How Mira Nair’s A Suitable Boy found its rhythm in Arjun Bhasin’s costume designing
In Netflix series A Suitable Boy, the costumes are jaw-dropping, intricate, and anachronistic; acting as the observer in almost every frame, charting the distance between who a character is and who they want to be.
Toward the end of the second episode of Mira Nair’s A Suitable Boy, Meenakshi Chatterjee (Shahana Goswami), the adulterous daughter-in-law of the titular Mehra family, asks her brother Amit (Mikhail Sen) to tango with her in the middle of a ballroom. Meenakshi is dressed in a sparkling black saree that is paired with a sleeveless deep-cut blouse. Then, as the soft notes of the music swells in the background, she stretches her right leg to reveal a pair of silver brocade cigarette pants – her saree is actually draped over it.
In the next few seconds, her footwork, swift and elegant, become as indispensable to the rhythm of the choreography as the pants she is wearing while attempting them. If A Suitable Boy was set in the present, the styling decision to have trousers under a saree wouldn’t merit a second glance. But for a show unfolding in the 1950s, in a post-partition India torn between aspiring for modernity and resisting colonial hangover, this outfit is imbued with meaning, one that mirrors that very predicament. Its inventiveness holds a clue not just to Meenakshi’s uninhibited and ostentatious personality, prone to resisting convention, but also to its origins, helming in a way, a deeper understanding of her inner motivations.
Unlike the rest of the Mehras, Meenakshi is from Calcutta (this scene itself is set there), a city that used to be the axis of the British rule in the country, which naturally shaped her modern, hip sensibilities, a direct contrast to the Mehra’s largely conservative, subdued nature. A Suitable Boy ensures that her wardrobe, replete with plunging necklines, teasing sheer fabrics, and chiffon sarees, is an embodiment of that influence. Through functionally gorgeous use of silhouettes and colours (Meenakshi doesn’t shy away from leaning toward bold, bright prints or fitted garments) such as this sequence, the series meticulously employs clothes as a neat narrative device: here it reveals Meenakshi’s social aspirations, her way of keeping up the performance of affluence.
Streaming on Netflix India, Nair’s six-part BBC adaptation of Vikram Seth’s eponymous, sprawling 1993 novel is a listless recreation, limited by the lack of both logistical and storytelling ambition. Even though the source material revolves around the ultimate Indian Matchmaking question of “Who will Lata Mehra (Tanya Maniktala), its central protagonist, marry?,” Seth’s novel uses Lata’s conundrum as a mirror for the fate that awaits India, a newly independent nation that must reckon with its own conscience. But Nair plays it (Andrew Davies adapted it for the screen) rather straightforward, stripping A Suitable Boy of its mystery: The metaphors don’t stand, the dialogue is entirely off-putting, and the actors remain so conscious that they’re playing characters that they forget to make the viewer see them as real people.
The distinct voice that A Suitable Boy lacks in its worldbuilding is almost compensated by the resplendent styling that does what the plot struggles to: advance the action into newer directions by virtue of what the protagonists leave unsaid. Like a camera, the costumes, at once, jaw-dropping, intricate, and anachronistic, act as the observer in almost every frame, charting the distance between who a character is and who they want to be. In that sense, every costume in A Suitable Boy has a character arc even though the show’s writing deprives its own characters of that luxury.
It is to Arjun Bhasin’s credit that the wonderful synchronicity of the clothes in A Suitable Boy look like a much easier ordeal than it might have really been. The 47-year-old designer, a frequent collaborator of Nair (Monsoon Wedding, The Namesake, The Reluctant Fundamentalist) dressed each and every character with a speaking part in the show: the tally is over 100; each of them have at least 40 costume changes. All in all, the main cast, Bhasin claims, had over 900 costume changes, his team dressed 200 actors on a daily basis, and more than 3,000 costumes were made just for the extras.
Bhasin, who is based in New-York and flits between Hollywood and Bollywood projects, isn’t new to ensembles: he shares a recurring creative partnership with Zoya Akhtar (Luck By Chance, Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara, Dil Dhadakne Do) and has worked on Farhan Akhtar’s Dil Chahta Hai, a film that heralded the idea of millennial style on the big screen. If there’s one thing Bhasin is adept at, it is utilising clothes to supplement tension to the proceedings – the conflict they present simmers in the background without calling attention to itself. In most cinematic outings, clothes assist in telling a story that is already in motion. But here, the clothes become the story.
Take for instance, the evolution of Lata’s personal style in A Suitable Boy. In the initial episodes, her wardrobe mirrors her reputation of a “nice obedient girl.” Her clothes are exclusively cotton and her style, demure – long-sleeved kurta sets and woven sarees in muted colours – an effective mark of someone used to hiding herself. That changes when she moves to Calcutta and meets the other suitable boys: Lata grows unusually confident in her skin, starting to bare herself more than usual. Bhasin’s costumes note the shift tenderly: Lata takes to suggestive organza sarees in soft hues and experiments with necklines, no longer seeing her clothes as a shield that prevents her from the world at large, but as an armour that aids her to negotiate her place in the world.
In the over 60 outfits that Lata dons over the course of the series lies a tale of how a young woman comes to assert her identity even when it might seem that her future might be compromised. It’s here that the parallels Seth tried drawing between Lata and a democratic country on the verge of its first general elections, is at its strongest in A Suitable Boy. If the show’s indecisive writing leaves the viewer with no choice other than getting acquainted with the characters from a distance, then the clarity of Bhasin’s costumes allows the viewer to get to know them from a proximity that is intimate and revealing.
Tabu’s Saeeda Bai, a celebrated courtesan in the fictional town of Brahmpur, is given possibly the show’s most curious sartorial decisions, marked by aggressive interplay of colour and a fascinating case of diaphanous layering, both of which speak to the secretive persona of Saeeda Bai. There’s a part of her that is always meant to be hidden simply because of her reputation: her wardrobe mirrors that quiet sadness but is also often complemented with an air of abandon that matches the strength of her desires for the much younger Maan (Ishaan Khatter). In a way, the closest possible reference to Bhasin’s achievement in A Suitable Boy is Zoya Akhtar’s vision for the Gully Boy soundtrack: clothes and music become the harbinger of actions and intentions. In both outings, dialogue ends up seeming like an inferior medium of expression.
But what makes the styling of A Suitable Boy particularly stand out is how Bhasin, currently knee-deep in a high-profile Hollywood project, imagines clothes as an accessible language – one that can at any moment offer a clue to the emotional states of the protagonists. (Maan’s navy blue shawl that Bhasin and his team cut out of old sarees goes through a saddening change of ownership). That Bhasin, a versatile designer, succeeds in subverting the expectations one might have from the clothes of a period epic while remaining steadfastly authentic to the time-period it is set in, is nothing short of a coup. For instance, Saeeda Bai dons a three-piece mismatched blouse and pant suit that will linger in your memory not because it seems out-of-place in 1950s India and more at home in modern times but because the show’s costume design joins the dots in a way that makes its existence entirely feasible.
That alone ensures that Bhasin’s clothes in A Suitable Boy don’t just come across as choices but more crucially, as perspectives that make up the panoramic culture of post-partition India. If only the show’s storytelling didn’t miss that memo.
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