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How Mira Nair turned Vikram Seth’s novel into a suitable show

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

The magic wand of her storytelling has let the world experience India through films such as Monsoon Wedding (2001), about a family celebration disrupted by dark secrets; The Namesake (2006), a story of loss and fractured identity based on the novel by Jhumpa Lahiri; and Salaam Bombay (1988), her stunning feature debut, which traced the life a child growing up in the slums and on the streets of Bombay.

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

The 1,500-page book from 1993 is a saga that follows five families through a layered look at the politics of love and marriage in a post-Independence, post-Partition India that is also struggling to define itself.

“When I was asked to direct the series, I decided to approach it as a six-hour film,” Nair, 63, says, speaking from her New York home days before the India release of the series (it’s out on Netflix on October 23). She was helped along by a screenplay painstakingly crafted by the Welsh screenwriter Andrew Davies.

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Before getting to work, Nair spent four days with Seth in his home in England, recalibrating, “making sure we had all the nuances that I wanted to be careful of, especially given the Hindu-Muslim dynamics of then and today.” Nair also consulted him on the casting as “his happiness is important to me”.

Once filming began, Seth came to the Lucknow sets just once, she adds. “I called him whenever I needed him but didn’t want to disturb him much as we are still waiting for him to finish the sequel, A Suitable Girl!”

Finding the right actors for the series took a whole year, from July 2018 to August 2019; there were also 105 roles to fill. The first actor cast was Tabu (who was also in The Namesake); here she plays a courtesan named Saeeda. Ishaan Khattar is Maan Kapoor, the young male lead; and the star, Tanya Maniktala, was an ad copywriter until her audition for the role of Lata. After trying out hundreds for this part, Nair says, Maniktala emerged as a “dew drop in action, innocent, feisty and intelligent”.

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When it came time to shoot, she adds, laughing, there was a constant battle to keep the new India at bay. The book and series are set in the 1950s in a fictitious town named Brahmpur as well as Lucknow, Varanasi and Kolkata. The series was shot in Lucknow and Kanpur in Uttar Pradesh and Maheshwar in Madhya Pradesh.

“To be blunt, places like Varanasi and Kolkata are period-buggered; so changed that they were impossible to transform,” Nair says. So the banks of the Narmada in Maheshwar substituted for Varanasi; a big chowk in Kanpur became the anglicised Calcutta.

“Lucknow is a real treasure,” Nair says. “It still has all the layers of its great historical past — of the nawabs and rajas, the colonial era and the freedom movements. We created most of Brahmpur there.”

For the Kapoor family bungalow — where much of the action is set — Nair and her art direction team zeroed in on a heritage home in Lucknow. She had to meet the owner at Hampstead in England for permission to use it, which was gladly given.

“We refurbished the home, removed the ply from the windows, restored the jaalis, opened up the garden, fixed the fountain, and brought it back to life. In the process we became well-known in Lucknow and people started coming to us saying, please take our house and fix it!” Nair says.

They then bought miles of carpet, shipped antique furniture in from Jodhpur and Mumbai, and started up a warehouse where they built Art Deco furniture, Bentwood chairs, and replicated the interiors of railway coaches of the time.

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

Period elements notwithstanding, Nair and Tabu have both said they see the tale, and series, as universal. “These characters could very well exist today in any part of the world, in any country,” Tabu said in a BBC interview. “As human beings, we all have societies that define us and that we are a product of. We have love and we have separation.”

Nair says she hopes to take the Indian audience, which is used to fantastic content, on a really enjoyable ride. “A ride that is human, funny, sexy and without a single dull moment.”

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