A Suitable Boy review: Forbidden romance holds up a mirror to the Indian Partition

Adapted from Vikram Seth's bestselling book, the first episode is a joy from start to finish.

A Suitable Boy, Maan

I have a confession to make: I have not read A Suitable Boy

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Like War and Peace, I have always meant to read it. Granted, Vikram Seth’s 1,349-page tome on 1950s post-partition India does not make for a light holiday read (both figuratively and literally – it would take up most of your suitcase allowance). But the story, about a young woman finding love against the backdrop of her newly independent country, has always appealed. 

Anyway, all this is to say that despite my best intentions, I have not yet read A Suitable Boy, so BBC One’s new televised adaptation holds plenty of narrative surprises for me.

The book is often mentioned in the same breath as dark, weighty, state-of-our-nation books. But I found the BBC’s opening episode – how else can I put it? – totally joyous. As vibrant and colourful as the Holi festivities we see mid-way through the episode, where characters throw fistfuls of dried paint powder (holi gulal) at one another.

Of course, there is some darkness, or at least the foreshadowing of it. The religious tensions and wounds leftover from the Indian Partition in 1947 have not yet healed, and they form the context and setting for the young protagonist’s first, forbidden love. 

Newcomer Tanya Maniktala plays Lata Mehra, a young, carefree woman from a Hindu family, and whose mother is determined to marry her off.

A Suitable Boy has previously been compared to Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, and I can now see why: there are plenty of similarities between Lata and Elizabeth Bennet, including their independence, quick wit, spontaneity, and their charm (not to mention their overbearing mothers).

But at least in this first episode, Lata appears more innocent and wide-eyed than Elizabeth – and she’s certainly not one to rely on an instant first impression. 

In that regard, viewers should probably follow Lata’s example, because I certainly fell for a few red herrings during the series opener: I was briefly convinced that Maan Kapoor, the brother to Lata’s new brother-in-law, had fallen for Lata; and also that Maan’s male best friend was secretly in love with him. 

Maan is played by Bollywood leading man Ishaan Katter. He’s wild and free spirited, a consummate flirt who becomes infatuated with the famed musician and courtesan Saeeda Bai (played by Bollywood legend Tabu).

He later describes himself as a moth drawn towards the flame, and their first meeting brilliantly evokes that: Saeeda Bai is singing inside the house in a lit space, while Maan is (at first) standing outside in the garden area in shadow, before slowly moving closer and closer to the light, and to her. 

A Suitable Boy: Maan (Ishaan Khatter) and Saeeda Bai (Tabu)
A Suitable Boy: Maan (Ishaan Khatter) and Saeeda Bai (Tabu)
BBC

The beginnings of Lata’s romance are more innocent, and less cinematic – but no less forbidden.

She attends university, where she meets fellow student and cricketer Kabir Durrani (Danesh Razvi). They share a meet-cute in the library, when she refuses to ask for his name – something that comes back to haunt her when a friend later does a bit of digging on her behalf, and discovers Kabir’s Muslim surname.

Lata is despairing, realising that their romance is doomed before it’s even fully begun – but that doesn’t stop her from eventually seeing him again. 

By the end of episode one, the seeds of violence and heartbreak have already been sewn, in addition to a scandalous secondary storyline involving adultery and melted-down family medals. 

Already I’m in awe at the show’s creators for distilling Vikram Seth’s sprawling novel into six tight episodes – I was lost in the story, and the characters. And not once did I feel I needed to glance at SparkNotes. 

A Suitable Boy begins BBC One on Sunday, 26th July at 9pm for UK and Irish viewers, and will be available on Netflix internationally.

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