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The Madness of Crowds: A Lesson in A Suitable Boy

In tales of yore, when a traveller passes through daunting terrain, they would reach an insurmountable obstacle, say — a river, a pass or a steep ridge that is connected to the other side through a weakly-held bridge made of rope. At this juncture, the traveller would often find themselves facing an unruly guardian. It would sometimes be a dwarf speaking in riddles, sometimes a fantastical carnivore or sometimes an aged hermit asking them to answer truths about the philosophies of medieval life. The traveller would then be perplexed, and would hope to pass this existential inquisition to get to the other side. For most times, this traveller would be our main protagonist and would be blessed with the collective goodwill of all of the readers to cross this bridge, so he can get to the other side and save the distressed Feminine from the evil forces that have captured her. Other times, they would not be so fortunate and answer wrong — and the loyal guardian of this transport would then drop him into the depths of the hell that he was to cross. Our traveller would perish and never be spoken of again.

In many ways, I have managed to attach this fictional practice to public behaviour when works of art are launched into contemporary society. Each self-important individual (or individuals, for sometimes they form guilds based on commonality of thought) function as this unruly guardian. They opine and decide the fate of the newborn art, check if the morality and ethics in the art is congruent to the highest common denominator in popular opinion, see if the artist is an ethical Messiah, and then allow it to be enjoyed. The only exception in the contemporary practice of this ritual is that the failure of the art is more as compared to the successes, and we can observe more and more releases being banished down the purgatories of ‘The Unpopular Opinion’. 

When I watched Mira Nair’s adaptation of Vikram Seth’s seminal novel — A Suitable Boy, I thoroughly enjoyed it. Having grown up around the archaic and Victorian vestiges of Calcutta myself, the mentions and scenes in the show of the same often had me pointing and smiling at the screen. A lot of the stories around the marriages of women in ancient India are similar to the almost epic-like format of Lata’s own matrimonial journey. Recognising the humorous similarity in the competition for Lata, the show was watched, reflected and reminisced in the uneventful evenings of equally uneventful lockdowns. After the last episode, as I logged on to Twitter, I smelt the stench of verbal gunpowder. People were at war with the show, and Twitter had become the battlefield; to be fair, it had become an epic of its own. Hashtags and hot takes were in order, retweets were aplenty. Some of these had come in the form of editorials, including one for ours. The movement of civil disobedience of Indians on Twitter against the show was underway as if the very fabric of Indian identity and nationality was at stake. Notwithstanding, I managed to discard the verbose weaponry of words, and tried figuring out the roots of this unrest. 

The supposed problems with the show was in its undiplomatic and apparently brazen misrepresentation of Indian postcoloniality. English-speaking Indian erudites argued against the show’s very design that was mostly suited to fit a Western palate. Some others argued about the actors’ fluent diction and grammatical lustre, which they claimed could not be enjoyed by Indians who are not or have not been educated in an environment that fosters this semantic superiority. In all this, the main qualm was that the show was a huge cultural misfire. 

Most of the arguments fail if one looks at the show through an understanding of postcolonial cinema, the sociological dynamic of post-independent India and at the team behind the show. Take, for instance, the primary grievance against the show: its overwhelming use of English. Indians are seen in the show to be conversing in ‘upper-class Western English’, which leaves the audience shocked — “How can Indians speak in such posh English? Surely, this must be another case of modern day colonialism in celluloid!” — and they then proceed to rule the show out on cultural appropriation and attach label after label (read: libel after libel) which regards Mira Nair’s imagination to be one that is incurably possessed by the demons of colonial imposition. Even a cursory look at the dynamics of 1950s India would leave these agitators aware that the overarching use of English in the show is not one that has been used for Westernizing the Indian culture, but that the culture in itself was significantly Westernized after the British had packed their bags.

Ordinary upper class Indians at the time, who are also the people that the majority of the show holds as protagonists, were attracted to the snobbery of the British and tried everything that they could to imbibe that culture in Indian social institutions. This marriage to the metonymic notion that the Western way-of-being was better than the Eastern peasant-like lifestyle was one that was professed by English officials such as Lord Dalhousie, and was wholeheartedly accepted by the masses which further spread it. Fundamentally, it was also this very notion that included Christian education and spoken English in the curriculums of Indian schools, which spread even to the most rural parts of the country. This notion, however, was not celebrated in an isolated upper class. Notable Indian writers, artists and intellectuals at the time shared this view and flocked to reject Indian culture and manifest their creative prowesses in English. Keeping with the geography of the show, a notable mention can be made here of the revolutionary Bengali poet Michael Madhusudan Dutta, who had also succumbed to this ideology, and had separated himself from the Indian literary culture and travelled abroad to write in English. Madhusudhan Dutta is only one of the many poets, writers and freethinkers, who had been intellectually arrested and misguided by this narrative of Western superiority.

In the commentary of this time, it is academic and only somewhat less radical, to attribute the use of English as a sign of the times which cannot possibly be measured by the ethical and moral diktats of contemporary society. Most people who share this problematic and apathetic review of the show make the pompous declaration to litmus-test works of art about the past and measure their validity through an umbrella understanding of it. The characteristic of these assumptions is uniform insofar that they have maintained the same umbrella narrative about everything that it disagrees with, without considering the validity of the academic reasoning devised to do so. These assumptions disregard most prominent opposing views to their argument, which are more thoroughly backed by historical and sociological conclusions, and reach directly instead into their laundry list of libels to attach to the forerunners of the contrary argument. 

Now to the question of whether this overarching use of English in the show was one that was done on purpose or not will raise another set of eyebrows — “Pfft, this was not done on purpose at all. The show is literally made by the BBC. They simply used English, and that people are defending it is a boon to the BBC because they did not think twice about the backlash that it may have!”. To be fair, this argument is not entirely wrong insomuch that there have been controversial works of art that had been created with unethical and misrepresented lenses, which had found people who were willing to defend the art simply to be contrarian. 

That is not the case with A Suitable Boy. The accent coach for the show, Hetal Varia, appeared for interviews after the furore against the show. Varia recognises that the posh English and the over-enunciated usage of English phraseology in the show is a difficult pill to swallow in present day India, where the degree of fluency in English determines one’s social institutions. Varia affirms that the reason for the high-end English in the show was done with thorough training given to the actors, who had to immerse themselves into the postcolonial styles of diction. This waives off any validity of the argument about Nair’s misrepresentation of India with the conscious decision to make the show a toy for the West to engage with. Publications and their authors who make the inconclusive declaration that the show is delivered in English so that it has a significant advantage in Western celluloid, fail to recognise that the nuanced delivery of characters inside the show also vary depending on their age, professions and socio-cultural backgrounds. For instance, Tabu’s character, the courtesan named Saeeda Bai is seen speaking in English only when she is a balanced and stable character. In times when she is perturbed or finds herself in a difficult situation, she switches to her first language — Urdu. English, not being her first language, is a language that she often uses in her conversations with prospective clientele, with Ishan Khatter’s Maan Kapoor before she develops romantic interest in him, and at all other times. Even here, the accentuation of her speech differs largely from that of Maan Kapoor, who is a member of the urban upper-class and a son of a Member of Parliament. Saeeda Bai’s emphasis on vowel and consonant sounds are also vastly different from that of Firoz Khan (played by Shubham Saraf), where the latter is another member of the upper class. In turn, Firoz’s Urdu accentuation is more poetic compared to the childlike prosaic nature of Maan, as the former is presented to be a more cultured and less rowdy character.

 The show is critical even so much that it maintains the necessary heterogeneity. Varia points out how Mahesh Kapoor’s delivery of English differs from that of his wife, and more prominently, his son. Haresh Khanna and Arun Mehra, despite being upper middle class men in their own rights, imbibe the notion of British superiority differently, which shows in their delivery of dialogues. Arun Mehra finds himself fascinated and in love with the British government and considers it a boon to the otherwise Neanderthal-like population that the country is. If possible, Mehra would have loved to be a member of the British tennis and cricket clubs that were popular at the time, and leave the country for good. His nuance of language is a contrast to the Bengali-babu trope that is Haresh Khanna. Khanna is a self-made man in the shoe-making business, who sports a protruding paunch and a neatly trimmed moustache that comes along with being a stereotype. Simply put, Haresh Khanna is not the sort of conventionally attractive men that play heroes in movies; he is often the light at the end of the tunnel, the do-gooder simpleton, who people settle for in want of a less adventurous but assured lifestyle. Even in present day Calcutta, Haresh Khannas can be found hanging from the poles of metro stations, in the steps of local buses, at banana stalls at local railway stations, in Bengali saloons that play Kishore Kumar numbers while shaving beards, or at the fish market with a black K.C Paul umbrella under their arms. Arun Mehra and Haresh Khanna are hilarious and enjoyable contrasts presented by Mira Nair, but what sets them apart is the truth behind these stereotypes. To simply conclude that English remains the predominant characteristic in the show is regrettably lazy and one that tugs at another less favourable stereotype — one of armchair cynics. 

Even so, if we generously choose to humour another one of the arguments against the show — the one that states that the team and cast are all curated, selected, trained and processed to churn out only a Western stereotype of the Indian diaspora — it too loses the self-congratulatory ground of reasoning it stands on. The cast of the show includes prominent actors who excel or have excelled in the Indian Hindi cinema spectrum, and the music of the show is performed by artists who do valuable work about the same Indian diaspora, have enough and more contributions to classical and native music or are experienced musicians who have not stuck to one gentrified idea of music that is composed only for a Western audience. Anoushka Shankar, Kavita Sheth and Alex Heffes perform forty-five tracks throughout the length of the show, which vary in their compositional style and maintain the diversity that Nair seeks to accomplish. To regard the entirety of their artistic prowess as colonial, or one that seeks to reinstate Britain’s colonial hold over the Indian Arts, becomes a short-handed offensive hyperbole. The music in the show is a polar opposite to the usual low-budget appropriated Indian music that can be found in infomercials and is even quite ambitious insofar that it explores the microtonal pleasures of Indian ghazals, coupled with Indian instruments being played in their conventional styles. Articles and accounts about the creative processes that went behind the composition of these pieces reveal an uncomfortable truth for the cynics — that the show was certainly not a lopsided and callous portrayal of India that was created for the West’s consumption. The music in the show becomes as important to the plot as it maintains its closeness to the original text of Vikram Seth, and succeeds to show India’s cultural pluralism. 

However, the show’s contribution to diaspora and postcolonial cinema does not render it free of critique; but it is only fair to critique a show at the value of its artistic qualifications and not at face value of controversial Twitter outtakes. Reviews for A Suitable Boy holds a mirror to India’s regrettable paradox for social justice: as we reject the appropriation of Indian culture by the West, we also succumb to judge our own culture by the measure of the West’s rubric. This format of reviewing fans an air of ethnonationalism in its wake, where every artistic expression is decimated to be a plaything for a ‘one-size-fits-all’ measure, and fails to adjudge works of art at the sum of its individually crafted parts. Needless to say, this measure falls short most of the time and reproduces review after review through the same half-hearted algorithm. 

Experience Further: The Beatles’ For The Benefit Of Mr. Kite is one of the most seminal songs from their 1967 album Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, where Lennon sings about a self-serving circus. Throughout the length of the song, he describes the various activities of the circus people, who seem to be immersed in their own rehearsals, without any idea that the rest of the world has long since stopped watching.

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About Us

Anant Shah

Anant Shah- Founder

Anant Shah (just as his Instagram bio says) has always been interested in connecting people though their different cultures. He is drawn to this goal, given his background of a family of artists, as well as his work at several different organisations such as the People Tree with Orijit Sen, The Conflictorium in Ahmedabad and The UN (AIDS) Communications and Global Advocacy Team in Geneva. As a graduate of History and International relations at Ashoka University, he co-founded and set up the Ashoka Literature festival in 2019. Longing to increase this critical discourse on contemporary and traditional Indian Cultures he finally decided to start InCulture.

Kartik Sundar- Founder

Kartik Sundar loves nothing more than opining on cultural content. An avid writer for many publications, the decision to start one of his own came from recognizing a substantive lack of critical discourse around Indian culture today. He graduated Ashoka University with a degree in History & International Relations and wishes to complete further education with a focus on media and cultural studies.

Who We Are

We at inCulture are looking to shed light on what we see as an emerging new Indian culture as well as paying dues to the traditions that have been integral in shaping the current space. We want to try and create a space where critical reflection on cultural events, individuals, works of art, or practices can be fostered. Rather than exist as a cultural news outlet that merely serves as a bulletin board for the latest releases, inCulture will look to curate multi-medium pieces that seek to inform readers about aspects of our culture that make you think beyond an immediate reaction. In particular, we strive to look critically at Indian culture by investigating it under four distinct categories – film & theatre, music, spaces, and society.

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