In a world where epic historical romances are a regular feature in film and television, it’s nonetheless still unusual for them to be presented from a non-Eurocentric perspective, especially without exoticizing narratives from elsewhere on the globe. That’s where celebrated director Mira Nair comes in. With A Suitable Boy, she extends the realm of the traditional BBC or PBS romance into India, and although it hardly breaks new ground within the genre, it’s still a pleasant enough diversion for fans of a good, old-fashioned period romance.
Based on the best-selling 1993 novel by Vikram Seth, A Suitable Boy is set in 1950s India, which is struggling to define itself after formally separating from Great Britain and establishing a partition between India and newly-formed Pakistan, inflaming centuries-old tensions between Hindu and Muslim. It revolves around Lata (Tanya Maniktala), an intelligent, independent young woman trying to balance her modern views with her mother’s more traditional expectations for her. After her older sister’s marriage to a college English professor, the pressure’s on Lata to be the next to wed. Her mother, after all, wants to see all of her children settled, and is determined to select an appropriate husband for her daughter. Lata, on the other hand, has little interest in getting married just for the sake of being married. And despite the strictly conservative culture of the time, she finds herself becoming romantically attached to one particular man — although whether or not her mother will regard him as a suitable match is another story entirely.
The source material for A Suitable Boy is hefty, to say the least: Seth’s novel is one of the longest single-volume works of fiction ever published. There’s a lot going on at any given moment, and the novel is packed full of secondary characters who each have their own ample subplots. But despite this, A Suitable Boy never feels overcrowded. It wisely keeps the primary focus on Lata, with any brief diversions tightly constructed enough to avoid a sense of aimless meandering. The series maintains a brisk piece with only six episodes, which is likely another good decision since the central narrative doesn’t seem complex enough to support a longer run. Lata and her family instead inhabit a compelling limited series that is satisfyingly concluded, without any lingering threads.
Nair creates a visually dynamic space, full of color and texture that showcase the beauty of India in a way that feels warm and comforting rather than merely exotic, as we are so often used to seeing. There’s a constantly compelling juxtaposition of traditional Indian customs and 1950s-era western styles throughout the series, with saris crashing up against big band music and fancy new cocktails. But although the aesthetics of A Suitable Boy are a delight, it lacks spirit. Perhaps it’s too tightly written, rushing from plot point to plot point without giving it room to breathe. The pressure of bringing every word of Seth’s novel to life may have gotten to Nair, forcing her into the role of transcriber rather than an active creator. Whatever the reason, A Suitable Boy looks to be competently told, but without any real artistry behind the camera. This is surprising from a filmmaker like Nair, who generally has a reputation for having a vibrant directing style. There are moments that are truly engaging and romantic and everything you would hope for in this brand of glossy literary adaptation. But there are also plenty of scenes where something just feels off, whether it’s in the form of stilted performances or unnatural-sounding dialogue. This is a story about love, but it lacks any passion or fire to bring its romances to life. Honestly, a television show has no business including a subplot where the feckless son of a politician launches an illicit affair with a famous singer if it’s not at least going to be a little bit steamy.
Maybe that’s the problem, in the end. A Suitable Boy is a bit too measured, too contained, to capture the complex relationships it’s attempting to portray. The end result is a show that hits all of the key beats of a traditional romantic drama and is good enough for viewers who are just looking for something light and generally upbeat. But the disappointing thing about A Suitable Boy is that when it had the potential to be groundbreaking and fresh, it settled for merely OK.