There’s a lot going on in “A Suitable Boy” — but the British import takes its time to unravel.
And it’s worth the wait.
The six-episode series, which premiered in July on BBC One, has now landed in the US on AMC-owned Acorn TV, which has exclusive American and Canadian rights. Directed by Oscar nominee Mira Nair (“Salaam Bombay!”), and based on Vikram Seth’s 1993 doorstop-of-a-bestseller (over 1,300 pages), it tracks the intertwined lives of several families in India and is set in 1951, four years after the end of British rule and the birth of Pakistan, as the series’ characters grapple (in various ways) with the countries’ newfound independence, class-conscious divisions and prejudiced views of one another.
At its core, though, “A Suitable Boy” is a love story that plays itself out in the different arcs of two characters, Lahta Mehra (Tanya Maniktala) and Maan Kapoor (Ishaan Khatter).
The studious Lata falls in love with fellow university student Kabir Durrani (Danesh Razvi), much to her widowed mother’s horror. Kabir’s sin is that he’s Muslim, which is a no-no in Lata’s family because of the ongoing cultural and (sometimes) physically violent battles between the two cultures (played out here against the simmering backdrop of an Indian temple being built right next to a mosque). Worst of all, Kabir is not the “suitable boy” who’s supposed to be chosen for Lata in a pre-arranged, caste-system marriage in which she has no say. But times are changing and Lata is a rebel at heart — who’s ready to take control of her own life and buck tradition.
Then there’s Maan Kapoor (Ishaan Khatter), the daydreaming, ne’er-do-well son of a respected government official who falls for the much-older Saeeda Bai (veteran actress Tabu). She’s a renowned singer with a “reputation,” which fuels his father’s fury. Why can’t Maan just follow in his older brother’s footsteps? (Translation: get a respectable job, settle down and have lots of children with a submissive wife).
It’s a lot to take in, and, early on, viewers will find themselves trying to figure out who’s who in the large ensemble cast, which includes brothers, sisters and friends of Lata, Kabir, Maan and Saeeda — all of whom, in one way or another, figure into the show’s plotline. But once the dust settles, each of the main characters come sharply into focus, thanks to crisp writing (“A Suitable Boy” was filmed in English with subtitles where applicable). It was also shot on location, mostly in the Lucknow, the capital of the Indian state Uttar Pradesh, and that lends an air of authenticity to what’s unfolding onscreen.
Maniktala has a winning presence as Lata — you’ll root for her through her various trials and tribulations — and the same goes for Khatter, who, as Maan, combines an impish sense of humor with a surprisingly touching sensitivity. They both start to travel down roads that will have significant consequences — not only for themselves, but for the others in their orbit.