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From Filmmaking Veterans Comes 'A Suitable Boy,' a Beautiful Period Drama Set in 1950s India
December 7, 2020  | By Mike Hughes

Sprawling across the emotional landscape, A Suitable Boy seems to be many things.

It's mostly Jane Austen-esque, with a late dose of lurid soap opera. It's indie cinema, expanded to near-epic proportions. It's the work of two masters, trying something new at ages 63 and 84.

The former is Mira Nair, an indie-movie favorite for decades; the latter is Andrew Davies, who has written many of the best British miniseries. They linked for a tale that reaches the Acorn streaming service Dec. 7.; starting a two-hour premiere followed by hour-long shows each week.

Set in 1951 India, this centers on Lata (Tanya Maniktala, top), a college student whose widowed mother wants to find her a husband instantly; Austen would approve. But beyond that, it takes a few detours, some bad – oafish villains throughout and some soap-style moments in the fifth episode – and some good.

All of this is a detour for the two skilled film people.

Nair grew up in India, went to Harvard, then began making indie films – some set in India, some set among natives of India living in the U.S., some (including Reese Witherspoon's 2004 Vanity Fair) neither. She's won an Oscar, a Golden Globe, and at least 30 awards from film festivals and such. But she's mostly worked in tidy, two-hour chunks, not this sort of miniseries.

Davies, who grew up in Wales, writes great miniseries, including House of Cards, Bleak House, and three from Austen – Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility, and Sanditon. He's mainly adapted English novels but branched out into Doctor Zhivago and War and Peace.

The latter – a mere 1,225 pages – could be considered a decent warm-up for adapting Vikram Seth's 1,349-page A Suitable Boy. At times, Davies includes some odd choices. Why – late in the show – introduce a mother, unrelated to the plot, who has Alzheimer's?

And Nair also has a few missteps. She allows some characters to be wildly excessive, especially Lata's snobbish brother and a raja who would even embarrass John Falstaff or Toby Belch. And together (presumably via Seth's novel), they give us that lurid soap scene at the end of the fifth episode.

Still, most of this is centered on Lata, an instantly likable character. She's bright, shy, earnest, and, as it happens, terribly attractive. Potential romances keep intruding, with or without her mother's nudges.

Too many shows make it obvious which guy will end up with the heroine, but A Suitable Boy never makes it obvious.

We meet, chronologically, her childhood friend, Maan (Ishaan Khatter), her fellow student, Kabir (Danesh Razvi), a successful poet, Amit (Mikhail Sen), and an earnest but socially clumsy shoemaker, Haresh (Namit Das).

There are plenty of side stories, many of them centering on Maan. He's wildly in love, and in lust, with a courtesan who seems to have a younger sister who also draws suitors. His dad, a crusading politician, banishes him to the countryside, where more dramas occur.

All of this is against the backdrop of enormous change.

When Pakistan was created in the late 1940s, the region suddenly had two countries, one overwhelmingly Hindu (including Lata's family), the other overwhelmingly Muslim. In each country, the minorities faced fierce biases.

Nair handles the times beautifully. A Suitable Boy has an epic look, with bright colors, big crowds, and rich period details. It has the feel of a budget-buster but was somehow done for TV money.

Throughout it all, we care about Lata and the eccentric souls she meets on the way. Nair and Davies have given us a suitable epic.

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