Ever since “Mad Men” led to the surfeit of mid-century modern furniture on every design blog, period dramas have been television’s bread and butter — creating an abundance of shows that are as enjoyable for their eye-watering design as for their dramatic storytelling. Hit shows like “The Crown,” “The Queen’s Gambit, and “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” may have first lured viewers with their plucky women characters, sure, but the ornate wallpapers and enviable wardrobes kept them coming back for more. No matter how critical these shows purport to be of the elite classes they portray, such candy-colored visuals never fail to add a veneer of romanticism cloaking the sexism, classism, and racism that lurks in the shadows.
Delivering sumptuous visuals of a different ilk is “A Suitable Boy,” a six-part BBC miniseries set in 1950s India, during the country’s first years of independence from British colonial rule. The entire series was directed by Mira Nair, the Oscar-nominated Indian-American filmmaker who achieved international renown with her 2001 Golden Lion winner “Monsoon Wedding.” Nair’s involvement has attracted an impressive cast of Indian screen stars, and she does an excellent job of wrangling the many supporting characters and emphasizing the more humorous elements in the script.
“A Suitable Boy” marks Nair’s first foray into television, and she’s working from a script by prolific Welsh screenwriter Andrew Davies. In addition to writing both “Bridget Jones” movies, Davies is responsible for 1990’s “House of Cards” miniseries and for creating the Jeremy Piven-led period drama “Mr. Selfridge.” While his penchant for pithy remarks and high drama deliver that satisfying BBC sheen, Davies’ blind spots keep the series feeling steeped in nostalgia for a class system many Indians are eager to leave behind.
Based on the sprawling novel of the same name by Vikram Seth, which clocks in at roughly 1,500 pages, “A Suitable Boy” follows 19-year-old university student Lata (Tanya Maniktala) as she fields her mother’s attempt to marry her off to, well, a suitable boy. Smart, pretty, and from a good family, Lata attracts three handsome suitors: Dashing classmate Kabir (Danesh Razvi), seductive poet Amit (Mikhail Sen), and earnest shoe salesman Haresh (Namit Das). Lata is under pressure from her mother (Mahira Kakkar), whose matchmaking anxieties provide comedy and dramatic conflict.
Meanwhile, Lata’s single brother-in-law Maan (Ishaan Khattar) is a local politician’s son who is struggling to find purpose. He finds respite the arms of a local courtesan Saeeda Bai (Tabu), a “woman of ill repute” who entertains local businessmen but loves the aimless young man. His cross-religious friendship with Firoz Ali Khan (Shubham Saraf), son of a wealthy Muslim landowner, provides the series’ surprisingly dramatic crescendo, upping the ante from the more light-hearted romantic storyline.
While Lata and Maan are each compelling enough to fill six episodes, along the way there are disrespectful sisters-in-law, half-realized political maneuverings, inconsequential extra-marital affairs, and secret families. Surely these detours are vibrant additions to Seth’s epic, but Davies would have been wise to trim down the supporting characters and storylines in order to focus more on the two central figures. Without devoting proper time to each, Lata’s suitors become somewhat indistinguishable aside from their broad qualities. This makes the sweet reveal of her eventual choice less impactful, though it’s fun to see the woman run after the man on a train platform for once.
Fans of the BBC’s comedic romantic dramas will find much to enjoy “A Suitable Boy.” The young leads are charming and easy to root for, and their different approaches to love provide plenty of entertainment. It’s visually appealing, from the bright colors and rich textures of traditional Indian garments to location after location of lavish country estates and city villas.
Unfortunately, “A Suitable Boy” lacks the comedic touch of “Downton Abbey” or the critical lens of “The Crown,” languishing somewhere in the middle and coming up short. Without a defined perspective on the class and religious conflict it uses as a narrative backdrop, “A Suitable Boy” feels like frothy fluff — yummy in the moment but easily forgettable and won’t fill you up.
It’s a step forward for the BBC to back a majority Indian cast, which extended to much of the production team. Next time, hire an Indian writer.
“A Suitable Boy” premieres on Acorn TV in the U.S. and Canada on December 7.