I do have some sympathy for the gatekeepers of what we watch or stream on our phones and TVs. Especially those who commissioned big flagship drama series before the Black Lives Matter movement took centre stage and the power it generated led many to ask deeper and wider questions about representation across society and in culture or, more pertinently, the lack of it.
In years gone by there would have been almost universal praise for the BBC’s commissioning and scheduling of a historical drama, based entirely in India, with an all-Asian cast adapting Vikram Seth’s leviathan of a novel A Suitable Boy, which starts on BBC One this Sunday.
This is a book that possesses vast amounts of cultural capital as it sits alongside works by Salman Rushdie, Arundhati Roy and Michael Ondaatje on the bookshelf behind you as you do another Zoom call. I wonder how many people can boast of having started it, to prove their literary tastes are as diverse as their culinary ones, without ever having finished it.
In 1993, when its nearly-1,500 pages were first published, it would have been revolutionary to have adapted it for the small screen. Asians would have run into the living room, shouting upstairs to the other members of the family to quickly come and gather around the TV to watch people who looked like them onscreen.
But this is 2020. I immediately tweeted after watching the first episode: “Conflicted about A Suitable Boy six-part drama on the BBC. Indian stories yet again boiled down to arranged marriages and religious strife from nearly 70 years ago.”
So, in advance of a discussion I was going to have with TV critics Hayley Campbell and Scott Bryan for the Must Watch podcast, I watched it again and I hate to admit that it made me cringe.
I asked Hayley and Scott what they thought of it. For Hayley it was just too boring (“I can’t make myself care about women from the past struggling to find a husband”) and then finished by saying, “There’s no plot more boring to me than ‘My sister’s married and I’m not,’” and it left Scott asking, “whether it’s giving to British viewers a stereotypical interpretation of what we want that period of history to be rather than an actual reflection of what it is”.
The choice of writer was also an interesting one. Not a British Asian writer such as the award-winning Tanika Gupta MBE, who had previously worked on adapting it for Channel 4, but Andrew Davies, the man known for adapting Pride And Prejudice and War & Peace for the small screen.
In a perfect world this wouldn’t be so much of an issue, as there would be a rich diversity of stories emanating from the minds of South Asian writers. But we don’t live in a perfect world and as the author and scriptwriter Nikesh Shukla told me: if South Asian writers find it really difficult to get mainstream writing work and then don’t even get a look in when it comes to South Asian stories, what options do they have left?
He went on to ask: “In order for a TV producer to be interested in a South Asian scriptwriter does he or she have to be writing about arranged marriages or terrorists?”
All of that being said, A Suitable Boy is beautifully directed by Mira Nair – it has been a real passion project for her ever since the book was first released and the lead actor, the previously unknown Tanya Maniktala, is great.
I hope it will be a success and vast amounts of people will curl up on their sofas on a Sunday night to be transported to post-partition India.
The viewer should be aware, though, that it trots out almost every South Asian stereotype imaginable. This is a problem because there is so little representation of British Asians onscreen that to have another costume drama featuring sandals and saris, arranged marriages and Hindu/Muslim friction seems reductive and clichéd.
There are three million South Asians in the UK and yet we so rarely see ourselves represented in a contemporary way or blended into the fabric of British drama in leading roles.
The problem isn’t that A Suitable Boy has been adapted for TV; that is long overdue. The problem is that in its elevated place as the sole drama of its kind featuring an Asian cast it risks being a 21st-century version of orientalism.
After I tweeted how watching the first episode had made me feel I received a tweet that made me think how wide an issue this is, and not just for the Asian community. It read “Get in line, Nihal. How do you think the black community feels about endless commissioning of Top Boy, Bullet Boy etc. We also have deeper and richer narratives than ghetto kids and ghetto choices…”
I’ll leave someone far better placed than me to continue that debate.
A Suitable Boy is on BBC One from 9pm, Sunday 26 July.
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