You are broke, anxious, stuck at home and desperately seeking distraction… And, lo, there comes along a show fizzing with romance, humour and exotic music.
What’s not to like about it? So what if bits of the story don’t quite register, characters speak with a stilted accent, and ever so whimsically break into an alien lingo? Isn’t that part of the fun after all in an era of enforced cultural conformity? I’m referring to the cheery British response to the BBC’s TV adaptation of “A Suitable Boy”, Vikram Seth’s 1,300-page re-telling of a politically fraught 1950s India, directed by Mira Nair.
The six-part series, being shown on BBC’s domestic service to mark India’s Independence Day, has turned out to be a surprise hit. It’s not quite the BBC’s “Ramayana moment” (that remains DD’s enduring achievement) but a consistently 4-million plus audience for a desi show with not a single white face in sight and in which characters keep breaking into Hindi and Urdu is not a figure to scoff at.
The first episode drew a record 4.6 million viewers. Since then, the viewership has dipped slightly but remains in the region of 4.5 million making it this summer’s most popular and commented upon TV drama.
And here’s the thing: Indian period drama has had a somewhat torrid time on British television in recent years. Gurinder Chadha’s “Beecham House” (set in 18th century Delhi as clouds of British colonialism gather on the horizon) on ITV last summer was the season’s biggest flop panned by critics as a “parade of clichés and desperation”. The previous year, Channel 4’s cheesy “Indian Summers” —a planned 50-part series on the birth of modern India—had to be axed after only two series amid an alarming fall in ratings. So, Mira Nair and the BBC had their task cut out when they took a punt on “A Suitable Boy”. Critics rolled their eyes.
What? Another Indian period drama? Many wondered if because of its length “A Suitable Boy”, was even suited for the small screen. It was seen as another of BBC’s extravagant wheezes to flaunt its multiculturalism. With a £16 million budget it’s claimed to be the BBC’s most expensive drama series at a time when it’s shedding hundreds of jobs citing financial difficulties.
In the event, the show has confounded its critics. With its lavish wedding scenes, colourful costumes, steamy sex, and what one critic described as “an orange-filtered fantasy version of India”, “A Suitable Boy” has caught the mood of a nation in need of amusement at a time of deep political and economic uncertainties.
It ticks all the right boxes, as The Daily Mail noted: “… love, scandal and secrets – tick! Extravagant costumes and ostentatious wealth flaunted by two sparring families with million-dollar hairdos – tick! A wrestling match that ends with a plunge into the pool – tick!” Moreover, it has struck a chord with elderly Britons not quite “cool” with Netflix-style streaming and craving for old-fashioned Sunday night TV drama.
It used to be called “The Hour”. “Watching A Suitable Boy I felt that The Hour was back… a love story, a flick of humour and an ambitiously complicated plot that you can’t always follow”, wrote Susannah Butter of the London Evening Standard.
Media response has been remarkably polite across Britain’s culturedivide perhaps out of fear that any criticism might be construed as racist in these culturally sensitive times.
Right-wing Mail and Daily Telegraph awarded it five and four stars respectively while the centrist Times found it “zesty with a slight hint of cheese”. Andrew Davies, who wrote the script, is a dab hand at handling big tomes (best-known for his adaptations of “War and Peace” and “Pride and Prejudice”), particularly skilful in ridding them of the extra fat. But the decision to hire him was initially greeted with scepticism on grounds that a White Welsh writer, with no previous experience of working on an Indian theme, was perhaps not the best person to tell this vast and complex story of newly independent India?
However, Seth defended the choice saying his skin colour was irrelevant. He and Nair also insisted on an all-Indian cast that includes Bollywood veteran Tabu as a seductive courtesan. Believe it, or not this is BBC’s first-ever Asian drama that features no white character. Yet, for all its stress on authenticity, the India presented here remains an India seen largely through a white gaze: “an India that a British audience is used to seeing”, according to writer Chitra Ramaswamy in The Guardian.
Would a writer, more familiar with India, have done a better job? We can only speculate. In any case, an adaptation can be only as good as the original; and “A Suitable Boy” has never been everybody’s cup of tea.
The writer, a veteran London-based journalist, writes on culture and politics.