Review of ‘A Suitable Boy’ (Netflix web series)

Those who aren’t die-hard fans of, or familiar with, Vikram Seth’s celebrated novel A Suitable Boy, know of its television adaptation by the police case against its makers for hurting religious sentiments.

The six-episode web series, currently streaming in India on OTT platform Netflix, shows two college students kissing in the premises of a temple. The man is a Muslim, named in the novel as Kabir Durrani (played by Danesh Razvi) and the woman is a Hindu named Lata Mehta (Tanya Maniktala).

The scenes were reportedly shot in a temple in Maheshwar town of Khargone district in Madhya Pradesh. The police complaint was given by Bharatiya Janata Yuva Morcha national secretary Gaurav Tiwari.

The Kiss

Unless the makers intended publicity through the scene by triggering right-wing Hindus, they could have easily avoided it by, well, sticking to the source material. The novel has no scene where Kabir and Lata kiss in a temple.

They kiss twice, but not in a temple.

The novel versus the web series

A Suitable Boy is a 1993 fiction novel that tells the story of a young woman, Lata, struggling with her mother’s search for a suitable groom for her. It’s set in 1951, that is, four years after a bloodied Partition.

The TV series has been written by Welsh writer Andrew Davies, whose earlier adaptations include Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice and Vanity Fair. It has been directed by Mira Nair and was originally aired on BBC One.

The interfaith romance and the strong opposition to it by the woman’s family, is one of the several inter-religious conflict themes sketched out in the book.

The novel was released at a time when communal tempers in India were high, given the Babri demolition, the ensuing communal attacks and bomb blasts.

By all assessments, the book is sympathetic to Muslims while being critical of several Hindu ideas and movements. Still, the writing is nuanced. In its nearly 1,400 pages and about six lakh words, the complexities have been given many layers.

The web series, no doubt a work of labour, is clumsy.

Far from laying out the nuances, it reduces well-fleshed out characters in the novel to unidimensional caricatures. More importantly, keeping up with the partisan portrayals of India’s internal tensions for the Western audience, it reduces conflicts to an oppressor-oppressed paradigm.

The TV series makes several deviations from the source.

Shiva temple and the mosque

Early in the show, two friends – a Hindu man named Maan (played by Ishaan Khattar) and his Muslim friend Firoz (played by Shubham Saraf) – are going around the city in a tonga when Maan laughingly points to an under-construction temple site.

“The Raja of Marh,” he says about a plump man in royal attire (played by Manoj Pahwa). “We are witnessing the erection of the Raja’s Lingam,” laughs Maan, derogatorily referring to a Shiva temple that the Raja is getting built in close proximity to an already existing mosque.

A shocked Firoz responds by calling it blasphemy. “Why next to the mosque? Unbelievable…Our mosques have been here for centuries,” he says and looks away in disgust.

The TV series presents the Raja’s attempts to build the temple as “provocation” with no background, and makes it more menacing with addition of dialogues such as, “Finish this temple in 15 days or I’ll chop your hands and feet off”, which are not there in the book.

This is not how the temple-mosque issue is introduced in the book, which takes its time to give a context to this fictional plot that the series glosses over.

Here are two passages from the novel:

“…The temple was to stand cheek by jowl with the grand mosque constructed by order of the Emperor Aurangzeb two and a half centuries ago on the ruins of an earlier temple to Shiva.”

“…Apologists for Aurangzeb were apt to claim that he had a worse reputation for intolerance than he deserved and that he was as harsh with Shias as he was with Hindus. But for the more orthodox Hindu citizenry of Brahmpur, the previous 250 years of history had not dimmed their loathing for a man who had dared to destroy one of the holiest temples of the great destroyer Shiva himself. The great Shiva-linga of the inner sanctum of the temple was rumoured to have been preserved by the priests of the so-called Chandrachur Temple on the night before it was reduced to rubble. They sank it not in a deep well as was often the case in those days, but in the shallows and sands near the cremation ground by the Ganga. How the huge stone object was carried there is not known.”

“Apparently the knowledge of its location was secretly maintained and passed on for more than ten generations from head-priest to head-priest in hereditary succession. Of all the common images of Hindu worship it was probably the sacred phallus, the Shiva-linga, which was most despised by the orthodox theologians of Islam. Where they could destroy it, they did so with a particular sense of righteous disgust. While there was any chance that the Muslim peril might resurface, the priests did not act upon their family knowledge. But after Independence and the Partition of Pakistan and India, the priest of the long-since-destroyed Chandrachur Temple—who lived in poverty in a shack near the cremation ghat—felt that it was safe to emerge and identify himself. He tried to get his temple rebuilt and the Shiva-linga excavated and reinstalled.”

Holi and ‘Hindu nation’

In another scene in the web series, Mahesh Kapoor (played by Ram Kapoor), Minister of Revenue of the state of (fictional) Purva Pradesh, is hosting Minister of Home LN Agarwal (Vinay Pathak) at his house on Holi. (Kapoor is a political and even an ideological rival of Agarwal).

“A Hindu holiday for a Hindu nation,” says Agarwal, minutes before being playfully pushed into a pool of water by Kapoor’s younger son Maan, much to Kapoor’s shock and embarrassment.

In the novel, Agarwal neither makes this statement nor visits Kapoor on Holi.

The one who is pushed into the water by Maan, in fact, is professor Mishra, a co-faculty at Maan’s elder brother Pran’s college who Pran loathes.

Unlike the book, Home Minister Agarwal in the TV show is an outright bigot.

The maulvi and the kafirs

The book has an episode where a Muslim mob marches towards the temple site on a Friday, with a motive to destroy it, charged by a “most stirring and inflammatory speech” by a maulvi.

Here are some passages from the maulvi’s speech in the book:

“The barbarians were at the gates. They prayed, these infidels, to their pictures and stones and perpetuated themselves in ignorance and sin. Let them do what they wanted to in their dens of filth.

“The land that the kafirs sought to build on—why sought? were at this very moment building on—was disputed land—disputed in God’s eyes and in man’s eyes—but not in the eyes of animals who spent their time blowing conches and worshipping parts of the body whose very names it was shameful to mention.

“Did the people of the faith gathered here in God’s presence know how it was planned to consecrate this Shiva-linga? Naked ash-smeared savages would dance before it—naked!

“Let it not happen that our holy places are to be polluted by the proximity of filth—let it not happen…”

In the book, the Allah-u-Akbar-chanting mob goes straight for the temple, armed.

The series skips the inflammatory speech. Instead, in a deviation from the book, it shows a Muslim man reciting a soulful poem on humanity to a small gathering in a street as a mark of protest.

The series does show an armed Muslim mob charging at the cops later, but with these simple slogans, “Mandir nahi banega, ham par kisi ka haq nahi chalega” (temple construction will not be allowed, someone else’s control over us will not be allowed).

In the next scene in the TV show, revenue minister Kapoor angrily confronts home minister Agarwal about the firing.

Agarwal replies cheekily, “A little discipline never did any harm…I told you before, we are a Hindu nation. Muslims have their own country now and when the elections come, it is the Hindu majority we must carry with us.”

The book has no such scene and Agarwal speaks no such lines.

Mahesh Kapoor (left) confronting LN Agarwal in the web series
Mahesh Kapoor (left) confronting LN Agarwal in the web series

Tazia and Rama

Even in an episode about a clash between a Hindu and a Muslim religious procession, the nuance in the book has been set aside to show Hindus as instigators.

In the book, a tazia and a Rama procession come face to face on a busy street of Brahmpur, with the Muslims whipping themselves with chains and the Hindus enacting the homecoming of Rama, Sita and Lakshman.

This is how the book describes the scene:

“…A chain lashed out, and he staggered back, to lie gasping in pain against the ledge of a shop. Upon his dark-blue skin a red stain formed and spread. The crowd went berserk. What all the forces of Ravana had not succeeded in doing these bloodthirsty Muslims had managed to do. It was not a young actor, but God himself who lay wounded there. Crazed by the sight of the wounded Rama, the man with the fireworks seized a lathi from one of the organizers and led the crowd in a charge against the tazia procession.“

“Within seconds, the tazia, many weeks’ work of delicate glass and mica and paper tracery, lay smashed on the ground. Fireworks were thrown on to it and it was set alight. The maddened crowd stamped on it and beat it with lathis until it was charred and splintered. Its horrified defenders lashed out with their knives and chains at these kafirs, leaping about like apes on the very eve of the great martyrdom, who had dared to desecrate the holy image of the tomb. The sight of the crushed and blackened tazia made them mad. Both sides now were filled with the lust to kill…”

In the web series, a man from the Hindu procession pushes the tazia on the ground and riots start.

One-sided sameness

Vikram Seth’s novel may feel sympathetic to one side, but it does not push the reader too hard towards it. The social and political sub-plots in the web series, on the other hand, seem to have only one point of view and one direction.

In a space crowded with such ‘one-sided sameness’, adaptation of A Suitable Boy is a tiring and often annoying watch.

One also wonders if in today’s India, even Vikram Seth is not secular enough?

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