How Mira Nair turned Vikram Seth’s novel into a suitable show – art and culture

“If we don’t tell our stories, no one else will,” said filmmaker Mira Nair, who received the award for creating impact media at last month’s Toronto International Film Festival.

The magic wand of her storytelling has allowed her to experience India through films like Monsoon Wedding (2001), about family celebration interrupted by dark mysteries; The Namesake (2006), a story of loss and broken identity, based on the novel by Ume Zumba Lahiri; And Salam Bombay (1988), her breakthrough feature debut, which marked the life of a child growing up in slums and on the streets of Bombay.

Monsoon Wedding Wins in Venice; Salam Bombay was India’s official entry to the Oscars. Nair’s latest, six-part BBC mini-series A Suitable Boy, has closed this year’s TIFF. It is based on the epic of the same name by Vikram Seth.

Will the family and the rest of the world find Lata a perfect fit for her as the country tries to find its identity? Mira Nair’s mini series will ensure you follow along on the journey. (BBC / Andrew Davis)

The 1993 1,500-page book is an adventure that follows five families through the layered look at the politics of love and marriage in post-independence, post-partition India, which is struggling to define itself.

“When I was asked to direct the series, I decided to link it to a six-hour movie,” says the 63-year-old Nair, speaking from his New York home a few days before the series’ India release (which was on Netflix on October 23). She was helped by a screenplay created by Welsh screenwriter Andrew Davis.

“We decided that this was not just a piece of time, but a mirror for Indian society today. A beautiful mirror of what we have left, we must never forget,” says Nair. “I was determined to create a balance between political and personal love. I agree, because the roots of politics that we see in our country today have been planted, and yet the Hindu and Muslim community are intertwined in our culture, relationships, language and music. This is a syncretic society, which I want to highlight. ”

Before leaving for work, Nair spent four days with Seth at his home in England, “making sure we have all the nuances that I want to be aware of, especially keeping in mind the Hindu and Muslim dynamics of today.” Nair consulted with the cast saying “their happiness is important to me.”

After filming began, Seth came to Lucknow only once, he says. “I called him whenever he wanted but I didn’t want to bother him much because he was still waiting for the sequel to finish, A Suitable Girl!”

It took an entire year to find suitable actors for the series, from July 2018 to August 2019; There were 105 characters to fill. The first actor was Tabu (who was in The Namesake); Here she plays a prostitute named Saeeda. Ishaan Khattar Maan Kapoor, a young male major; And Tanya Maniktala, an advertising copywriter until she auditioned for the role of Lata. After hundreds of attempts for the part, Nair says, Maniktala turned out to be “dewy in action, innocent, frantic and clever.”

Next came the music. Nair grew up in Odisha, Kolkata, Shimla and Delhi, and now spends time between his homes in Kampala and New Delhi in New York, Uganda. But her father grew up in Lahore before partition. “I grew up listening to ghazals. Music is going to be the oxygen of this whole series. So I took the poems in the novel [the sufi singer] It is the voice of Kavita Seth and Tabu who composed the ghazals. The voice and embodiment of Anoushka Shankar Lata. ”

When it came time to shoot, he says, laughing, there was a constant war to keep New India afloat. The book and series are set in the 1950s in the fictional town of Brahmapur and in Lucknow, Varanasi and Kolkata. The series was shot in Lucknow and Kanpur in Uttar Pradesh and Maheshwar in Madhya Pradesh.

“Clearly, places like Varanasi and Kolkata are outdated; So they turned out to be impossible to transform, ”says Nair. So the Narmada banks in Maheshwar are a substitute for Varanasi; A large chowk in Kanpur became Anglicized Calcutta.

“Lucknow is a real treasure,” says Nair. “It still has all the layers of its great historical past – the Nawabs and kings, the colonial era and the independence movements. We have built a great Brahmapur there.”

For the Kapoor family bungalow – more action has been set – Nair and his art direction team have zeroed in on a heritage home in Lucknow. She had to meet the owner in Hampstead, England, for permission to use it, which was gladly provided.

Vikram Seth's post-independence novel is given a contemporary spin but there are plenty of period details in the series.

Vikram Seth’s post-independence novel is given a contemporary spin but there are plenty of period details in the series. (BBC / Andrew Davis)

“We have renovated the house, removed the ply from the windows, restored the jollies, opened the garden, repaired the fountain and brought it back to life. In the process we became famous in Lucknow and people started coming to us, please take our house and fix it! ”Says Nair.

He then purchased miles of carpet, shipped antique furniture from Jodhpur and Mumbai and opened a warehouse, where he built art deco furniture, bentwood chairs and repainted the interior of the railway boogies of the time.

“We still had to use special effects, to remove the hoardings and the megaphone,” Nair says.

Despite the period factors, both Nair and Tabu have said that we will see the story and series universally. “These characters can exist in any part of the world today, in any country,” Tabu said in a BBC interview. “As human beings, we all have societies that define us and we are the product of it. We have love and we have individuality.”

Nair says he hopes to take Indian audiences on a truly enjoyable ride that is used to amazing content. “Human, funny, sexy and without a single dull moment.”