Ishaan Khatter as Maan with Tabu as Saeeda
Khatter and Mira Nair
When Mira Nair heard in 2017 that the BBC had commissioned Welsh screenwriter Andrew Davies (War and Peace, Bleak House) to adapt A Suitable Boy, Vikram Seth's novel about post-independence India, as a limited series, she immediately knew who would be perfect to direct it.
"I thought to myself, 'I just want to throw my sari into the ring,'" jokes the India-born, New York–based Nair. "'This will not be made without me.'" Not content to rest on her Oscar nomination for Salaam Bombay! and the more than twenty films she's directed, including Mississippi Masala and The Namesake , she launched a charm offensive.
Suitable executive producer Aradhana Seth was surprised when Nair showed up to a meeting in London armed with paintings, photographs and a color palette to convey her vision of the sweeping period drama. "I thought that was really interesting," says Seth, whose brother Vikram asked her to oversee the project. "Normally a director of that might, someone who's done that much work, may not come with a look book. But she came with three copies."
Nair's burning desire to make Suitable her first miniseries stems in part from the many times she's read and reread Seth's wildly popular epic, which came out in 1993.
She'd always wanted to adapt it but wasn't sure how. "I was very inspired, but I thought it was too massive," Nair says. Daunted by the 105-character cast that sprawls over northern India, she instead made the 2001 ensemble drama Monsoon Wedding , which she now calls a "microcosmic" version of Suitable.
At nearly 1,400 pages, Seth's grand narrative of four wealthy families captures the optimistic mood of India in 1951, a few years after the end of British Colonial rule. The story struck a deep chord for Nair. "My parents were in that generation, married in the same year as the story is set, and were also a part of building this new India. And Vikram captured that idealism through his extraordinary characters."
Though Davies's adaptation encompassed eight hourlong episodes, Nair discovered soon after getting hired that the budget had whittled it down to six (now streaming on Acorn TV in the U.S.). She directed all but the fourth episode — which she asked longtime friend Shimit Amin to helm — and also executive-produced.
"It's still considered strangely radical in the Western world to finance a South Asian epic story with South Asian actors. It's still like, [gasping voice] 'Oh, my God. We've never really done this before!'" says Nair, who compares Suitable to Peter Morgan's historical drama about the rule of Queen Elizabeth ll. "I joke that it's The Crown in brown, in the sense that it has the same magnificence and sweep, and gorgeous, funny, sexy, unexpected characters."
When it came to actors, Nair knew that storied actress Tabu (Life of Pi) would bring elegance and poetry to the role of courtesan Saeeda Bai. She hired Ishaan Khatter, a rising Bollywood star, to play Saeeda's much younger lover, Maan. But it took so long to find her Lata, the whip-smart college student whose mother is scouring India to find her a Hindu husband, that the part was cast just a month before production began in September 2019.
Casting director Dilip Shankar sent Nair a photo of Tanya Maniktala, an advertising executive working just outside Delhi. "He apologized for the dark circles under her eyes; she had no makeup on, just herself at the end of a workday," Nair says. "But I was riveted by her eyes, and her innocence. I just felt something, and when I met her on Skype, I loved her self-effacing quality."
Maniktala's performance won her a Rising Star award at the 2020 Toronto International Film Festival.
A hallmark of Suitable — which Nair describes as "a big visual treat" — is how romance, comedy and drama unfold before a backdrop of India circa 70 years ago. Lucknow, a city filled with temples, mosques and mango groves (and also the capital of the state of Uttar Pradesh), serves as the primary location. The scenes in a tannery were shot in nearby Kanpur, which is known for shoemaking.
Nair grew up in India and loves the chaos of the country's crowded streets, but she can tick off a list of things that had to be hidden or eliminated to maintain an era-appropriate look.
"You've got to remove the bloody Adidas [logos] and the dyed jeans tthat have completely destroyed what used to be what I call the handloom universe, where everything was homespun and cotton and vegetable dyes, and people didn't wear brash colors like you see today," she says.
To make a TV series of such scope — there are violent riots as well as lavish weddings, poetry readings, cricket games and a scene involving the spring celebration of Holi, when people gleefully fling colored powder at each other — Nair decided to approach it not as television but as six hours of cinema, albeit made on a tight three-and-a-half-month production schedule.
She also insisted on what she calls her "one so-called Hollywood perk": full-time Iyengar yoga instructors who traveled with the production. "I just need it, and I've always insisted on it," says Nair, who opens up the classes to first-timers, experienced practitioners and whoever wants to reap the benefits. "It's good for my strength and stamina and learning how to destress and rest beautifully while you work."
The pandemic dictated remote editing, scoring and other postproduction duties. But the biggest blow, Nair says, was being unable to sit in a darkened theater, surrounded by strangers taking in A Suitable Boy for the first time. "Previews — as filmmakers we are used to that," she says, with a hitch in her voice. "I couldn't have a single one."
Yet the broad canvas that television offers can be addicting. Nair is now making an Amazon limited series based on New York Times reporter Ellen Barry's award-winning investigative article and podcast, "The Jungle Prince of Delhi," a compellingly weird story of a family inhabiting a falling-down palace in the middle of Delhi.
If Nair remains true to form, it will be shot on location on an unusually low-volume set. "I am very sensitive to sound," she explains. "I can't have a lot of noise around me while making something. I can't [concentrate]."
According to Tabu, who has appeared in more than 90 films and made her international debut in Nair's 2006 big-screen drama, The Namesake, there's something stimulating about working with this quiet, focused director. "I always end up feeling more energized when I work with Mira," Tabu says. "More charged, very engaged, motivated, and at home and very celebratory. I think [it's] a very rare experience."
This article originally appeared in emmy magazine, Issue No. 6, 2021