Trading corsets for kurtas, petticoats for pajamas and tiaras for tikkas, the quintessential British period drama has received an Indian makeover. This weekend, the BBC is premiering its first period drama with an entirely non-white cast, based on Vikram Seth's lengthy (it's one of the longest books ever published) yet revered 1993 novel, A Suitable Boy.
In the six-part series, director Mira Nair (The Reluctant Fundamentalist) and screenwriter Andrew Davies (Pride and Prejudice) transport us to Brahmpur, a fictional town in 1950s India. The drama balances the tumultuous infancy of post-partition India with the coming of age of Hindu teenagers Lata Mehra (Tanya Maniktala), a university student falling in love with a Muslim, and Maan Kapoor (Ishaan Khattar), a politician’s son falling in lust with a courtesan named Saeeda Bai (Tabu).
Widow Mrs Rupa Mehra is searching for a suitor for her headstrong and studious daughter Lata, after the successful arranged marriage of her elder daughter. The same expectations apply to Maan, the playful son of Mahesh Kapoor, who is engaged to a woman he has never met. At its core, A Suitable Boy explores the pressures of familial duty in a collectivist society, where gossip travels faster than the railway trains speeding across the country.
After playing and replaying DVD copies of Bend It Like Beckham and Anita & Me until the discs became scratched, South Asians like me have long craved new onscreen representation. So we should be grateful to receive a show that is not centred on whiteness, right? For some, though, the gesture felt hollow as Davies, a white screenwriter, was chosen to tell the story.
Writer Nikesh Shukla recently voiced concerns on Twitter about why a South Asian writer had not been selected for the project. Speaking to Shukla, he is less interested in this particular example and more focused on the underlying structures that prevent minority screenwriters from writing about their communities. "I would love for us to live in a world where anyone can write about anything but the reality is that we don’t. I’m much more interested in getting to a position where we can all write to the fullest extent of our imagination and our lived experience," he tells me.
I haven’t seen the show, dunno if it’s any good but with such a lack of shows about South Asian lives on our televisions, it’s such a slap in the face that such a mainstream show was written by a white guy.— Nikesh Shukla (@nikeshshukla) July 12, 2020
"It’s gaslighting to hear that stories about your lived experiences and community are too small and if you can’t get a commission to write about [them], then what do you do?" he adds. Shukla also notes that South Asian writers are "not trusted to write about the universality of whiteness" and therefore find it harder to gain experience, yet when large broadcasters make shows about their communities, these same writers are kept out of the room by this lack of experience.
Not only was the selection of screenwriter a missed opportunity to amplify South Asian voices but from watching the first episode, it feels as though it may have led to a missed opportunity to call out the part Britain played in years of violent conflict. The show's opening sequence reads: "When India became independent in 1947, it was partitioned into two countries." Partition, the tumultuous division of the newly independent British India into the Republic of India and Pakistan, displaced 15 million people and sent over a million to their deaths in a wave of brutal killings and rapes. But this did not take place in a vacuum. It came about following hundreds of years of colonial rule by the British, who were inescapably complicit. As Yasmin Khan outlines in her book, The Great Partition: "[Partition] stands testament to the follies of empire, which ruptures community evolution, distorts historical trajectories and forces violent state formation from societies that would otherwise have taken different—and unknowable—paths."
Yet watching the first episode of A Suitable Boy it would be easy enough to consider Partition an exclusively foreign affair. After all, Partition and the liberation from British rule happened at the same time, yet we do not see any characters voice their opinions on being free from the British half as much as they discuss Hindu-Muslim relations. Education on the ills of British colonial rule is poorly covered in school and given that the show is airing during the UK’s first-ever South Asian Heritage Month (18th July - 17th August), I hope as the show progresses that more will come to demonstrate the role that the British knowingly played in Partition and the religious conflict it would inevitably lead to.
A Suitable Boy's non-white cast is undeniably powerful. The Riz Test, based on a 2017 parliamentary speech by actor Riz Ahmed, holds Muslim representation in film and television to account, in much the same way as the Bechdel Test does for women. The test is made up of five criteria, and when they are applied to Kabir, Lata’s love interest, the show fares well. He represents poetic, apolitical progressiveness in the face of Hindu nationalism. Kabir may lack understanding of the unique pressures faced by unmarried women but he is no misogynist.
The characters do not shy away from sexual chemistry, in fact intimate scenes between Maan and Saeeda lean into it, which led me to realise that this was the first time I had ever witnessed an on-screen sexual encounter between two South Asians. With Bollywood broadly adhering to a no-kiss norm, and previous representation favouring interracial couples, this is no small feat. To see a couple with bodies the same colour as mine, experiencing the best and worst of a relationship, can only be good for the soul.
So whether it’s the soothing effect of watching palatial homes marinate in the evening sun, or because I’m a sucker for a forbidden love story, you will find me glued to my couch every Sunday evening for the next five weeks. Tucked between episodes of Countryfile and Antiques Roadshow, A Suitable Boy adds some much needed spice to the flavourless monotony of British lockdown television.
A Suitable Boy premieres on BBC One on 26th July at 9pm