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'A Suitable Boy' on Acorn Brings Vikram Seth's Novel to Life
December 7, 2020  | By David Hinckley

Good news! If you've always wanted to read Vikram Seth's 1,349-page novel A Suitable Boy, but never found the time, you now finally have a nice compact six-part TV miniseries version.

A Suitable Boy, the TV show, coherently streamlined and beautifully filmed, becomes available Monday on Acorn.

Set in early 1950s India, A Suitable Boy artfully weaves post-colonial politics into the stories of several families whose personal and romantic lives reflect the bumpy evolution of traditional culture into something at times more modern.

Lata Mehra (Tanya Maniktala), a university student, becomes our focal point among a large cast.

Lata is studying English literature and loves poetry. She sees life as an endless opportunity for exploration and adventure.

Her mother, Rupa (Mahira Kakkar), sees the world as a boutique in which she must now shop to find Lata the perfect husband so Lata can settle down and forget all this nonsense about getting an education and exploring the world. Lata's destiny, Rupa declares, will be tending to a home and raising a family – just like Rupa and every preceding generation of traditional Indian women.

A Suitable Boy opens with the wedding of Lata's older sister, Savita (Rasika Dugal,) to Pran (Gagandev Riar) which checked one item off Rupa's list and has made her all the more determined that Lata be next.

In keeping with tradition, Rupa has no interest in a husband being a soulmate. He must be the right height, the right religion, and the holder of a responsible job. If a prospect meets those qualifications, the courtship may consist of as little as a one-hour chaperoned introduction, after which the bride's family begin arranging for the wedding.

As Lata loves her mother, she does not openly rebel. Instead she goes about the business of meeting boys and men in wilder Western ways, like running into them at school.

We're rooting for Lata from the start, as she is thoroughly charming and well-mannered. Her mother drives our Western sensibility a little nuts, but she's beautifully acted and written. Andrew Davies, who whittled Seth's novel into this miniseries, has some experience with marriage-obsessed mothers, having previously written the 1995 screenplay for Pride and Prejudice.

A 1,349-page novel does not just tell one story, of course, and A Suitable Boy creates multiple relationships and dramas.

This includes the infatuation of the young Maan Kapoor (Ishaan Khatter) with Saeeda Bai (Tabu), a wealthy courtesan who is noticeably older than he. Saeeda is a fascinating character, reflecting exactly where a woman in her position can exert power and where she cannot. One thing she definitely has is a level of sexual freedom that traditional women like Rupa find unthinkable.

This ties into A Suitable Boy's wider story because Maan is the younger brother of Pran and therefore is Lata's new brother-in-law.

Maan is also the black sheep of the Kapoor family, whose patriarch Mahesh (Ram Kapoor) is minister of revenue for the new Indian nation. Mahesh is a reformer who proposes taking land from the wealthy landowners, many of them colonialists, and giving it to the tenant farmers who actually work the land.

Needless to say, this proposal does not have unanimous support, particularly among those who now own the land and wield disproportionate power in governing circles.

Mahesh really doesn't need a son who might give his opponents a target. But he's got one.

While A Suitable Boy has elements of soap, it treats both its uniquely Indian and its universal issues seriously enough that it feels substantial.

One warning: Because of the degree to which Davies must compact the story, it does not feel as substantial as Seth's original tale, which burrows deep into Indian culture, the country's break from the British, and the status of women.

But the TV adaptation has rich bright colors and lively characters, making it the sort of drama one could imagine on Masterpiece Theater. Who knows, it might even inspire some viewers to tackle the book.

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