A suitable adaptation

August 23, 2020

Vikram Seth’s blockbuster novel comes to the TV screen

Dear All,

It’s been many years since I read Vikram Seth’s engrossing novel A Suitable Boy but these days I am watching the BBC adaptation of it: I’m enjoying it but also musing about some of the details from the book which are downplayed in the TV version.

Turning a lengthy novel, the paperback version of which I remember as being the size of a brick and which ran to well over a thousand pages (591,522 words apparently), into a six-part TV series must have been quite a difficult task. Seth’s 1993 book is one of the longest novels published in a single volume but it was extremely well received and made very enjoyable reading. But even though the TV adaptation is very entertaining and captures the spirit and story of the novel, the production highlights how sometimes screen adaptations just cannot give you everything that a book can.

Take, for example, the build-up to the heroine, Lata’s developing relationship with Kabir, a student at the college where she studies. The courtship seems to be going well until she discovers that Kabir’s surname is Durrani and hence he is a Muslim. Reading the novel, the reader was lulled into a sense of certainty that Kabir is surely a ‘suitable’ boy for Lata without any thought that Kabir is one of those names that you will find in both Hindu and Muslim communities. However, unlike in the book, in the TV adaptation you never quite have the time to be lulled into this conviction and hence be adequately unsettled by the discovery that they are from different communities and so the relationship is probably doomed.

No matter though, the discovery of Kabir’s religion proves dramatic enough in the context of the TV story and we just go with the flow of the passionate courtship and the various problems the couple encounter. My other slight quibble about the TV production concerns the character of Mrs Mehra, Lata’s anxious mother and an insecure widow. In Seth’s book Mrs Mehra’s hobby of cutting old greeting cards to create new collage cards is vividly described and is very much a part of her character, but this is omitted from the TV dramatisation. This is a very small detail but one that I particularly remembered about Lata’s mother,

Another quibble involves a sign above bookshelves, which in the television production reads ‘Math’ — this seems like an Americanisation - everybody in the subcontinent would say Maths. But apart from such minor points the overall verdict is that writer Andrew Davies has done an impressive job of adapting this sweeping novel into a production that gets right to the heart of the story. The cast is made up of Indian — Indian not British Asian — actors and is minus the white character actors of past Raj era dramas. Actually, the casting and acting is all very good and even though some people have criticised the drama for depicting India in the way that British viewers seem to enjoy most, the period detail is impressive.

The newcomer Tanya Maniktala who plays Lata is a natural — endearing and believable — and Danesh Razvi who plays her love interest Kabir Durrani, is a talented and handsome actor who already has many viewers swooning over him. Tabu is excellent as the courtesan Saeeda Bai as is Ishaan Khatter as Maan Kapoor. The story is set in 1951, just a few years after Independence from British rule and the partition of India, and the identity crisis of a new nation and its internal conflicts are well depicted — these conflicts of course illustrate the recurring questions: should India be traditional or progressive, Hindu or other, religious or secular?

Communal tensions run through the story despite the close individual relationships of characters from different communities, and it is these communal tensions that add context to the eventual resolution of the matter of whom Lata should marry. This is a story about families and individuals and identity and progress, here we see characters trying to defy the turbulence brought on by the political and social change that surrounds them just by convincing themselves that life must be as they expect it to be…

Overall, this is a very suitable adaptation of Seth’s sprawling story: despite the slight glamourisation of many interiors, this TV production is a fine visualisation of a very enthralling story — full of people and problems, of large families and difficult relatives, of bitter politics, and age old secrets, of forbidden love and practical choices… and it’s such a compelling story, told so well on the screen, that it has taken me back to the book: I’m now re-reading it, a downloaded edition of over 1,700 pages, and I’m thoroughly enjoying the experience…

Best wishes,

Umber Khairi

A suitable adaptation: Vikram Seth’s blockbuster novel comes to the TV screen