Making A Suitable Boy

Aradhana Seth, an executive producer on A Suitable Boy, offers up some insights on the adaptation, which premieres on Acorn TV in the U.S. and Canada today.

Lookout Point’s lush adaptation of Vikram Seth’s acclaimed 1993 novel A Suitable Boy finally makes its North American debut this month, with Acorn TV releasing two episodes today, followed by a weekly rollout through January 4, 2021.

Distributed by BBC Studios, the series premiered in the U.K. over the summer on BBC One, distilling Seth’s remarkable 1,349-page novel into a six-part production set in 1951 India, four years after the country declared independence from British rule. It explores the lives of four interwoven families, with Mira Nair directing from a script penned by the U.K.’s king of epic period dramas, Andrew Davies. Condensing Seth’s tome into six episodes saw Davies homing in on a few core characters, notably Lata Mehra (portrayed by newcomer Tanya Maniktala) and Maan Kapoor (Bollywood heartthrob Ishaan Khatter). Davies “is a master at taking large novels and whittling them down into six or eight episodes,” observes Aradhana Seth, an executive producer and producer on the series (and Vikram Seth’s sister), who helped oversee multiple aspects of the production, from costume to production design.

Finding locations to film in began in 2017, Seth tells TV Drama, as the team looked for ideal places to re-create the fictional town of Brahmpur in 1951. “It’s an amalgamation of Agra, Delhi and Lucknow,” Seth says. “Lucknow offered a vast number of institutional buildings and homes where there was still a feeling that they were in 1951, or could be brought back to 1951.”

Scenes were also filmed at real places from the book, like Mahmudabad, “so there is fiction and fact constantly being mixed into each other,” Seth says. “There was a lot of background research done, on characters, on places. We started by finding places that existed and places that looked like what we imagined” from the book. Seth highlights the house the production team found for the character Saeeda Bai, played by beloved Indian film star Tabu. “It was in the old city. The people who own it had only once before given it for use in a film.”

The team looked at both established stars and newer faces to cast the sprawling production. Most hailed from the film or theater spaces, Seth explains. “OTT platforms in India are still coming of age, so most of the people in this are film people. In the past, there were TV actors and film actors. Now, there’s a lot of really good actors bridging the gap between film and TV.”

A Suitable Boy, which was snapped up by Netflix for India and other markets outside of North America and the U.K., marked the BBC’s first production with an all-Indian cast. Seth notes that the international nature of the drama market today created the conditions for the adaptation to arrive, 20-plus years since the novel was published. “The world has changed,” Seth says. “Sitting in India, you can watch a show from Turkey, Spain, Mexico. They are all on par. The world is allowing for it. It’s the first time a huge show like this is being done by the BBC with an all-Indian cast and a mostly Indian crew.”

Seth also references the importance of authenticity in the content landscape today. “We are now 70 years from the time of our independence. It’s about telling your own stories. [The show] has the backdrop of a newly independent country and has the residue of the Raj. But it’s not about that. All over the world now, hopefully, everybody’s voices are being heard much more. Their voices, not as the other, telling their own stories.”

Nair, too, has reflected a similar sentiment, noting, “One level of our story is the journey of Lata finding herself, her own voice, finding love and being loved. At the same time, India goes on its own journey towards its first national election. Besides the affairs of the human heart, what interests me in this story is the interweaving of the personal story of Lata and her family but also the political story of our country, finding its own voice.”