The TV series “A Suitable Boy” is a six-part adaptation of the Vikram Seth novel of the same name and helmed by Mira Nair, an old hand in translating ‘India’ to Western eyes. I haven’t read the book, so the trailer, treatment and cast seemed appealing enough for me to watch it over last week. Expectedly, for a well-hyped series, fresh off the oven, it did garner eyeballs and many a review.
But this is not another review, at least not a regular one. What I intend to do here is highlight the problematic stereotypes and portrayals, especially of Hindus, that somehow regular reviewers either seem to largely miss noticing or don’t seem to care enough about. And to show how they go a long way in perpetuating the perennially distorted image of the Hindu community.
But before we dive deeper, let’s take a quiz to test the secular quotient of those of you that haven’t read the book or watched the series. What follows is a set of one-line descriptions of a few key characters from the series. Try to peg the religion (they are either Hindu or Muslim) to which they belong, from these descriptions.
- Wayward scion of a wealthy politician, given to irresponsible behaviour and besotted by a courtesan
- Kind courtesan with a heart of gold, exploited by a religious but ruthless ex-ruler
- A highly religious debaucherous erstwhile ruler hell bent on building a place of worship that would disturb communal harmony.
- An aristocratic zamindar and his son, both benevolent and forgiving of the wayward scion who endangers the latter’s life
- A politician with his heart in the right place but is non-religious and couldn’t care less about places of worship
If you answered – Hindu, Muslim, Hindu, Muslim, Hindu – or got at least the majority of them correct, congratulations on scoring high on your SQ test. Now on to the details.
‘A Suitable Boy’ is set in 1951, in a fictional town in North India, that is still trying to grapple with the aftermath of partition and the ever-simmering undercurrent of religious tensions. The central theme by itself is non-political – of a mother trying to find her younger daughter a suitable groom, but the sub plots and characterizations are too politically shrill to ignore.
In the very first episode, we get the first glimpse of the Ganga-Jamuna Tehzeeb where a Muslim zamindar tells his Hindu friend, the influential revenue minister, how a certain maharaja is trying to build a temple next door to a mosque, potentially threatening the delicate communal harmony. The revenue minister in turn tries to warn the home minister and the maharaja himself that healing touches and not temples, are the need of the hour (the oh-so-familiar language spoken by secular liberals) But his pleas fall on deaf years.
As expected (only in secular stories like these), an unarmed peaceful Muslim group comes protesting against building of the temple and get ruthlessly shot by the police. Clearly, to the uninitiated viewers (especially Western ones) the narrative being set is of majoritarian ruthlessness. No novel or TV series, of course, will tell them the harsh truth of real India.
An India where there almost never are cases of temples being built next to mosques with the purpose of destroying communal harmony, but only the unacknowledged truth of hundreds of mosques built over destroyed temples – some even sitting visibly on top of desecrated temples in even the holiest of holy Hindu places.
And far removed from the screenplay of unarmed crowds getting shot by police, in real India, it is actually Islamist mobs in thousands that gherao police stations to pelt stones and set them on fire, as it happened in Bangalore recently, at even the slightest hint of a perceived insult.
When we talk of Hindu-Muslim tensions, how can riots be far behind?
In one of the later episodes, a Muharram procession and a Ramlila celebration come face to face and the aggressor is – not surprisingly – a Hindu. His angry shoving of a Muslim results in breakout of clashes. What follows is more stereotypes – an angry ‘saffron’ mob chasing the hero and his Muslim friend.
While the hero does end up eventually saving his Muslim friend from the bloodthirsty mob, there is no depiction of any scenario where Hindus are chased or killed, since in the make believe secular world there is no possibility of such a thing ever happening. Perhaps that is why Wikipedia calls Delhi riots ‘an anti-Muslim pogrom’ and the mainstream media never once mentions Godhra in the context of 2002.
If the story and screenplay is mischievous and misleading, characterizations are no better.
The Gita-chanting mother of the protagonist is shown as a mousy and wimpy woman. “What did I do in my past life to bring this curse on my beloved child,” she shrieks when she learns of her daughter’s love for a Muslim man. “(All Muslims are) Dirty, violent, cruel, lecherous,” she then exclaims, before vehemently denying the permission her daughter seeks to continue seeing the man.
“We never talk about religion. My father only cares about his mathematical problem,” is the innocuous response on the other hand that Lata gets from her ‘progressive’ Muslim lover Kabir Durrani, the son of a Maths professor, when she brings up the topic of family resistance to their relationship. These two scenes, especially when juxtaposed against each other, reveal an insidious agenda – of showing a contrast that cannot be starker.
The picture being projected is Hindu closemindedness and Muslim openness when it comes to interfaith relationship. Almost like a prequel to the fawning Tanishq ad. Once again, it cannot be emphasised how far removed from the truth the scenes are. A spate of recent cases in the news show that the victims by far, in the brutal and violent ends that many interfaith relationships come to, are indeed Hindus.
Even if the couple goes on to marry, the sad truth of legal disadvantages a non-Muslim woman is likely to face and the dangerous privileges that minority men get of having their own unquestioned personal laws is never highlighted. Overt insinuations aside, there are enough subtleties too peppered throughout to reinforce stereotypes.
Repeated references are made about how dishy the young Muslim lover is – as opposed to the Hindu suitors of Lata who need to admittedly scale up to compete (superior Muslim looks – check!). Even a Hindu child is not spared – the revenue minister’s precocious grandson, a Maths genius, rattles off caste statistics in his grandfather’s constituency that is supposed to help him win (Hindu caste obsession – check).
The only religious Hindu, the Maharaja is shown to be an uncouth, paunchy villain who exploits a courtesan and causes a stampede in a temple (undisciplined Hindu crowds – check). Of the only two remotely ‘grey Muslim characters’ one is a village zamindar who is hinted at being unjust to his worker and merciless to his own son, but there is enough warmth in his portrayal to not outright hate him.
The other is Waris, the benevolent zamindar’s wily servant who turns the minister’s tragic circumstances to his advantage. But he too hugs and makes up with his opponent in the end. And finally, the heart and soul of the Hindu community – the temple – forms a constant backdrop throughout. And not in a good way.
Lata and Kabir share a passionate kiss in temple premises. Characters are shown repeatedly walking around in shoes and sandals near sacred idols and holy trees. And thus, we can go on and on. But that will only make it more frustrating. Needless to say, ‘A Suitable Boy’ follows all secular tropes very religiously (pun intended)
• A good Hindu is a non-religious one, or religiously indifferent, at best – check
• A religious Hindu is always uncivilized or regressive – check
• Muslim – religious or otherwise – is mostly reasonable and understanding – check
• Muslim is always a victim – of Hindus or his/her circumstances – check
There is no doubt that the series is overall competently made. The actors are well cast and deliver stellar performances. The flow is engaging, even if predictable. The production values are top-notch (costume and set designs specifically) and the series itself to bound to sell well. And therein lies the problem.
As long as distortions and stereotypes are packaged glossily and sold well, they would remain entrenched as the unquestioned truth in the minds of large swathes of the viewing audiences while all ‘other versions’ will continue to remain unheard or worse, dismissed as untruths. It is time for professional Hindu voices to learn to tell and sell our versions of our stories.
And unapologetically. I hope, one day, not too far in the future, series and movies that talk of the majority of this country in a far kinder tone – of their glories, their accomplishments, their struggles, their resilience, their grit, their wisdom, their inclusiveness, and above all, their truths – get made skillfully enough, for the rest of the world to hear, understand and appreciate.