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The Unsuitable Tongues of Mira Nair’s ‘A Suitable Boy’

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Setting The Stage

The 1950s. Several years after partition, India is awash with communal tensions. Amidst it all, the country is preparing for its first General Elections. Set in the fictional town of Brahmpur, Mira Nair’s six-episode mini-series for the BBC attempts to unearth all that is Vikram Seth’s ‘A Suitable Boy’. The setting is the nation’s coming of age, the era of a new India. But Nair’s adaptation is an insipid one. For a show about the country’s reclamation, she ironically waters down the “Indian” in it to suit a Western palate. While it is the first BBC series without major white characters, the colonial hangover precedes this relatively small victory. 

The plot is a subtle retelling of Lata Mehra (Tanya Maniktala) as Portia, in her mother’s (Mahira Kakkar) attempt at finding her a suitor. Lata falls in love with her Muslim classmate, and owing to communal circumstance, must fall out love and find a more suitable boy to marry (a cricketer, poet and a shoemaker– the arc of the British regime). 

The story is also about Maan Kapoor (Ishaan Khattar) and his passion– for an elder courtesan(Tabu) and for resisting the future his father conceived for him. In the 1950s, India was a country embodied by  the two characters. It was Lata’s confidence and malleability but like Maan, it was pained and driven by passion. In holding a mirror to a changed India, Maan and Lata act as metaphors for an India whose identity is confused and struggling between inheritance and individualism. 

Whose Language is it Anyway?

By employing English as the show’s primary language, Mira Nair makes a statement that is by nature contrary to the times the series was attempting to portray. The extension of accessibility and palpability towards an assumed Western audience is the extension of an olive branch– to carry colonialism into a narrative that seeks to abolish it. The voice of the narrator, though seemingly brown is white-washed and coloured over by the sovereignty of the English language. 

The linguistics of acting carry equal importance as anything else on screen. The anatomy of a successful performance rides largely on whether or not the audience leaves convinced. Unfortunately, in this BBC series, the literariness and commerciality of the language reads highly implausible. Nair anglicises the English to a point where it doesn’t matter if English is in fact, the character’s tongue. The grammar’s stark aristocracy, with words like ‘rather’ inserted into dialogues, evokes a feeling of recitation 

Vivaan Shah as Varun Mehra

With this sentence structure and vocabulary, the show’s Indian actors transform into “brown” Western actors, with no personal ties to the history or currency of the cultural moment they are selling. There is no use of the voiceover or the intertitle, and the pressure of narrative motion falls on the characters themselves. They must then carry not only the tools to progress the narrative, but also the visible burden of inauthenticity. 

Lata in conversation with Amit

Indian Narratives in the Colonial Tongue

The history of this orientalist voyeurism stems from the introduction of English as an embattled response to the pressures endured by India during the British raj. The English Parliament, the East India Company, missionaries and the native elite classes enabled such orientalism via the colonial practice of translation. With European translations of Indian texts, came an ‘educated’ Indian who even in speaking vernacular languages, became accessible to a Western readership. ‘A Suitable Boy’ is a curious retelling of this very narrative. A possible argument in favour of Nair’s decision could be that most of the major characters attribute themselves to the setting’s elite, thereby justifying the overarching use of English. However, the fluency met by almost every character in the series leaves them dry and unrelatable. The world created on screen is bound to become too foreign to recognise. 

The inconsistency lies not in the mere employment of English, but in the exclusivity and erroneousness of the character-dialogue dynamic. Nair has previously shot films like ‘The Namesake’ and ‘Monsoon Wedding’ where English either features or as in ‘A Suitable Boy’, governs the film’s plot. In the case of the former, Nair’s cinematic adaptation of Jhumpa Lahiri’s ‘The Namesake’ strikes a balance between appearing critical and narrating a truth. Despite it being almost entirely in English, the film manages to lay a heavy critique on the culture of first-generation South Asian immigrants living in a modern, Western context and struggling with their diasporic identities. 

An Imperfect & Singular Depiction

‘Monsoon Wedding’ also contains dialogues that are largely in English.  However, the difference between this film and the BBC series, lies in the language variation it demonstrates based on the characters’ socio-political and cultural realities, with occasional dialogues spoken in Hindi and Punjabi. ‘A Suitable Boy’ fails at this. Conversations in rural India maintain the same diction, grammar and articulation as those among nobles or members of court. By doing this, Nair disregards the eminent position class, caste and stature play in language and conversation, especially in a country known for its economic polarity.  

Mira Nair on ‘Monsoon Wedding’

Saeeda Bai is one of the only characters, save for Namita Das’ character as a suitor (speaks in a vernacular), whose character arc depends on the language she speaks. It is almost as if when she is upset, she speaks in Urdu, when she is distant it is in Hindustani and the English falls somewhere in between. This may also be attributed to how Maan’s relationship with Saeeda Bai has its roots in this very language and culture. 

Saeeda Bai teaching Maan Urdu

One could argue that this is a case of bricolage (French anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss defines this as the skill of using whatever is at hand and recombining them to create something new), where one must work through a system in order to overturn it. Nair would then be doing what is expected of post-colonial creators where art on reclamation is concerned. However, by anglicising the script to such an extent, the system overrides all attempts at restoration. 

Since the prosaic and poetry of Seth’s words play such a large role in the book’s reading experience, the series was almost bound to be lacking. The subtext struggles for air, the moments become defined and the screen begins to contain. Mira Nair as a filmmaker, thus becomes an editor of time.

Experience Further

Riz Ahmed’s The Long Goodbye is a play on breakup aftermath, only the ex is his country (Britney for Britain). In this concept album especially, Ahmed interrogates colonialism uses fast-paced rap and spoken word to interrogate colonialism. ‘Karma’ is one such song whose lyrics echo the struggle of the third identity for victims of colonisation. In stark contrast to the theme of most of Ahmed’s work, Mira Nair’s ‘A Suitable Boy’ fails to allow the colonised to speak for themselves, leaving them to adopt the British English we see in the series.

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.

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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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