Writers & Company

Mira Nair's adaptation of A Suitable Boy looks at family and political tensions in post-partition India

The Indian filmmaker spoke with Eleanor Wachtel about creating a screen adaptation of Vikram Seth's bestselling 1993 novel. A Suitable Boy had its North American premiere at the 2020 Toronto International Film Festival.
Mira Nair is an Indian filmmaker. (Aparna Jayakumar)

Renowned Indian filmmaker Mira Nair is celebrated for films that blend politics and romance, from gritty street life in India to stories about South Asians in the U.S. 

Some of Nair's best known films include the Oscar-nominated Salaam Bombay!, Monsoon Wedding and The Reluctant Fundamentalist, an adaptation of Mohsin Hamid's 2007 novel, starring Riz Ahmed, Kate Hudson and Liev Schreiber. 

Nair's latest project is another adaptation — a six-part series based on Vikram Seth's bestselling novel A Suitable Boy. The story centres on a young Indian woman, Lata, and her mother's determination to secure her daughter an arranged marriage. Set against the political backdrop of 1950s India, Lata must navigate her loyalty to her family, her desire for independence, and her feelings for her classmate, a young man who is Muslim. 

A Suitable Boy had its North American premiere at the 2020 Toronto International Film Festival, which also honoured Nair with the Jeff Skoll Award in Impact Media. 

Nair spoke with Eleanor Wachtel from her home in New York City, a few days before A Suitable Boy closed the festival. 

A still from Mira Nair's screen adaptation of Vikram Seth's novel A Suitable Boy. (Submitted by TIFF)

The novel's power

"Well, it was set in a time that I wish I was born in, which is the early 1950s. It's set in 1951; the year my parents got married, which was 1950; and the year that my father joined the Indian administrative service, which also features in A Suitable Boy in 1951. 

"And it was Nehruvian India: It was an India that was promoted to a secular feeling. So that if you were from the north, you went to the east. It was about embracing the fullness of this fantastically old but now newly free country. 

"The idealism in that time was what always attracted me. Vikram Seth has captured that with such depth, humour and wit. There's a real knowledge of class and the great tenants' rights and land rights bill that was passed at the time. He speaks and writes about it at length in the novel through the persona of Mahesh Kapoor, the minister of revenue, who creates the new bill which was about returning land to the tenants —  to the peasants, really — that had served it for generations.

The idealism in that time was what always attracted me. Vikram Seth has captured that with such depth, humour and wit.

"There's many levels: the politics of India at the time, the way Vikram wrote about four families — the Khans, the Mehras, the Kapoors, the Chatterjis — across northern India. Yes, it was quite an elite place, with elite families but it gave us an amazing cross-section of who we were at that time.

"Even though the British had left, they left a pretty Anglicized elite behind. We were taught in English, thought in English, dreamt sometimes in English and did Shakespeare all the time. This was a crazy moment for our society. But Vikram gets all that. I felt like I was reading the chronicling of a nation with my best friend — which is why I read it back to back. It's captivating."

Vikram Seth is the author of the 1993 novel A Suitable Boy. (Wikimedia/HarperPerennial)

A suitable girl

"I understand her mother's concern, but I am more aligned with her young daughter Lata.

"I understand the concern because she is feeling defenceless in the light of her beloved husband having passed away. She's a widow, and especially in the early 1950s in India, the status of a widow was a lonely one. 

"She lost everything: her status, her way of being. As it shows in the novel, all she had was three suitcases because she even lost her home.

"In that defenceless sort of state — and yet being a very proud woman and dignified person — I understand her fluttering despair. But her family is warm and loving and Lata is her own being. And that's, of course, the source of the conflict or the relationship between them. 

There was a line in the novel that I love: Lata asks the question, 'Is it possible to be happy without making others unhappy?' ​​​​​​

"There was a line in the novel that I love: Lata asks the question, 'Is it possible to be happy without making others unhappy?' 

"That is a question that I must say — as an Indian woman myself — we imbue that growing up. I hardly said the word 'I' and it was always about 'us' and 'we' and 'the family,' not so much about the self. 

"That is something very true and very much something I wanted to embody in Lata. Because that was her struggle. She loved her family, she didn't want to give them up, but she went out all the way.

"She had much more radical thoughts than even the guys did about going away, about marrying, about forgetting society. But eventually she sees that her family is important to her."

Indian author and poet Vikram Seth speaks with Eleanor Wachtel about his bestselling novel A Suitable Boy at the Vancouver Writers Festival in 1993. 49:30

A syncretic culture

"It's so strange because Hindu and Muslim have been such syncretic cultures — in our music, our language, our poetry and our friendships.

"Though the bloodshed of partition happened, those incredibly ancient friendships and rituals that we practice together — the whole language of Hindustani was created as an amalgam of Urdu and Hindi, for instance. It was impossible to tear it all apart. 

But what it also showed is that we are so much like each other. But, an interfaith romance would have been deeply shocking at the time.

"It was shocking because of the timing of it happening in the early 1950s, soon after the bloodshed of a million people dying in partition. But what it also showed is that we are so much like each other. But an interfaith romance would have been deeply shocking at the time.

"Even now, it's not something that is easy to get beyond. The governments themselves make it difficult for an Indian to marry a Pakistani and vice versa. 

"Some families are different: families that suffered maybe more directly, couldn't tolerate the idea. My family did not have that issue, for instance, when I chose to marry my husband, who is Muslim."

For the love of Lata

"It's so beautiful and important in your life to feel that kind of passionate, weak-kneed love. That's so important to know, in that way. 

"That's what I imagined that Lata had with Kabir, even though they were both really young. It was the very first time that either of them would have had any experience of intimacy of that emotional kind. So that was important. But as she feels with Kabir, his life and his journey came first. She was then thwarted by the fact that he didn't actually have the courage that she did about that passion. Then the world took over once his own doubts set in. 

"Amit the poet is really charming and erudite in his way. But I don't think Amit knows what he wants. He doesn't know himself in an emotional and even sexual way. Lata feels that fecklessness about him, but I think he will remain Lata's friend for life. 

"Lastly, the extraordinary thing about Haresh is that he is kind. He is someone who loves to listen beautifully and connect people and make things work — not just for himself, but for others. Lata sees that and feels it. 

It's so beautiful and important in your life to feel that kind of passionate, weak-kneed love. That's so important to know, in that way.

"He doesn't have a bone of pretension and he's self-made. He just is deeply in love with her in a way that makes her feel that she would always be at the forefront with him in his life. She, like many people in our culture, thinks that if we can be together, enjoy each other's company, then that's the kind of love people should hope for. 

"It's that companionship that then leads to love. And that's what this suitor holds for her."

Mira Nair's comments have been edited for length and clarity.

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