- “I entered the project three years ago,” said Mira Nair.
- “Tabu is the first person I spoke to at the beginning,” he said.
- “I love the talent we have,” he added.
Mira Nair, winner of the Jeff Skoll Award in Impact Media at the 45th Toronto International Film Festival, will once again be the center of attention on the final night of the festival. A suitable boy, his wonderful and engaging six-episode adaptation of Vikram Seth’s lengthy novel, will close the curtain on TIFF 2020. The BBC Studios production will premiere soon on Netflix. The director, who lives between New York, New Delhi and Kampala, discusses the aspects of bringing The Right Child to the screen that made the exercise worth the enormous amount of time and effort invested. Filming ended in mid-December, just before the virus hit, and post-production happened in the midst of the pandemic with Nair working “on three devices in my room” and the crew operating from four continents. “Technology was on our side,” he says, “in addition to play. “
How difficult was it to compress a 1,500-word novel into a six-hour miniseries? How much did you have to work with screenwriter Andrew Davies to come up with the final structure?
I entered the project three years ago when Andrew had already written the eight-hour version. I thought it was a masterful distillation. But the emphasis was much more Pride and prejudice than the political landscape. What I did with him, with Vikram Seth as a great reference, was weave the political with the personal so that, as Lata finds his way, the country is also formed. That change of emphasis is what I brought him. But the essential distillation was already done. It was just remodeled. I brought in some characters that didn’t exist before like, for example, Mrs. Mahesh Kapoor, who was the cornerstone of that in-laws in her calm, even obedient style, traditional on one level and deeply strong on another. She didn’t have as much strength in the previous draft. Finding Geeta Agrawal Sharma to play the character was a bonus.
How much did the cast make it easy for you?
This was one of the reasons I did it A suitable boy. I love actors. I love the talent we have. It had about 110 characters. Whoever I fell in love with, and fell in love with many, was with me. They all said yes, no matter how small their role. Vijay Raaz has only two scenes and is a huge star. It started with me at Monsoon Wedding. Many people in this series started with me. It was extraordinary for them to be egoless and to say that I’m fine, like Randeep Hooda, Vijay Raaz and so many others. With Manoj Pahwa, the electricity was just palpable. I kept building the Maharaja part thanks to this extraordinary actor. Shahana Goswami is a total flare. The way he faced Meenakshi was both free and skillful. And finding Tanya, my Lata, was really difficult because that combination of innocence and struggle is not something you find in 20-year-old girls today.
How did you finally find Tanya Maniktala?
I had these wonderful casting directors (Nandini Shrikent, Karan Mally, and Dilip Shankar) in Mumbai and Delhi. We toured India. They went everywhere. We started choosing Lata in 2018 because everything rests on her delicate shoulders. I haven’t counted, but I must have seen a few hundred, maybe 500, young girls. Also, movie stars wanted to play the role. We also went down that road. But the quality of Lata, which was very important, well, I call her ‘a dewdrop in action’, is that she has not seen the world, she is about to see the world, and in her there is this open Wonder of eyes combined with intelligence. I first saw a very lousy video image of Tanya. He had dark circles around his eyes. She was an advertising executive and it was the end of her workday. She just said something. I immediately asked Dilip Shankar who this girl is, let’s see her. When I saw her, it was pretty instant! Then we put her on with Haresh Khanna and the other guys. The spark began to fly in the beautiful way that she has.
This is the story of a girl searching for a suitable boy and a newborn nation searching for a suitable identity. Has anything changed for anyone?
The role models for women in the 1950s were limited but powerful. I remember even as a child I saw Sushila Nayyar, without a relative, as part of the first cabinet. The clear impression it made on me was that women can lead. In a way, women have led in India much more than in the West. Today there is a much greater democratization of women in various areas. But I think patriarchy and violence, and the subjugation that goes with it, are very abject. Although women hold leadership positions, core patriarchal values persist. Look what is happening in the press now, it is deplorable.
Isn’t the nation still struggling to find its true identity?
Yes, based on the seeds that were planted back then. That’s what’s interesting about Vikram Seth’s foreknowledge. He not only thought about the fight for freedom or what created the partition, but also the seeds that we are still harvesting.
As a director, do you handle a newcomer differently from a seasoned actor?
I try to create an atmosphere in which they feel completely safe even to be silly: a kind of irreverent and protected space. The experts don’t necessarily need it, but the new actor definitely needs it to feel at home. Creating that environment is a delicate process. It takes its time. In the case of A suitable boyI rehearsed a lot with the younger ones, with Ishaan and Tanya. With the others, there were no full trials.
The actor who plays Tasneem (Joyeeta Dutta) is very interesting. She has worked with you before, right?
I did a stage musical of Monsoon Wedding. It had 20 actors. Eighteen of them are in the series. He knew that Joyeeta would be a star. First, she is so exquisite. Second, she is a lovely actress. Furthermore, he remarkably resembled Tabu. She plays her younger sister. It was important to me to choose the families to make them look like families. Let’s take Mahira Kakkar. She looks amazingly like Tanya. That was fundamental for me: how to distinguish the Mehras from the Kapoor, the Chatterji, the Khan. That took a long time because each family has many characters. God bless my casting directors. They found actors from everywhere. Take Ananya Sen, who plays the smallest role of Kakoli. She is a theater actress from Calcutta. I don’t think I’ve done a movie before. She is fantastic. She is not like a movie star. She is like a normal person. I was looking for faces from the 1950s. I’m so glad Tanya is the TIFF 2020 Rising Star. It’s a great prize. I am so happy that she is on her way. Also Ishaan Khatter. He was a magnet. It was extraordinary from the moment I auditioned it.
Other than Lata, Maan, and Saeeda Begum, what characters do you particularly like in A suitable boy?
I love Meenakshi (played by Shahana Goswami). She is so delightfully herself and morally straightforward. She does what she has to do to live life. She is greedy for life. And of course, Saeeda Begum was the reason I decided to make A Right Boy. I come from so much love for the ghazal, for poetry, for that culture. There was no one but Tabu. She is the first person I spoke to in the beginning.
Did you give any special instructions to actors who play unsavory characters, like Raja de Marh (Manoj Pahwa) or Minister of the Interior Agarwal (Vinay Pathak)?
I don’t like to see villains as pure villains. With the role of Agarwal, yeah, he’s a right-wing man and all that, but what I tried to do, and it wasn’t in the script, it’s something we developed, is that when Maan is in prison and he’s not allowed to go for the cremation of his mother and father approaches Agarwal for help, apologizes, says he cannot do this … Even Agarwal has a heart. It makes everything deeper when we talk about many nuances. It would be so boring if a character was only emblematic of evil, of villainy, of fundamentalism. With the Raja, it was different because half the time he’s soaked in alcohol, he’s not on his wits. All her life she has been indulging her every whim. In that sense, it was less nuanced. You can’t show other sides of it. He probably didn’t know other sides of himself.
Is there a particular aspect of the story that you felt bad for leaving out of the series?
There is this whole section in the book on how Haresh Khanna believes in connecting people by their strengths. It is he who meets Kabir Durrani’s father, who is a mathematics teacher, and through that encounter, Kabir meets young Bhaskar, who is a prodigy of mathematics. That is what helps Kabir to recognize the child in the mela where it is feared that the latter is dead. He missed Professor Durrani, missed that interconnectedness. Also, I had chosen my husband, a teacher in real life, like Professor Durrani as a way to see him once every two years. It took me a long time to do this. I was always away from home.
A suitable boy it’s weeks away from streaming on Netflix. What kind of response do you expect in India?
I hope you are attracted to him. I hope that history serves as a mirror to our world today, to our society today. I hope people reflect on where we have come. I am aware that it is very rigorous and economical. Unlike Indian shows, which are much longer, this is a six-hour adaptation of a great novel. So the rhythm is a little different. It is very fast because it has to cover a lot of ground. It is also the way I like to tell stories. I hope that the Indian public will identify with him. Another thing is particularly the way we used to speak English in the 1950s – this is how I speak now. It is a more refined and taught English. The cadence comes from the Vikram book. It’s very different from ‘let’s go yaar, we have to go ‘the kind of English we speak in India today. I just hope that the depth and beauty of Vikram’s story, and the nation’s history, captures your imagination and your heart.
What was Vikram Seth’s first reaction to the adaptation?
His first reaction was just two words “thank you”. He was a guardian angel the entire time. Obviously, he cared a lot. I was very happy with the cinematic quality of the adaptation. A suitable boy it’s cinema and that’s why I’m particularly happy that TIFF is showing all six hours on the big screen.