Abysmal writing, boring screenplay, an insensitive imposition of an oppressor’s language, and an English-speaking courtesan, Netflix and BBC’s A Suitable Boy is possibly one of the most unwatchable shows on the planet right now — and I couldn’t watch beyond two episodes.
This is not a review. It cannot be a review, because I would have to watch the whole series to be able to review it. I couldn’t watch more than two episodes. Honestly, I think I would have stopped after just one, but I was greedy for more Tabu. Unfortunately, when even Tabu cannot make me finish a season, there must be something terribly wrong with it.
First up, Mira Nair, please stop pedaling Indian exoticism to the whites. In a filmography of 11 projects, Nair has eroticised India in seven of them. Her version of India doesn’t go beyond its classical music, marigolds, silk dupattas, ghazals, sindoor, and Ghalib. She peddles Bollywoodness, but not with the love of a family member, but like a boutique owner, who picks “conversation pieces” that will sell “like hot parathas” in a foreign country. And that is why A Suitable Boy reeks of insincerity.
Why do I say insincerity? As an Indian film-maker, if you fail to understand the politics of the English language in 1951, you are irresponsible and insensitive. English was, then, the language of the oppressor. English has been imposed on every character in the show. Now, let’s clarify a few things: Yes, the book was written in English, but a book creates room for imagination. When a character is speaking in English in a book, that does not mean that the character is speaking in English in the reality of narrative. Also, English is a democratic language that obviously ensures more readership for a text. But the visual medium is even more democratic than the English language, and hence, doesn’t need English to reach more audiences. Secondly, an audio-visual medium immediately builds a reality for the audience. This reality needs to be flawless, justifiable, and does not have room for poetic licence to ensure an immersive experience. If a character speaks in English, in a certain accent, uses certain vocabulary, all of this adds to her/his reality and identity. The viewer derives meaning from that. For example, if two characters are on the screen, and one speaks in British English while the other is piecing phrases together in bits and bobs, the viewer makes assumptions of their realities, socio-economic standing, upbringing, and backgrounds. This is audio-visual 101. So, when Lata speaks in chaste Queen’s English, I am confused. Am I to believe that her family is a British sympathiser suffering from a colonial hangover? When a right-wing Hindu politician speaks in English, what am I to assume of his reality? Or a king who refuses to give up his princely state? Or, most devastatingly, a Muslim tawaif? How distorted does reality become when a tawaif speaks in English? What am I to assume of her reality? I refuse to accept that BBC couldn’t have made this show in Urdu, Hindi, and English, supporting it with subtitles. With the huge Indian, Pakistani, and south-Asian population in the UK, it would feel quite at home. A healthy first step towards inclusivity (unless that is not a post-Brexit message the UK wants to encourage). With Netflix as their partner, it should have been an even more natural decision to make.
The dialogue-writing is prosaic — and definitely not in a good way. No Indian talks like the characters in the show. They never did. And if the characters are speaking in such a posh upper-crust fashion like they were characters in an Oscar Wilde or Bernard Shaw play, why haven’t they set sail for London yet? The only characters who fit into this Englishness are Lata’s oldest brother, his wife (played by the stunning Shahana Goswami), and her lover, Billy (Randeep Hooda). They are Anglophilic characters. Lata’s brother sucks up to his British boss after Independence. Him speaking English makes sense. Lata’s mother saying “what have I done in my past life to be cursed like this?” sounds like a fifth grader’s short story competition entry.
I cannot fathom why the show is so outrageously boring. Is it because this is an Indian reality beaten to a clichéd death? Another show on parents desperate to marry off their young daughter while she wants to make her own decisions, just in a new package? Is it coming too close after Netflix’s Indian Matchmaking, and we have had enough of the same pie? Or did Netflix think that because the world lapped up Seema Aunty’s bullshit, they would want some by Mira Aunty now? On a technical level, the two episodes I saw were badly scripted, lazily mounted, and could have been easily chopped down by half. A Hindu girl running off at dawn to meet her new Muslim boyfriend by the Ganga? Yawn max. The novel was published in 1993. 27 years ago. If you think the world will still give a shit about such staid plotlines, you deserve this review (it isn’t one). Or did you think that some ghazals and Calcutta cotton sarees and brown skin will be sellable packaging enough? I’d like to point at the failure of last year’s Kalank as a case-in-point for poor content wrapped up in Manish Malhotra. It just doesn’t fly anymore.
I feel bad for the actors. They didn’t seem bad at all — just held back by a bad script. Ishaan Khatter tries really hard, as do Tanya Maniktala and Danesh Razvi. Both of them light up the screen, and I feel terrible because they must have really banked on this BBC project for their career to take off. And it will, with better projects, because they definitely deserve them. Tabu tries a lot, but fails. I cannot believe I wrote that.
Mira Nair needs to wake up to today’s India. It’s still a mess, but the stories are different. She needs to look at the mainstream content of the last three years, and understand how even the masses are consuming engaging, conversation-driven content. India still has marigolds and bandhani dupattas, but we are busy discussing politics, gender, and sexual identity, caste-based violence, among other things. Padhaaro mhaare des for a closer, better picture of the current conversation.