A Suitable Boy is a modern classic. An epic with a page-count exceeding 1,300 (be it any edition), spanning a time period of around 18 months.
Published in 1993, it is one of the longest novels brought out in a single volume. When word got out about the book being adapted for a limited series, there was quite the scepticism about how the story will be handled.
Vikram Seth’s novel has gained wide readership since its publication 27 years ago. And avid readers are really touchy about their favourite book adaptations leaving out details from the original work, or worse, twisting it entirely.
Set in a newly independent post-partition India, Netflix’s A Suitable Boy starts by displaying a historical fact revolving around the time period that the book is based in. The following lines depict the communal tension that colours the series.
“When India became independent in 1947, it was partitioned into two countries. India was free, but the land and the people were divided forever.”
Describing events from the year 1951, the book starts in a similar vein as the series, portraying a ‘shaadi ka ghar’ where a wedding is in full swing. A ‘shaadi ka ghar’ is a term in Hindi which aptly captures the essence of a house where a big fat Indian wedding is taking place.
But, the book is so much more than the underlying communal tension, it is rather a feeling. A blend of romance, weddings, marriages (the arranged kind), affairs, cricket, polo, politics, courtroom dramas, the Legislative Assembly, clash of cultures, and to round it all off is the poetic fervour which grips the narrative.
The verse form delights and mesmerizes in equal measures, starting from the ‘Contents’ which is a 38-line poem summarising the 5,91,552 words book (a glimpse of which you will get in the headings that follow).
Adapted by accomplished screenwriter Andrew Davies (who has adapted equally voluminous classics like War and Peace, Middlemarch, and Bleak House for the screen), it is perhaps a matter of perspective and cinematic liberty as to whether the series does justice to Seth’s A Suitable Boy.
A Suitable Boy series doesn’t follow the book’s trajectory. It has moved around many instances to suit its own storyline instead of following the events as they occur in the book.
While Davies issued an apology to fans of Seth’s A Suitable Boy as he discussed the difficulty of trying to replicate the book on-screen for a modern audience, this article analyses the key differences between the book and the series.
Browsing through books, two students meet one day
And the two students met indeed, Lata Mehra and Kabir Durrani, while browsing through books. But those books graced the shelves of Imperial Book Depot in the fictional town of Brahmpur, instead of the library of Brahmpur University as shown in the series.
The former, a student of English and the latter, a student of history met by chance quite a number of times before planning their discreet meetings. India may have been free for over three years but for a Hindu girl and a Muslim boy, from however well-respected families, to be considering to enter into a relationship or fall in love is akin to committing blasphemy.
While most of Lata and Kabir’s storyline is kept intact, there are a few instances that have either been left out or cut down in the series. One example is that of the Brahmpur Literary Society meets, where “But he forgot not Mother’s plumpy breasts” may have drawn some guffaws, but the entire session was full of rib-tickling humour.
The story of A Suitable Boy is about four main clans, the Mehras, the Kapoors, the Khans, and the Chatterjis. Together with them is weaved the stories of linked characters and situations.
A courtesan sings coolly through the heat
No article about A Suitable Boy would be complete without mentioning Saeeda Bai (the courtesan) brought to life on-screen by the enigmatic Tabu. Saeeda has two steady accompanists throughout the book, sarangi player Ishaq Khan and tabla player Motu Chand.
A Suitable Boy series doesn’t have any exclusive musicians barring Ustad Malik Khan, enacted in reel by the real-life famous sitarist Ustad Shujaat Husain Khan. Instead of Ustad Majeed Khan, the vocalist who awes everyone in the book through his rendition of various Ragas, it’s a sitar player who binds the audience in his thrall in the series.
Ishaq Khan has his own brief story in the book, intertwined with that of Ustad Majeed Khan, two characters who have been completely wiped off from the series.
Another aspect is the relationship of Maan Kapoor and Saeeda Bai. From their first banter to the ensuing dalliance, theirs is a flirty and teasing correspondence instead of the exceedingly intense connection that is presented in the series.
About the heat, which has been described in Seth’s version of A Suitable Boy as ‘dilapidating’, ‘exhausting’, and all in all very sweaty isn’t quite displayed as such in the series. The heat seems to be of a sanitised kind here. An apt example of the Indian climate affecting common people will be any one of Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s films.
A kiss brings fury, Twelfth Night sparks a snub
If I were to use the Hindi expression, Kissa Kiss Ka (the story of the kiss), it makes us ponder the eternal question of “who initiated the kiss?”. In the book, it was Kabir, but in the series adapted for “a modern audience”, the honour of making the first move was instead bestowed on Lata!
Throughout the series, the character of Lata has been shown as quite bold, while the Lata in the book was bold but still demure, in keeping with an educated young woman in the India of 1951.
The kiss that brought fury is not even shown in the series, that elusive kiss having been shared between Maan and Saeeda’s servant Bibbo.
As for the Twelfth Night production, while Lata’s Olivia asking “Wilt thou go to bed, Malvolio?” being replied with Kabir’s Malvolio saying “Ay, sweetheart; and I’ll come to thee.” may have shocked her poor mother, Mrs Rupa Mehra, the full flavour of the rehearsals and the play was missed out on in the series.
But the kiss, or rather the kisses that were a part of A Suitable Boy, were lip locks, instead of the chaste forehead or cheek kisses of the yore. Imagine the series showing two flowers touching each other, which would imply an intimate act on the part of the on-screen lovers, like in old Bollywood movies.
A child is born; wise women come to look
The child being born is Savita Mehra and Pran Kapoor’s, the couple who got married right at the beginning of the story. But the circumstances surrounding the birth of the child are quite different in the series compared to the book.
The primary reason behind it is to cut down on the number of characters that populate the book, thereby trimming the story for its on-screen adaptation. With its runtime of close to six hours, A Suitable Boy series eliminated quite a number of characters which meant that the storyline related to them had to go as well.
One example is that of Nawabzada Firoz’s twin brother Imtiaz, who is a doctor by profession, and comes to the aid of Pran Kapoor when he is grievously ill, to the point of being bedridden. Nothing of the sort is shown in the series and neither is Pran’s asthma a major concern.
A Suitable Boy series feels really peculiar in this sense, where not only Imtiaz but a number of other major characters like the kid named Bhaskar’s parents are not even mentioned in passing. How is it that a nine-year-old kid is shown without his parents?
Something that was sorely missed was the extent of Bhaskar’s mathematical genius. The book is peppered with instances where Bhaskar shows his mental acuity.
Calcutta Christmas lights festoon Park Street
The Chatterji’s of Calcutta, the eldest Mehra’s wife’s family, is quite the lively bunch. So much that one wants to be a part of this quirky family. They are the ones who provide humour to the story in spades.
The series had only three of the five Chattterji siblings on display, leaving out the eccentricities of the middle brother Dipankar in the book. Though it was good to see Cuddles the dog in attendance.
In the book version of A Suitable Boy, the entire Chatterji clan mostly talks in couplets. The most famous creator of couplets among them is Kakoli aka Kuku Chatterji, the younger daughter of the household. In the series, the couplet talk is carried out by the resident poet Amit Chatterji along with his sisters, Meenakshi and Kuku.
The best takeaway from this family, which is not there in the book, is the strong-willed aunt of the Chatterji family, Dr Ila Kaul’s advice to Lata:
“The key to a good marriage is to find a man who will give you the space to grow. Such men are not commonly found, but do exist.”
Some win, some draw, and – as must be – some lose
It is as much a political play as a play for Lata’s hand by her three suitors. Kabir Durrani, Amit Chatterji, and Haresh Khanna. The length of the book ensured that each of the relationships was allowed to build-up over a period of time and pages.
But, the series made it all feel a bit abrupt. Lata did not propose Haresh in a railway station in the book, it all happened over letters and it was rather an acceptance of the fact on her part that she is to marry Haresh, instead of a romantic declaration.
Though Lata’s choices could have been questioned, particularly with regards to her selection of a life partner, but it needs to be remembered that the year was 1951 and it was a parent’s will as well as a safety net that was considered instead of giving in to wild, passionate love.
As far as Haresh Khanna’s character sketch is concerned, in the book he is more of a righteous and tenacious kind of a bloke rather than the outright pompous prat that the series portrays him as.
The curtains falls; the players take their bow
A Suitable Boy series left everyone in the lurch/Or maybe they thought of waiting for A Suitable Girl’s search?
Wait, did that just about turn out to be a Kuku couplet? It sure did! The book tied up all the various related storylines neatly, with all the characters getting a plausible ending. But the series ended in more of an ambiguous manner, where only the protagonist Lata’s story reached a definite conclusion.
After all, as evident from the title, it is inherently the story of Lata and her mother’s persistent search for A Suitable Boy for her younger daughter to wed before it is too late.
In that search who helps her is Kalpana Gaur, a woman who is present more in the spirit than in reality in the book, whereas in the series her character has been fleshed out, perhaps to prepare the ground for the sequel, or maybe only for the sake of it.
A Suitable Girl, the long-awaited sequel
A Suitable Boy is huge for a reason. There are long-winded yet lovely descriptions of characters, their backgrounds as well as elaborate scenes and the setting. The story has been peopled with so many characters that even after taking out many of them in the series, it is a challenge to recognise all of them.
A voiceover introducing the characters could have helped in this regard since even after reading the book, it was tough to place a few characters without them being introduced in the normal course of conversation in the series.
In order to scale down a 1300-page tome to fit a six-hour screen time, many connections had to be foregone. There were many relationships that never bloomed, but there also were some that were unveiled subtly, like that of Maan and Firoz’s, though not outwardly spoken about.
Another thing which felt a bit odd was the next to no emphasis on the professional lives of the various characters in A Suitable Boy series version, which were an integral part of the book. Like Pran being a lecturer at the University or Firoz’s law practice.
Last but not least, a balding Maan and a toothless Mrs Rupa Mehra would have been a sight to behold.
While the series gave a kind of an indication for a sequel in the form of Mrs Rupa Mehra going after Varun next, to get him married, there has not been any confirmation of the plot or no definite publication date as of now for Seth’s sequel to A Suitable Boy, which has already been titled A Suitable Girl. The sequel has faced several delays over the years.
Have you watched A Suitable Boy on BBC or Netflix? If yes, how coherent did you find it?
Bonus question: If you have read the book, any other differences which as a fan of A Suitable Boy hurt your sentiments for not having been included in the series?