A Suitable Boy: Ishaan Khatter, Tanya Maniktala, Ram Kapoor on being part of the adaptation of Vikram Seth's novel
Based on Viktam Seth’s expansive 1993 novel, A Suitable Boy is set in 1951 and follows the story of Lata Mehra (Tanya Maniktala) as she resists her mother’s quest for a life partner for her teenage daughter.
Ask any of the principal cast members of A Suitable Boy, and their response to the prospect of being a part of a BBC produced, Mira Nair adaptation of a Vikram Seth novel (on Netflix from 23 October) is an echo. It was a “no brainer,” say some, while nearly all the actors say working with Nair was on their “bucket list.”
Based on Seth’s expansive 1993 novel, the televised six-part drama is set in 1951 and follows the story of Lata Mehra (Tanya Maniktala) as she resists her mother’s quest for a life partner for her teenage daughter. Lata finds herself weighing up the pros and cons of three suitors – Kabir, Amit and Haresh. The story travels between the fictitious town of Brahmpur, Calcutta and Benaras and acquaints us with the Mehras, Kapoors, Khans and Chatterjis, among others.
An aimless young man called Maan Kapoor (Ishaan Khatter), the son of career politician Mahesh Kapoor (Ram Kapoor), falls in love with the courtesan Saeeda Bai (Tabu). Maan’s track brings a layer of tension, political context and ambiguity to the gentle story of matchmaking.
The most coveted and hotly contested part of Lata finally landed in the fresh hands of Maniktala. The Delhi girl had been in only one series before (Flames), but when author Seth met Maniktala for the first time, his reaction “filled her with joy”.
Maniktala recalls, “I first met him when the entire cast had come together for the table read in Mumbai. I introduced myself and said I will be playing Lata. Vikram sir said, ‘Yes, you are what I imagine Lata to be.’ Thinking of that still makes me feel warm and fuzzy.”
Seth was often present on set and very involved. “He was monitoring the scenes and enjoying the process. He was discovering and rediscovering his own characters and intrigued to see them come to life in this manner,” says Khatter, who, like many other cast members, had not read the 1300-pages-plus novel. When it came to Khatter’s character, Seth informed him that Maan was the only character in the book he did not have a reference for in real life.
If on one hand Maan is courting Saeeda Bai, on the other is the undefined, yet deeply committed, relationship he shares with Firoz. London based Shubham Saraf, who plays the Nawab of Baitar’s son, says of the sub-text of Firoz and Maan’s relationship, “I think all the other love relationships in the book and series can be given a label - either familial, romantic, intellectual or lust, whereas Maan and Firoz’s relationship cannot be labelled, which makes it very beautiful.”
Khatter had the dual challenge of working on the chemistry between himself and Saraf as well as with Tabu. “Shubham and I had a level of comfort and a sense of humour about this from the very beginning. It was recognised early on that this is one of, if not the, most poignant relationships which was not romantic but a soulful love. Mira Nair was very particular about how she wanted us to portray this. For me, the beauty is that it is so specific, so unique and complete,” said Khatter of Maan and Firoz’s friendship.
Then, when it came to his interaction with Tabu, not only did Khatter find it easy to work with her but enjoyed her collaborative and light approach. “Surprisingly it didn't take as much work as one might imagine to create that chemistry. Once we were on the same frequency, it came alive on set. I would work with her in any equation, in a heartbeat,” says Khatter.
A relative newcomer, Maniktala admits she was intimidated to work with such a large ensemble cast that includes seasoned actors such as Rasika Dugal, Namit Das, Aamir Bashir and Kapoor. For instance, the first time she met Das for the ‘chemistry read’ she greeted him with, “Hello sir. I am a big fan.” Das plays Haresh, one of the three suitors. “He was like, Sir mat bulao (Don’t call me sir). We are all here for the same work and we are all at the same level. That was a lesson for me: that we are all at the same level when we are working on something that is so creatively free. It is important for an actor to have an open path to communicate with their scene partner. A lot of what acting is about is energies bouncing back and forth,” says Maniktala who is hopeful that this international series will open many more doors globally.
For Kapoor, who is best known for his roles in numerous Indian television serials, reuniting with Mira Nair after Monsoon Wedding (2001) was an opportunity to return to the international stage. Mahesh Kapoor is similar to many of the characters he has played on Indian TV – idealistic and serious. Says the actor, “Personally, it was exactly as it was on Monsoon Wedding. A Mira Nair set has the same vibe where everybody is at the top of their game. It’s chaotic, hectic and demanding, but also a lot of fun. When you are surrounded by committed people who are all very good at what they do, it makes life easier.”
As much as the series is about the boys – suitable and unsuitable, the story is also populated with some wonderful female characters, including Lata’s strong but silent and reliable sister Savita, played by Dugal, and their sister-in-law, the fun-loving and unfiltered Meenakshi, played by Shahana Goswami.
Condensing a vast tome to a manageable six-parter compelled screenwriter Andrew Davies leave out certain parts of Seth’s prose. While Dugal is sensitive to the challenge of undertaking this exercise, there were aspects of Savita’s backstory she missed. “It must have been a heartbreaking exercise for Andrew Davies and Mira to leave out certain bits of the book. One aspect to Savita's life, which did not make it to the series, which I really missed was her journey of wanting to become a lawyer,” says Dugal who was attracted to playing Savita “because she is a lot like a lot of women I grew up around. Women who are soft-spoken and gentle tend to get described as weak or disempowered. I wanted to play a character who was different from Lata. Savita is not rebellious, but she is not weak either. For me she is gentle and soft-spoken and still has agency and can make choices. By playing her I wanted to respect the women I grew up with.”
Waking up at 3 am to be in hair and make up and get period ready was one of the biggest tests for Dugal. “One day I got the call sheet and it said breakfast was at 3.45 am. Forget breakfast’ that’s more like a midnight snack! I think waking up so early was really difficult for everybody but living with this ensemble cast for three months felt like being back in the hostel.”
It took Goswami a while to understand how Nair could see her in a character so unlike her own personality or anything she has played before. “Until and unless you break out of that you don't know if you are capable of playing such a part. Mira entrusted me with Meenakshi and that itself was a huge eye opener because we are also stuck in notions of what we can and cannot do,”says the Rock On and Firaaq actress.
Meenakshi’s costumes, hair and styling -- the plunging necklines, the sari drapes, styles and fabric, her red lips and dark glasses, her decibel levels and tonality – also set her apart. She’s also the life of the party which required Goswami to learn the Tango. “I love dancing so it was such a thrill to learn the tango. It was not easy, but it was great fun,” says Goswami.
As gruelling as the long shooting days were, post-pack up was equally enjoyable. The cast fondly recalls drinks at the end of a long day, with Seth often regaling them with recitations of verse, or Vivaan Shah’s quirky humour that had them in splits. “Many fun activities were organised for us. For instance, one day a singer came to entertain us. Another day they organised a dance-off between all the cast and crew. The accounts team and security guards won. They were superb,” says Goswami, crediting their director for creating the camaraderie and cohesion on set. “Mira is like a mother who brings everyone together and likes to have fun. She’s full of energy.”
Vivek Gomber, Randeep Hooda, Vijay Raaz, Vijay Varma, Ranvir Shorey and Kulbhushan Kharbanda are among the other Indian actors in the British-Indian production.
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