voice, both for a person and a nation, is not something you can simply observe but that you can feel and be involved with.

“On a political level, I would have loved to have shown more of the syncretic amalgam of the Hindu and Muslim culture, the music and the language and the coexistence and the depth of the friendship that we all grew up with but is fast being obliterated today. It’s important to hold a mirror to that time, because it’s going. But mostly it’s about growing up as a young girl and about a country growing up as well.”

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Series to Watch: July 2020

DQ checks out the upcoming schedules to pick out 10 new dramas to watch this July, from a Japanese horror to an adaptation of Aldous Huxley’s dystopian novel Brave New World.

Ju-On: Origins
From: Japan
Original broadcaster: Netflix
Starring: Yoshiyoshi Arakawa, Yuina Kuroshima, Ririka, Koki Osamura, Seiko Iwaido, Kai Inowaki, Tei Ryushin, Yuya Matsuura, Kaho Tsuchimura, Tokio Emoto, Nobuko Sendo, Kana Kurashina
Air date: July 3
This six-part series marks Netflix Japan’s first ever horror. Ju-On: Origins focuses on the true events that inspired the legendary film franchise (remade in the US as The Grudge), the beginning of the curse and the terror that befalls those who come into contact with it.

Hanna (S2)
From: UK
Original broadcaster: Amazon Prime Video
Starring: Esmé Creed-Miles, Mireille Enos, Dermot Mulroney
Air date: July 3
Based on the 2011 film of the same name, Hanna centres on a young woman who develops unparalleled skills and training during her isolated upbringing. Following her discovery at the end of season one, Hanna now knows she is not alone: the Utrax programme has produced a whole contingent of highly trained teenagers whose development is about to reach the lethal ‘second phase.’

Little Voice
From: US
Original broadcaster: AppleTV+
Starring: Brittany O’Grady, Sean Teale, Colton Ryan, Shalini Bathina, Kevin Valdez, Phillip Johnson Richardson, Chuck Cooper
Air date: July 10
From executive producers JJ Abrams, Sara Bareilles and Jessie Nelson, Little Voice is described as a love letter to the diverse musicality of New York. It follows Bess King (O’Grady), a uniquely talented performer struggling to fulfil her dreams while navigating rejection, love and complicated family issues. The coming-of-age drama features original music by Grammy and Tony Award nominee Bareilles.

From: US
Original broadcaster: Starz
Starring: Brandee Evans, Nicco Annan, Shannon Thornton, Elarica Johnson
Air date: July 12
Adapted by showrunner Katori Hall from her own stage play, P-Valley transports viewers to the Mississippi Delta to tell the story of a little-strip-club-that-could and the big characters who come through its doors – the hopeful, the lost, the broken, the ballers, the beautiful and the damned. Trap music meets film noir in this lyrical and atmospheric series that asks what happens when small-town folk dream beyond the boundaries of the Piggly Wiggly and the pawnshop.

Brave New World
From: US
Original broadcaster: Peacock
Starring: Harry Lloyd, Jessica Brown Findlay, Alden Ehrenreich, Hannah John-Kamen, Kylie Bunbury, Sen Mitsuji, Demi Moore
Air date: July 15
Based on Aldous Huxley’s novel, Brave New World imagines a utopian society that has achieved peace and stability through the prohibition of monogamy, privacy, money, family, and history itself. As citizens of New London, Bernard Marx (Lloyd) and Lenina Crowne (Brown Findlay) embark on a vacation to the Savage Lands, where they become embroiled in a harrowing and violent rebellion. Rescued by John the Savage (Ehrenreich), they escape back to New London, where John’s arrival soon threatens to disrupt utopian harmony, leaving Bernard and Lenina to grapple with the repercussions.

From: US
Original broadcaster: Netflix
Starring: Katherine Langford, Devon Terrell, Gustaf Skarsgård, Daniel Sharman, Sebastian Armesto, Matt Stokoe, Lily Newmark, Shalom Brune-Franklin, Emily Coates, Billy Jenkins, Bella Dayne and Peter Mullan.
Air date: July 17
This reimagining of the Arthurian legend is based on book by executive producers Tom Wheeler (The Cape) and Frank Miller (Sin City), which tells the story through the eyes of Nimue (13 Reasons Why’s Langford, pictured top), a young woman with a mysterious gift who is destined to become the powerful (and tragic) Lady of the Lake. After her mother’s death, Nimue finds an unexpected partner in Arthur, a humble mercenary, in a quest to find Merlin and deliver an ancient sword.

The Alienist: Angel of Darkness
From: US
Original broadcaster: TNT
Starring: Daniel Brühl, Dakota Fanning, Luke Evans
Air date: July 19
Based on Caleb Carr’s novel, this follow-up to 2018’s The Alienist reunites ‘alienist’ Dr Laszlo Kreizler (Brühl), newspaper illustrator John Moore (Evans) and secretary-turned-detective Sara Howard (Fanning). Sara has now opened her own private detective agency and is leading the charge on a new case to find Ana Linares, the kidnapped infant daughter of the Spanish Consular. Their investigation leads them down a sinister path of murder and deceit, heading towards a dangerous and elusive killer.

From: Germany
Original broadcaster: ZDF
Starring: Emily Kusche, Wotan Wilke Möhring, Alexander Scheer, Roland Møller, Laura Tonke, Annika Kuhl, Adrian Grünewald, Urs Rechn, Marc Benjamin, Tim Bülow, Linda Stockfleth
Air date: July 23
From Christian Alvart, the creator of Netflix series Dogs of Berlin, this topical series mixes coming-of-age drama with pandemic thriller to tell the story of a group of islanders fighting, falling, loving and hating, all while being confronted with a fatal virus.

A Suitable Boy
From: UK
Original broadcaster: BBC
Starring: Ishaan Khatter, Tabu, Tanya Maniktala
Air date: July TBC
Andrew Davies (War & Peace) adapts Vikram Seth’s novel of the same name, telling the story of spirited university student Lata (Maniktala), who is growing up in North India in 1951 at the same time as the country is carving out its own identity as an independent nation. Lata’s mother is determined to find her a husband but, torn between family duty and the excitement of romance, Lata embarks on her own, epic journey of love and self-discovery.

Between Two Worlds
From: Australia
Original broadcaster: Seven Network
Starring: Phillip Quast, Hermione Norris, Sara Wiseman, Aaron Jeffrey, Tom Dalzell, Melanie Jarnson, Megan Hajjar
Air date: July TBC
Business tycoon Phillip Walford (Quast) enjoys a tempestuous marriage with wife Cate (Norris) in this melodrama. Through a twist of fate, their dark and murky relationship collides with the seemingly disconnected world of a widow and her children, leading to the exposure of destructive secrets in a series where nothing is as it seems.

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About a boy

Executive producers Faith Penhale and Mona Qureshi open the book on the BBC’s adaptation of Vikram Seth’s 1,300-page novel A Suitable Boy, a coming-of-age story set in North India in the 1950s.

“The journey starts with your belief in something – your story, your project,” says Faith Penhale of beginning development for a TV series. “Your passion for it is the thing that drives you through, and your partners come on at different stages at the right point in time. Everything has to begin with ‘I really want to tell that story.’ For us, that journey began with Vikram’s book.”

Running to more than 1,300 pages, Vikram Seth’s 1993 novel A Suitable Boy is one of the longest books written in the English language. It centres on the coming of age of spirited university student Lata (Tanya Maniktala), unfolding in North India in 1951 as the country is carving out its own identity as an independent nation and is about to stage its first democratic general election.

Lata (Tanya Maniktala) and Mrs Rupa Mehra (Mahira Kakkar) in A Suitable Boy

Lata’s mother is determined to find her a husband – a suitable boy – but Lata, torn between family duty and the excitement of romance, embarks on her own epic journey of love and self-discovery.

Connected to Lata through their siblings’ marriage, the wayward Maan (Bollywood star Ishaan Khatter) is determined to enjoy life to the full whatever the consequences, much to the concern of his politician father. But could his infatuation with beautiful courtesan Saaeda Bai (Tabu) be one step too far?

Charting the fortunes of four large families, the vast story explores India and its rich culture at a crucial point in its history as the election looms and the country decides its destiny.

But there’s also another story: the tale of how A Suitable Boy came to be adapted for the BBC. “It was published more than 25 years ago and, in the last 10 years of my career, I have been regularly phoning Vikram’s agent to try to wrinkle out the rights,” explains Penhale, CEO of producer Lookout Point. “Vikram was notoriously cautious about who he might let adapt his book. It’s an expansive novel that tells the story of a young woman searching for her identity at a time when India, newly post-partition, was also searching for its identity.

“It’s a great story for our time today but it’s also quite particular. It speaks to that moment in mid-20th century India, so it’s got a great aesthetic to it. Ultimately, it’s a big family drama about the tensions that pull through us as a girl decides her own fate and her own life choices.”

Faith Penhale

Penhale says that although Seth wrote the novel from his own experiences, the story is easily accessible for a global audience, hence her determination to secure rights to the book. “Every six months, I was speaking to his agent. And in one conversation, his agent let slip that the only person Vikram would want to adapt his novel is Andrew Davies,” she reveals. “He had spoken many times about how the novel is greatly influenced by Leo Tolstoy and Jane Austen and that what he’d really love to do is find a screenwriter with a proven track record in adapting these epic classics.”

Having reworked Tolstoy’s War & Peace and Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables for the BBC and Austen’s Emma for ITV, Davies was sought to bring the same approach to A Suitable Boy. Penhale’s existing relationship with Davies brought him and Seth together, creating a partnership that “unlocked” the project. Award-winning Indian filmmaker Mira Nair (Monsoon Wedding) then came on board to direct all six episodes of her first TV series.

“After securing Andrew, we went straight to the BBC and – this is quite unusual – within 24 hours Piers [Wenger, controller of drama] and Charlotte [Moore, director of content] greenlit it. And 24 hours after that, Mira was on board,” Penhale recalls. “This had been a passion for Mira, unbeknown to us. We were huge fans of her, and within 24 hours Mira called us up and said, ‘So I’ve got to do this.’ Who were we to argue with that?”

Mona Qureshi, who executive produces A Suitable Boy for the BBC, says Wenger also loved the book and that everyone in the industry had been keeping tabs on the screen rights.

“We had these fantastic scripts and Mira came to it and brought her own layer of reinvention because it’s my history, my dad’s, but [Lata is] also a child born at the time of partition,” Qureshi says. “The things she spoke about, the experiences she had, the lookbook she came to us with, all the locations she knew that visually speak to that story – it’s about finding the story on a domestic level and then its resonance on an international level.

Optimistic that viewers will “engage and identify” with A Suitable Boy as much as they have with Amazon Prime series The Marvellous Mrs Maisel, which focuses on a female stand-up comic in the 1950s, Qureshi notes: “It’s a similar story of somebody trying to decide how to be happy without making anyone else happy, and dealing with conflicts of keeping your family happy while trying to do your own thing in an independent way and departing from tradition.”

L-R: Vikram Seth, Ishaan Khatter, Mira Nair, Tabu, Tanya Maniktala and Andrew Davies

Filming for the BBC Studios-distributed series was completed at the end of last year, having taken in a number of locations across India, including Lucknow and Maheshwar, and it will air later this year. “We have been really fortunate to find the most extraordinary locations,” Penhale says. “It hopefully has that flavour, that real sense of place that feels so critical to the experience when you read the book. We want to capture that feeling.”

The effort to fully realise the book on screen has been enhanced further by Seth’s close involvement with Davies and Nair behind the scenes. “It’s a triumvirate because we have had Mira, Vikram and Andrew working very closely together throughout the adaptation,” Penhale says. “There have been multiple, lengthy, very open, collaborative and discursive sessions using Andrew’s scripts.

“What’s so wonderful about the result, we hope, is it feels it has all the skill of a very well-crafted story. Andrew’s there as a screenwriter but it’s absolutely rooted in the authenticity of Vikram’s story and where it came from. Mira talks a lot about authenticity but she says it’s not authentic in a dreary or worthy way but in a way where truth is more wonderful than fiction, more magical and magnificent. That’s what she’s really brought out – the magnificent.”

India has become a hotbed of international drama series in recent years, on the heels of Netflix and Amazon’s expansion into the country with original series such as Delhi Crime and Sacred Games. UK broadcaster ITV, meanwhile, recently aired India-set period drama Beecham House. The show came from Bend It Like Beckham director Gurinder Chadha, who is now developing a series called The God Man, which centres on the charismatic leader of a religious sect.

“The really key thing [in India] is understanding and respecting the world,” Penhale says about filming in the country. “Your story is the reason for being there, but it’s not just about reversing in with your own techniques, styles and approaches. The thing we’ve really learned is we are working in a totally different system and style. We’re the ones who have to adapt to that. You adapt to it, you find fantastic teams with real experience and you go with that system. You don’t bring your own. It’s a totally new way of working.”

So, is she planning a return visit? “It’s been amazing. We would go back in a heartbeat,” Penhale adds. “We all hope Vikram might write a sequel.”

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