It makes sense, actually, that the TV adaptation of Vikram Seth’s 1993 novel A Suitable Boy would be penned by Welsh screenwriter Andrew Davies, because it shares so much with the Regency and Victorian-era pieces Davies has so iconically brought to life. Seth’s sweeping tale of love and life in 1950s India fits right alongside the matrimony-focused works of Jane Austen, the social commentary of Charles Dickens, and the political nuances of War & Peace. These Anglo comparisons are also relevant to the portrait drawn of A Suitable Boy’s India, where the fall of the British Raj has left a deeply divided country where the upper echelons of society are very much influenced by its recent colonial past.
The BBC One series, gorgeously directed by Mira Nair (Monsoon Wedding), is available on the very Anglo-centric Acorn TV in the U.S. and runs for six hourlong episodes. Building in both scope and emotional weight as it goes, A Suitable Boy is indeed filled with many suitable and unsuitable relationships throughout. Crossing class, religious, and prejudicial divides, the story introduces us to a number of interconnected families residing in Calcutta and a small village in Northern India. But the main focus is on Lata Mehra (Tanya Maniktala), a university student whose very Mrs. Bennett-esque mother Rupa (Mahira Kakkar) is determined to arrange a proper marriage for her.
The brightly charismatic Lata is, naturally, against the idea from the start. To her mother’s horror, she forms an attachment with a handsome fellow student who adores her (Danesh Razvi); unfortunately for Lata and her Hindu family, he’s also Muslim. But just as suddenly, she develops feelings for a wealthy playboy poet (Mikhail Sen) who dazzles her with his charm. Finally, she’s introduced to a very middle class man (Namit Das)—her mother’s choice—who has a good heart but doesn’t immediately sweep her off her feet. (Saavy romance viewers will know to keep an eye on that one.)
As Lata works through her feelings for her admirers alongside her feelings of duty to her family, she is surrounded by a dizzying number of plots that investigate the social hierarchies across India, in both cities and the country. The most fascinating is that of a playful son of a politician, Maan Kapoor (Ishaan Khatter), who falls in love with a beautiful singer (Saeeda Bai, played by Tabu) many years his senior. Banished to the hinterlands to work through his own feelings and obligations, the roguish Maan (the sort who casually teases his Urdu teacher reading the Quran by asking “any good?”) ends up learning important truths about himself and is forced to finally grow up.
This only dips a toe into A Suitable Boy’s engrossing stories, which do take a little while to get going (especially after introducing so many characters and so many disparate plots to start, which means not all of the land evenly). Despite its short run, though, the series takes its time. In many ways it’s a languid meditation on love, yet simultaneously full of bustling settings and possibilities. Nair has created an atmosphere that is both foreign and familiar, full of intimate spaces and period flourishes. It’s modern, but also bound by the custom of arranged marriage that makes every relationship about much more than just the couple.
Boasting an outstanding cast (and notable all Indian actors) from top to bottom, it is ultimately young Tanya Maniktala who really anchors the whole work. She is incredibly expressive, warm, and makes it easy to understand why Lata picks up admirers wherever she goes. But she also plays Lata perfectly as a girl on the cusp of womanhood—one who is confident, impulsive, emotional, conflicted, and quietly coy in turn. She pines after one suitor in her daydreams, but is wise to admire another one’s character when shown his goodness. Like Maan, Lata is also learning more about herself and being forced to grow up quickly to keep step with the demands of a society that requires, indeed, “suitable” boys and girls to get married post-haste.
Filling a very necessary and currently quiet space of sweeping TV period dramas with a focus on romance, A Suitable Boy arrives with a fresh perspective and charm to spare—even through some of its most difficult storylines. It’s a richly composed series whose beats are recognizable and perhaps a bit fantastical, but nevertheless delivers a satisfying exploration into complicated matters of the heart.
The first two episodes of A Suitable Boy premiere December 7th on Acorn TV, with subsequent episodes airing every Monday.
Allison Keene is the TV Editor of Paste Magazine. For more television talk, pop culture chat and general japery, you can follow her @keeneTV
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