Filmmaker Mira Nair, in a career spanning three decades, has often turned to books for inspiration. There’s her beloved adaptation of Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Namesake, and also the misfire in William Thackeray’s Vanity Fair. So, when it came to adapting Vikram Seth’s mammoth novel, A Suitable Boy, Nair knew a two-hour feature won’t do justice to the saga that follows four families. “It deserves the unfolding pace of a marathon,” says Nair. “It is gruelling but also gorgeous.” The six-episode series released on Netflix on October 23.
For Nair, there was no city better than Lucknow to represent Brahmpur, a fictional town by the Ganga. Nair and her crew shot on real locations, moving from old havelis to crumbling forts. “We were going into places and refurbishing them to make them look as they did in 1951,” she says. “It also amazed me that there wasn’t a single Muslim elected city official.”
Seth’s novel also highlights the distrust a section of Hindus feel against the Muslims who chose to stay in India post-Partition. That schism still exists and it manifested itself on the streets of Lucknow on December 19, just two days after Nair wrapped up shooting. One of Nair’s cast members, Sadaf Jafar, a Congress worker and social activist, who plays Bibbo, maid to the courtesan Saeeda Bai, was one of the 100-odd people arrested for participating in a protest against the Citizenship Amendment Act. Nair took to Twitter to demand her release. “She is really vocal about her time [in prison] and her beliefs, and it is very important to be able to do that,” says Nair. Jafar was granted bail in January.
Jafar is one of the many fresh faces to be seen in Nair’s film. For the character Lata, a 20-year-old woman “with a strange will of her own, quiet but unpredictable”, Nair zeroed in on Tanya Maniktala after a year of searching. “She is extraordinary, a dewdrop in action,” she says. Two of Lata’s suitors, too, face camera for the first time—Danish Razvi plays Kabir, described as a ‘Cad’, a nickname derived from Cadbury’s chocolate; and Mikhail Sen essays Amit Chatterjee, the poet. Nair was adamant that she gets to work with actors living in India. “This is about us,” she says. “Why would I go to Leicester and cast English-Asian actors for a show set in 1950s’ India? The talent in our country is extraordinary.” Tabu plays the “irresistible” courtesan Saeeda Bai; Ishaan Khatter plays Maan, “a good-looking young wastrel forever” who falls for her; Rasika Dugal is cast as Lata’s elder sister Savita; and Namit Das plays Lata’s third suitor, Haresh Khanna.
Das is now familiar with Nair’s process, having spent the past three years working with her on the musical based on her standout film, Monsoon Wedding. “She is so perceptive about human relationships and the politics behind it,” says Das. “The most brilliant thing she does is that she gives you the option to live the scene differently. By the end, you are exhausted but you know that you have given your best.”
This quest for perfection is the reason why Oscar-winning actors like Hilary Swank, Lupita Nyong’o and Reese Witherspoon have collaborated with Nair, and why actors of South Asian descent have received international recognition (Irrfan in The Namesake, Riz Ahmed in The Reluctant Fundamentalist). As conversations around equal opportunities, be it for female directors, minority representation and #BlackLivesMatter, occupy film industries in the US and the UK, Nair has sustained herself in both countries, working tirelessly.
So, is it easier now to get what she wants from studios? “For me,” she says, “it’s not about the ability to find finances to fund a film, it’s more about doing the right thing or the thing I want to do.