Feature: Whose India is it Anyway?
Anjali Krishnakumar dissects the criticism and controversy surrounding Mira Nair's A Suitable Boy in an attempt to unmask the many faces of India - both past and present - hidden within.
A Suitable Boy is somehow once again mired in controversy. And it’s not for entirely unexpected reasons - for having the audacity to show an interfaith couple kissing in a temple in 2020 India. A few weeks after the show premiered on Netflix, the BJP’s Gaurav Goel tweeted against the platform suggesting that the OTT platform was “deliberately insulting the Hindu Gods and Goddesses.” And although he did not mention A Suitable Boy in that particular tweet, he did manage to get the hashtag #BoycottNetflix trending, which resulted in a police case being lodged by the Madhya Pradesh government against the platform.
The vitriolic objections to a couple kissing on hallowed ground become even more insidious when one considers the context in which they’ve emerged. The twitter outrage against the show arrived in the wake of a new law being proposed in Uttar Pradesh (which happens to be very similar to the fictional setting of the show in question) and other North Indian states that has been created to counter ‘Love Jihad’, a term coined by the Sangh Parivar to refer to interfaith romances or marriages between Muslim men and Hindu women. The new law will prevent people from converting to a different religion during marriage and requires people wishing to change their religions to apply to the District Magistrate of the area. Left wing parties and organisations have rightly pointed out that this law seems grossly unconstitutional given the secular pillar of the country and have strongly decried it as another of the ruling party’s moves towards making India a religiously intolerant country.
Returning to A Suitable Boy and its ‘outrageous’ insults, it is important to think about the context of the series, which is essentially a 2020 audiovisual adaptation of a novel written in the 90s about a story set in the 50s. This puts the show in the unique position of being able to assess all these (incredibly noteworthy) time periods in Indian history through the lens of its story. Each period has its own important historic struggles; Independence and Partition first, followed by the Babri Masjid demolition and privatisation in the 90’s, and finally, we have 2020, a year in which fascist tendencies in government seem to be at an all time high, regularly on display through measures like the abrogation of Article 370, the Citizenship Law amendments or even the new farm laws currently being protested across the country.
Vikram Seth’s original novel, published in 1993, in the year after the Babri Masjid demolition, clearly refers to this religious hatred. He shows us his own fictionalised version of the origins of the conflict, a somewhat satirised but no less scary version, through the story arc of the crooked Raja of Marh who wants to build a temple right next to a Mosque. This is partly for religious purposes but mainly and maliciously, to slight the Muslim community, who will soon have to pray facing the temple first before turning to Mecca. Some of the characters are able to astutely predict the bloodshed that will be caused by this move and try to prevent it, while others look at the matter more lightly and consider it a laughable issue. Seth, in light of the Babri Masjid riots, creates a conflict and riot scene that is not only believable but which palpably captures the hopelessness, frustration, and overwhelmingly bureaucratic nature of inter religious conflicts that we have seen in India since the 90s.
Comparatively, the show glosses over this communal angle. Even when it is shown, it is portrayed as something that can be resolved through the power of love and friendship (the touching scene with Maan and Firoze from the show is not present in the book at all), something aspirational certainly but not quite believable in 2020. It is a little puzzling that the show runners chose to sidestep this politically significant plot point given that the series was released in the wake of the Ayodhya verdict in late 2019, which (unsurprisingly) awarded the Babri Masjid land to a Hindu foundation to build a Ram Mandir. Perhaps it was a practical consideration, given the limited runtime available to them (an adaptation of Seth’s Herculean text deserves at least 12 episodes!). Or perhaps the sidestepping was a strategic (and now ironic) business decision - a way to avoid the ire of the openly intolerant “New India” and to present the past as a somewhat rosy landscape of communal togetherness.
It could simply also be the fact that both the show runner Andrew Davies, with a penchant for extravagant, melodramatic period drama, and the production company, the BBC, aren’t Indian and were primarily catering to their audiences back home. In fact, before the recent dramatic accusations by the right wing, this was its Subcontinental audience’s biggest grievance against the show - that it presented a whitewashed, overly anglicised version of the original, much beloved text. To many long time Indian fans of the novel, including this writer, it felt odd that so many of the characters had suddenly become inauthentic caricatures, “Jane Austen” versions of their true selves, with no convincing reason for why this was needed, apart from wanting to (yet again) portray 1950’s India as a distant outpost of the grand British Empire, instead of what it was - a fledgling, divided post-Colonial country attempting to forge its own national identity.
But religious conflict isn’t the focus of the novel (as much as a novel of this size can have a focus). The real focus, as the title suggests, is on the heroine, Lata Mehra (played by an utterly charming Tanya Maniktala) and her quest for finding “a suitable boy” to marry. It just so happens that one of her suitors, the most unsuitable boy of them all, is a Muslim man, Kabir Durrani (played by Danesh Razvi). Her courtship with him is the most romantic of all her suitors, and readers and viewers alike continue to be endlessly disappointed when *spoiler alert* Lata does not ultimately pick him. But before this rejection, there is the kiss in the temple. A scene which, interestingly, plays out differently in the book. One in which they do share a kiss, but in a much more agnostic location; on the banks of a river.
Keeping in mind the whitewashed treatment of other elements in the story, one can’t help but wonder about the motive behind shifting the location of the kiss. Of course, in a perfectly harmonious world, this change of location wouldn’t matter much at all. After all, the moment is meant to zero in on the romantic tension between Lata and Kabir. Perhaps it was an innocent choice - a beautiful, typically Indian backdrop for a lovely scene, a likely result of the colonial gaze the creators seemed to have viewed the text with. Or perhaps, in what would be a very badass move, it was something more deliberate - a stealthy spit in the face of the religious bigotry and communal hatred that has been steadily encompassing the country since the 1950s. Such a subversive reading of the scene and the debacle that followed certainly highlights how something as simple as a kiss has the potential for so many layers of nuance today. This kiss that took place in the 1950s, pre ‘Love Jihad’ but post partition, somehow becomes more revolutionary than the millions of stolen kisses in temples and mosques and churches that have taken place since then, simply because of this unique re and de contextualisation it is subject to, constantly recalibrating itself to the time period it is in, as well as the one it is attempting to represent.
To look at the distances (both spatial and temporal) that the text has travelled is fascinating. It goes from the annals of history to the pages of a fictional novel, and skips the silver screen to finally land on our computer and laptop screens, as we fight tooth and nail trying to figure out what the characters should and should not be saying, or even who this text is for.
Is it for Right Wing Indians, the ones caught up in the unreal and unattainable “akhand Bharat” vision, who perhaps rejoiced at Lata’s ultimate, sensible, same caste and religion choice of husband? Or is it for the liberal Left Wing Indians who cackled gleefully when Lata and Kabir shared their kiss and sighed wistfully at a vision of India in which the Raja of Marh hadn’t succeeded? Or is it for the foreigners watching from far and wide? People who aren’t quite sure of the cultural or contemporary context of the text, but are happy to watch beautiful Indians with stilted accents in grand settings play acting their own colonialist reimagining of the country? Honestly, it’s impossible to say. The same way that India doesn’t belong to any one person or group of people, as the late poet Rahat Indori pointed out, “kisi ke baap ka Hindustan thodi hai” (Hindustan doesn’t belong to anyone’s father), it is impossible to pin down “authentic” ownership of any one part of the country, and as a result any work of art that tries to represent it. A Suitable Boy, both as novel and mini-series, is far from perfect, and yet, perhaps it is this unattainable quality that makes the text so quintessentially Indian, enabling it to speak to us in a way that no other text possibly could have this successfully, at this moment in our history.
Anjali Krishnakumar recently graduated from Ashoka University with a degree in English and Media Studies (although the truer version probably is that she spent more time eating at the Dhaba and losing at Monodeal than at either of those things). She has been published in Girls On Tops and the Bangalore Review.