DEBORAH ROSS: A Suitable Boy is not as good as the book I haven't read

DEBORAH ROSS: Goodness gracious me: why the Peter Sellers accents?

A Suitable Boy

Sunday, BBC1 

Rating:

Prodigal Son

Tuesday, Sky One

Rating:

A Suitable Boy is the BBC’s much-anticipated adaptation of Vikram Seth’s 1,349-page, 592,552-word novel, which is one of those big books I always said I’d read but never have. (I have, as it happens, quite a long list of big books I always said I’d read but never have. Do get in touch if you’d like recommendations.) It’s a multi-family and political epic set in India just after Partition (as I now know), and I was as much anticipating it as anyone, because it’s always interesting to see what they’ve done with the big book you haven’t read. And my conclusion? As this is, for the most part, bland and stilted and timid and clumsy and rather ordinary, I just don’t think it’s as good as the book I haven’t read. At. All.

Tanya Maniktala and Mahira Kakkar in A Suitable Boy. It looks like we’re set for a star-crossed-lovers-type scenario, which is something I can’t get especially excited about. (Sad but true)

Adapted by Andrew Davies (Pride And Prejudice, War And Peace and that which we swore we’d never speak of again but it was a lie… Sanditon!), and directed by Mira Nair, the first disappointment was apparent from the off, when it became clear that the production had mistakenly, in my opinion, opted for an almost Peter Sellers approach to language. The cast is all Indian, but instead of speaking Urdu or Hindi to each other, they speak heavily accented English and, even leaving aside all else, like respecting a nation’s mother tongue, the fact is, well, they wouldn’t. So this lack of naturalism undermined believability throughout. And it’s also what I mean by timid. What’s wrong with subtitles? Because some would find that off-putting? Was that the basis for the decision? Well, it never put us off all those Scandi-noirs, is all I’ll say.

On to the meat of it, which centres on a widowed mother, Rupa (Mahira Kakkar), seeking a husband for her young university student daughter Lata (Tanya Maniktala). The first episode of six opened on the wedding day of Lata’s older sister with Rupa summoning Lata from the garden: ‘Come inside at once… you have to get dressed for your sister’s wedding.’ Like Lata wouldn’t know it’s her sister’s wedding? True, a first episode has much setting up to do and you must expect some exposition but, still, the script was so heavy-handed in this regard it had me shouting, ‘But they’d already know that!’ on numerous occasions. ‘You are the Revenue Minister and I am the Home Minister,’ says the Revenue Minister. Yes, but you both already know that! ‘Holi is a Hindu holiday for the Hindu nation,’ says one character later on. Yes, but everyone would already know that! God, what a trudge.

But back to the narrative. Against a backdrop of political unrest and, in particular, a new Hindu temple being built right up against a mosque, which leads to protests and the police opening fire, we witness Lata falling for Kabir (Danesh Razvi), who is a dish, but a most unsuitable boy, as she’s Hindu and he’s Muslim. So it looks like we’re set for a star-crossed-lovers-type scenario, which is something I can’t get especially excited about. (Sad but true.)

As for other characters, there’s Maan (Ishaan Khatter), the young son of the family Lata’s sister has married into, who is feckless and irresponsible and meant to be charming in that way, but actually came across as puerile. When he pushed that Home Minister into the fountain I just thought, ‘What’s wrong with you, boy?’ This is beautiful to look at, with a cast that may even be unfeasibly beautiful, but it was wholly stilted and inert and dragged until, perhaps, the last 15 minutes, which brought an unfaithful wife into play – I found I did want to learn more about her – as well as a fat, drunk, repellent Raja (that perked things up) and his courtesan Saeeda (the Bollywood star Tabu), with whom Maan becomes smitten. So maybe this does have legs. I think our best bet is to reconvene next week after episode two to see how we feel, but in the meantime and as it stands: not as good as the book I haven’t read.

Michael Sheen and Tom Payne in Prodigal Son. As this doesn’t take itself seriously, it’s hard to know why we should, and the result is plain hammy

The other show I was keenly anticipating was Prodigal Son, a drama about a criminal psychologist (Tom Payne) whose father is ‘The Surgeon’, a serial killer responsible for 23 grisly deaths and is now in prison, but whom the son is forced to consult when it appears a copycat killer is on the loose.

The father is played by Michael Sheen, and I was looking forward to Sheen going full-on Hannibal Lecter but, alas, his character is pretty much sidelined for an absurd police procedural involving Bond-style villains and the world’s most unlikely prison cell – huge, lined with books, with TV and phone, how does that work? – and jokes that very much don’t land.

As this doesn’t take itself seriously, it’s hard to know why we should, and the result is plain hammy. In fact, as ham these days is 82 per cent injected water, this may even be more hammy than actual ham. Yes, I’m pretty sure it is.

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