Mira Nair on why A Suitable Boy appealed to her, how she cast each part and her upcoming work
A Suitable Boy, directed by Mira Nair and adapted for screen by Andrew Davies, is now streaming on Netflix.
Mira Nair famously described her mini-series adaptation of Vikram Seth’s 1993 novel A Suitable Boy as ‘The Crown in brown’. Set in 1951, the six part show, which premiered on BBC and is now streaming on Netflix India, tells the story of Lata Mehra, her mother’s obsession with finding her daughter a suitable match, the Khans, the Kapoors and several other families, their complex interpersonal relationships, affairs, politics and dynamics.
Speaking from her home in New York City, the director of Salaam Bombay, Monsoon Wedding and Queen of Katwe spoke about why Seth’s novel appealed to her, the cast she wanted, and the ones she lost. Nair also shared details of her exciting upcoming work.
Edited excerpts from the interview.
How did you work with such a large body of text (the book is over 1300 pages) and so many different story tracks?
That’s what I love. I love the circus of life. I love the layering. That’s our country and that’s how we are raised — cheek by jowl, those who have everything and those who have never seen anything. That is what has spurred all my work and that’s why I so much wanted to tell this tale. With the layering comes rigour and great economy because we have just one hour on each chapter. The sifting of what you choose to tell and what you choose to put away is the first step of adaptation. After that, every character on screen has to have an intention, and has to have clarity so that any one of their actions propels the viewer into another universe. The real joy for me, which sustained me during the many gruelling challenges (mainly to do with finance and time constraints), was the actors. I am now old enough to cast people I want to be with.
There are 110 characters in the series. Which parts were easiest to cast and which were the toughest?
I had my pick of the draw in this one. There was only one person that I didn’t get to work with on this, sadly and that was Irrfan, who was going to play the Nawab. Even while I offered it to him, I knew it might not be. But I love Aamir Bashir who has played the Nawab. Meenakshi Mehra is one of my favourite characters, and Shahana Goswami got Meenakshi’s bindass way. I was careful and wanted Bengalis to play Bengalis, as far as possible, and give me that juice. Like Ananya Sen as Meenakshi’s sister Kakoli, who is so lovely and so Bong. She and Shahana were such great sisters; they reminded me of Jhumpa (Lahiri) and her sister. The easiest to cast was Tabu. She was always Saeeda Bai. She's a great friend and a great actress. We know what she does and her allure, mystery, sex appeal, comedy and the ease with which we work is beautiful. If you get Tabu in anything you do, you are already heaven-sent.
Lata Mehra was the hardest to cast. For a year the casting directors scoured the country. I even looked at casting from the USA. Then we met Tanya (Maniktala) who had a clear-eyed way of looking at the world, with fierce intellect behind the propriety and the decorum. And she could be demure without faking it. When I saw her I knew it. We met her in July 2019 and we shot in August.
Overtly, the taboo relationships in the story are between Maan Kapoor and Saeeda Bai, between Lata and Kabir Durrani and Meenakshi’s affairs. But there’s also the sub-text to Maan and Firoz’s relationship, which you have handled with a light touch.
It is written that way in the novel but in the making of the film this lightness was very important to me. Firoz and Maan's love story is how we were raised. Before all these movements of gay pride, LGBTQ advocacy etc began, this was around us for generations. This is life. I love how Vikram both imbues it and writes it with a great delicacy and a real embrace of the beauty and complication, and that is what I tried to preserve, even in the casting of the two parts (played by Ishaan Khatter and Shubham Saraf). I was also very moved by how Firoz and Maan are not possessive or jealous, yet they are holding on to that almost unconditional love that comes from a history of having loved someone. That's how I filmed even the scene in the bathtub and Maan dressed in Firoz's clothes. You know they have had a great history, a vibrant present and a future that was hugely jeopardised by the attempted murder. It encapsulates the enormous syncretic quality of friendships.
Is the story of A Suitable Boy also a metaphor for a country’s coming of age – with elections, confusion about identity, the communal undertow? Twenty-seven years after the book was written, it has such resonance today.
If there is anything I have brought to the adaptation, it's to create a balance between the politics and the personal. We are living in the most fractured and dangerous time which is completely at odds with the plurality and power of our cultures. A Suitable Boy beautifully captures culture, post the trauma of Partition, in the syncretic language, the courtesan’s life, small town life, the fluidity. And to make it in a time when it is actively being challenged and obliterated, that was the fuel for me. So it was very important for me to hold a mirror to where we have come from and what we are heading for. And to never forget. That was a huge part of why I wanted to make this.
What are you working on next?
We have almost finished the screenplay for a feature film on Amrita Shergill which I am hoping we can shoot next year. We will also be opening Monsoon Wedding, the stage musical worldwide, starting with India in 2021, COVID notwithstanding. Then there is the eight-hour show based on the Jungle Prince of Delhi, which will begin in early 2022. So my plate is quite full.
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