Acclaimed Indian director Mira Nair tells Richard Middleton how she paired up with War & Peace scribe Andrew Davies on a lavish adaptation of Vikram Seth’s seminal novel A Suitable Boy for the BBC
Mira Nair makes no bones about it: she has always loved Vikram Seth’s 1993 novel A Suitable Boy, a book that runs to almost 1,400 pages and well in excess of half a million words. Underlining this is the fact she has read the novel multiple times.
As passion projects go, Nair’s adaptation has few challengers and talking to the revered director, whose films include Monsoon Wedding, Mississippi Masala and Salaam Bombay!, it seemed she was all but destined to work on the series even before it was made.
Set in 1951, the show tells the story of a spirited university student Lata (Tanya Maniktala) whose mother is determined to find her a husband – a suitable boy. Lata is torn between family duty and the excitement of romance, but the show is more than simply a coming of age story in northern India – instead it reflects not just the experiences of the show’s lead character but of the country as a whole. Les Misérables scribe Andrew Davies wrote the six-parter, while BBC Studios-owned Lookout Point produces for BBC One in the UK.
“I’ve carried a torch for A Suitable Boy since it was written in 1993,” Nair says. “I’m a friend of [author] Vikram Seth and knew him while he was writing it and I’ve read it three times – it’s quite a long thing to read three times.”
Nair describes the book as “the great Tolstoy novel of India,” a story not just about Indians but also about a time when the country was working out its own identity.
“It’s set three years after independence, the year my parents got married and it was always when I wanted to be born, because it was when India was learning to be what it was.”
Despite immediate enthusiasm for the IP, Nair was unable to secure adaptation rights and she moved onto other projects. One of those, the 2001 feature Monsoon Wedding, was a “micro-cosmic version” of the novel, she says. “It is truly the child of A Suitable Boy because it was inspired by the book – I thought if he can do this with four families then maybe I could do it with one.”
Fast-forward 15 years or so, and Nair heard that “there was someone in India looking for a production team.” She phoned her agent and got him to call Lookout Point. “I said I really wanted to make it,” the director explains. “They were very keen and we arranged meetings and that was that – it was pretty instant. I had a whole book of my own ideas for the show and signed on in January 2018.”
By this point, Davies – the similarly acclaimed writer who was behind Lookout Point’s War & Peace and Les Misérables – had already written eight episodes of the screenplay. “I thought they were remarkably skilful,” Nair says, and the duo started working together “to distil” the series into a six-part show rather than eight.
“I thought the pace would lend itself better to six hours and we have been working very closely ever since,” Nair explains. “I came with very strong ideas of shooting it entirely on location and with Indian actors of course. We didn’t want to really cast around the world because there wasn’t any need to, we have the talent in our country because it is so immense.”
Nair used many of her own creative team to produce the series, people “who I’ve been working with for the last 25 years,” she says, including her cinematographer, producer and the costume designers. For Damian Keogh, MD at Lookout Point, that was key.
“The BBC and ourselves were absolutely all about making this authentic and real – and the best way to do that is to shoot on location. Mira is the only person to do that really in that epic cinematic way, and she was also able to cast from the immense talent pool.”
But with commissioners often keen to include their own local talent on dramas to provide a way in for audiences, were there any concerns on such a focus?
“There was no pushback,” Keogh says. “It is a risk but it’s a creative risk worth taking because you end up with a show that is incredibly specific and authentic – and through all that, it also talks universally, something that the book does too.”
Nair adds: “I also explained there would be no point in casting outside of India, because I would be just undoing accents. It never became a condition because it didn’t come to that sort of arm wrestling, but there was no other way to go.”
Nair is famed for her ability to convey India’s pulsating rhythms on screen and there was a similar focus with A Suitable Boy. “I didn’t believe it should be a two-hour film, it’s like a six-hour film,” she says.
“It’s for TV but mostly I’m making my own cinema with a lot of help from my friends. The episodic structure is from the book, it hasn’t been imposed on our episodes. The book has that pace and rhythm, it was a case of sculpting it to create this one-hour episodic structure but it is not foreign to the book itself.”
Nair admits she is “pretty ruthless about pace” and it is something she has tried to instil into the show. “I try to keep it alive and pulsating and funny and very mischievous and I hope sexy. That is what the book has, I’m not stamping all over it, all that is there.”
The series is set in a tumultuous time in India’s formative years, but it explores the impact of this on the characters. “The Hindu-Muslim partition and that conflict had just happened, but we’re not talking about the partition – we’re talking about after it. There was still great co-existence and great friendship and incredible shared pasts of people who happened to be Hindu and Muslim,” she says.
“That same divide is being further divided today but it is based on what happened in the 1950s and 60s. There is an uncanny timing both in terms of when he wrote it and now.”
But on a more “intimate level”, as Nair puts it, the show is about people. “It is actually the story of Vikram’s parents. Lata, his mother, and his father. This is the story of an intellectual girl who lives in a world of books and whose mother has to get her married and is looking for a suitable boy.
“And at the heart of this novel is a beautiful philosophical question, which the heroine asks: is it possible to be happy without making others unhappy? This was the foundation for the treatment of the story – and you have to see yourself in it, otherwise it is just a foreign museum. And that’s not my thing.”