Culture and language have always fascinated me. Part of film and television magic is getting to experience another way of life. From the beautiful costumes to holiday celebrations and especially the multiple languages spoken, Acorn TV’s A Suitable Boy gives an inside look at upper-middle class India in the 50s. The characters switch between languages in a single conversation quite often in the series, and director Mira Nair (Monsoon Wedding) has explained why.
A Suitable Boy follows Lata (Tanya Maniktala) who is torn between romance and duty as her priorities shift when time nears for her to choose a husband. Adapted by Andrew Davies (Pride and Prejudice), this period piece is exquisite. I was quite taken by the use of multiple languages throughout the series, and when I chatted with the director, Mira Nair, for an interview with CinemaBlend, she shared the reasoning behind this.
This show is based on a very great and well-loved novel, A Suitable Boy by Vikram Seth, which is written in English entirely. It is largely about the sort of Anglicized upper-middle class in India, different families. And yes, unfortunately, or whatever we think and dream in English. And this particular story is about that class more than it is about anything else. I mean, although it blends stories of the courtesan and rural life as well, but it's about mostly the class of people who are educated in English and talk in English, but also in Hindi, mostly most of us speak at least three to four languages simultaneously.
The attention to detail Mira Nair and the entire cast and crew of A Suitable Boy had does not go unnoticed. They strived to achieve accuracy for the time, place and social class depicted in the story, and there is not a single thing that feels out of place. Beyond creating an authentic setting, Nair also mentioned that the characters switching languages offers a sense of truth and gains trust from the audience. In her own words:
I think there's great power in truth, you know, and when you, as an audience, begin to sense the actual truth and in fact, a lot of humor in the switching back and forth that many of the world does in different languages, there is a trust that I get from you as well as the audience. That you know this world is reflecting something that is honest...even within a sentence, you could go in and out of languages and mix, that's how we speak English now, it's very much a mix of Hindi and English...I appealed to the BBC when making A Suitable Boy that we had to go in and out of languages because this was how we are really, and it would be dishonest, I think, even though they did so beautifully evoke the world in the English language in the novel, that it would be dishonest on screen. Like to have, say, the courtesan speak only in English when her entire art and her craft of music was about the language of Urdu.
As a lover of novels myself, there is always a concern when a book is adapted for the screen that much of what is loved about it will be lost. It’s encouraging to hear that Mira Nair went to such great lengths to preserve the story which fans already know and love, but also took care to change what would translate as inauthentic on-screen, such as being completely in English.