By: Tufayel Ahmed
There’s something that doesn’t sit quite right about the BBC’s new big-budget drama, A Suitable Boy, the trailer for which premiered on Saturday.
The six-part series, airing on BBC One later this month, is based on Indian author Vikram Seth’s acclaimed 1993 novel of the same name and has been billed by Vogue as the BBC’s “first period drama with an all non-white cast” – which is commendable, if overdue in 2020.
Furthermore, the drama is directed by Mira Nair, the award-winning filmmaker behind movies such as Monsoon Wedding, The Namesake and, most recently, Disney’s Queen of Katwe starring Lupita Nyong’o. Nair is a wise choice to bring 1951 post-partition India to the screen given her track record and her work is certainly deserving of a primetime slot on BBC One.
So, with Seth’s mighty prose serving as source material, a majority-South Asian cast and Nair behind the camera, A Suitable Boy should be a win for audiences like me, who have rarely seen our stories represented in primetime dramas on British television. But learning that the series was written by a white man takes a little bit of sheen off this groundbreaking project.
Screenwriter Andrew Davies is undoubtedly a master of the period genre — his credits include adaptations of Austen’s Pride and Prejudice and Sanditon, as well as the recent War & Peace and Les Miserables series on BBC — so this is not a knock on his penmanship. However, I can’t help but think that the series should have been scripted by an Asian screenwriter, of whom there are many in Britain, and many of whom rarely get the opportunity to write a project as notable as this one.
I have yet to see A Suitable Boy, so I can’t comment on Davies’ script specifically, but perhaps the story — about a strong-willed young Indian woman who wants to choose her own life partner, and not have one chosen for her by her mother — and the post-partition setting might have benefited from a screenwriter, or co-writer, who can relate to the source material. Anyone who has been touched by partition, whether they lived through it or have heard stories about family members told through the generations, will be able to tell you what an emotionally traumatic subject it is to people from, but not limited to, India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. Some lived experience might have added an additional layer of nuance and authenticity to A Suitable Boy.
More broadly, in the last month, we’ve seen renewed calls for diversity in the British film and television industries in the wake of George Floyd’s death and the Black Lives Matter protests it catalysed. It’s all well and good for big production companies and broadcasters to affirm their commitment to diversity and representing multicultural Britain more consciously, but the reality of television — and many other industries — is that it is currently gamed to keep white writers in and writers of colour out.
People of colour face much more difficult barriers to entry in creative fields, as the author Nikesh Shukla points out on Twitter: “Every week I hear from South Asian writers being rejected for their shows being ‘too small’ or lacking experience. But how do we get experience if our shows are being made so we can get the experience?”
What’s more, Shukla again points out, writers of colour are often expected to, or only hired to, write scripts specifically about race. So, what do you do when you can’t get hired to script a detective drama that’s indiscernible from all the others, and nor can you get hired to write a script about your own community?
This catch-22 leaves writers of colour shut out and only serves to maintain the status quo of systemic oppression. It needs to stop.
Recently, more than 5,000 black and brown UK film and TV creatives, led by producer Nisha Parti, signed a letter calling on industry gatekeepers to tell more diverse stories and hire people of colour across the board, from actors to directors, writers and producers.
“While messages condemning racism and advocating for solidarity on social media may inspire hope, the UK industry must put its money and practices where its mouth is,” the letter rightly states.
Whether this effort is finally what inspires systemic change in film and television remains to be seen, but I’m hopeful that the industry takes notice given that signatories include heavyweights such as Gurinder Chadha, Idris Elba and Michaela Coel, and allies like Emma Thompson and Harry Potter director David Yates.
The industry has talked a big game lately, with the BBC and ITV in particular, committing more resources and funding to representing people from diverse and marginalised backgrounds. Now, we need to hold them to it and hold them accountable if they fall short.
A Suitable Boy begins on Sunday 26th July at 9pm on BBC One. Check out what else is on with our TV Guide.