A Suitable Boy | TIFF 2020 Review

by Andrew Parker

Mira Nair’s epic romantic miniseries A Suitable Boy closes out this year’s Toronto International Film Festival with a suitably binge-worthy epic.

Not a film, per se, but rather a six episode adaptation of Vikram Seth’s best selling period novel of the same name commissioned for the BBC, A Suitable Boy takes place in early 1950s India, not long after the partitioning of the country. It’s a socially, politically, and religiously volatile time, especially for young people and women.

Nair (who directs all but the series’ fourth episode, briefly handing over reins to Shimit Amin) and veteran miniseries writer Andrew Davies centre their story around a young man and woman from the same family with similarly dubious romantic prospects that vex their traditionally minded elders. Whip smart university student Lata Mehra (Tanya Maniktala) doesn’t want to settle down into an arranged marriage. She falls in love with a Muslim boy (Danesh Razvi) in a romance that her doting, paranoid single mother would never approve of. Mom would prefer that she settle upon either a kind, honest, yet unattractive cobbler or a cocky, well renowned poet. Meanwhile, Lata’s brother-in-law, Maan (Ishaan Khatter), has fallen into a bad romance with a considerably older courtesan (Tabu), threatening to bring further dishonour upon his politically connected father heading into the country’s first general election.

A Suitable Boy has a lot of ground to cover, but Nair and Davies – both of whom are old hats at this sort of thing – allow the characters and their interlocking plights take firm root amid the cultural context of Seth’s source material. The political and historical details dovetail nicely with the classically mounted romance, with each element supporting each other instead of bogging things down. The characters and the actors playing them are a joy to behold, in the first BBC to have no major white characters (except for a couple of Czech business owners who pop in around the midway point, but even they’re largely background fodder). For something this dense, the total five hour and forty five minute running time of all six episodes breezes by, and once the big reveals and twists start to drop around halfway through the fifth episode, A Suitable Boy solidifies its status as time well spent.

Your mileage may vary when it comes to the actual ending of the series, but that’s not the fault of anyone involved or even the source material. It’s a definitive(ish) ending that’s meant to be a conversation starter about the true definition of love and security. Whatever your opinion on the overall outcome of A Suitable Boy, it remains a closing night event worth one’s time.

The first two episodes of A Suitable Boy will screen at TIFF 2020 on Saturday, September 19 at 8:30 pm at the RBC Lakeside Drive-In at Ontario Place and 9:00 pm at the West Island Open Air Cinema at Ontario Place. The entire series will screen indoors at TIFF Bell Lightbox on Saturday, September 19 at 2:00 pm (including two twenty minute intermissions). The entire series can also be streamed online for a limited time during TIFF via Bell Digital Cinema starting at 6:00 pm on Saturday, September 19. All online TIFF 2020 screenings are geolocked to Canada. If seeing a film in cinemas, please take all necessary precautions. Practice physical distancing, wear a mask, and please stay home if you feel ill.

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