It wasn’t that long ago that I felt like the only Asians you see on TV were either forced into arranged marriages or could answer algebra questions by rote.
At a time when original prime-time television appears to have been suspended in place of reruns of Chef, the highly anticipated television adaptation of Vikram Seth’s novel A decent boy adds much needed color to our weekend viewing – and shows that ethnic storytelling can be mainstreamed.
The six-part drama was hailed as the first all-Indian period drama on Western television. Written by Andrew Davies, who is considered the Spielberg of the genre thanks to his adaptation of books such as Pride and Prejudice, it was shot entirely on location in India. The drama features a all-star cast that includes Indian film legend Tabu, who says it was high time the score story was brought to the screen.
“We have seen glimpses and flashes of Indian culture, but A decent boy is partly fiction, partly inspired by real life and what was going on at the time of the score, ”she says,“ and that’s what makes it interesting. It is not just a historical documentary, but a story of people’s lives and how they have been changed by historical events.
Set in the early 1950s, following the partition of India as she prepares for her first free election, the series centers on Lata Mehra (played by Tanya Maniktala), a cheerful 19-year-old student from a traditional Hindu family, whose widowed mother Rupa (played by Mahira Kakkar) sets out in search of a “suitable boy”. Her mother’s efforts would give Netflix’s Aunt Sima Indian matchmaker a run for its money. The visual lavishness of the series – which combines the color and musicality of Indian culture and the darker side of society and political unrest with the transparent complexity of a bridal saree – shows an image of Indian society that we rarely see in the West.
As Saeeda Bai – a beautiful courtesan who scandalizes polite society through her relationship with the son of a handsome young politician half his age – Tabu gives one of the most remarkable performances in the series. Although director Mira Nair has said she has resisted the temptation to ‘sex’ the series for Western audiences, the subtle sensuality of Tabu’s performance – it seems to convey more sensuality in the blink of an eye than the whole set. Fifty shades managed trilogy – meant the series was dubbed not so much a bodice ripper as a sari blouse buster.
“This character’s journey is sexy because there is romance, love and passion and she is a courtesan who entertains royalty and aristocrats of the time,” says Tabu, whose real name is her. Tabassum Hashmi. “Courtesans are part of Indian history. Saeeda represents a part of the culture that prevailed at the time.
She continues, “Women used their beauty, glamor and musical abilities to entertain men and that was something that was not looked down upon at the time. Saeeda is an outsider, but closely tied to the story, which shows the fine line between a respectable society and its world and what can happen when those boundaries are crossed.
Although Tabu, 49, is often described as a Bollywood actress, perhaps it is her work outside of Bollywood, in films such as Pi’s life, this is the most notable. This series reunites Tabu with Nair, with whom she worked on the film adaptation of Jhumpa Lahiri’s book Namesake.
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She wants more awareness for Indian cinema beyond the Kindness gracious me parody of Bollywood couples dancing around snow-capped mountains: “I don’t like the term Bollywood, ”she says. “It’s not the only type of filmmaking in India. Western audiences associate Indian cinema with Bollywood movie stars dancing around the trees. There is nothing wrong with it, but it is only one side of Indian cinema.
While this series may help improve perceptions of Asian representation on television, it is not without criticism. The absence of an Asian writer from what is essentially the biggest Asian television project of all time has raised concerns about the lack of opportunities for black and Asian writers on television. Writer Nikesh Shukla, who initially raised the issue, said: “While I engage with Seth’s comments that it is his choice that fits his work, I hope he does. engages with the reality of the landscape of brown writers in this country. ”
Tabu, however, believes that the universality of storytelling crosses these boundaries: “Cinema is so universal and most experiences are similar on a human level. I don’t know why one style can’t be used with another kind of story, but of course there will be different opinions and reactions.
A relevant theme explored in A decent boy is the dilemma between following your heart and following your duty, when Lata falls in love with a Muslim boy. Their relationship – and the tensions it causes – offers a microcosm of the growing friction between India’s Hindu and Muslim communities, which are exploited by politicians around the elections.
The sectarian tensions that form the darkest subtext of the series are topical, and there are undeniable parallels to current events in India; recent protests in India, for example, against the Citizens Amendment Bill – which offers amnesty to undocumented non-Muslims from three neighboring countries and has been dubbed the “anti-Muslim bill”.
But as soon as I mention the political themes of the story, Tabu’s eyes widen in horror and she lets out a sigh, frantically gesturing with scissors and running her finger across her neck in a sharp motion. “Let this question pass,” she said categorically.
While her reaction is surprising given the plot of the novel, it is also understandable. The pressures on actors of Muslim origin – including Tabu – to prove their loyalty to the nation are enormous. An untimely remark can lead to protests or even death threats.
Apart from politics, A decent boy is ultimately a universal story about the search for love. Lata’s journey of self-discovery, at a time when the country is also finding its marks, is something almost anyone can relate to.
According to Tabou, A decent boy is a coming-of-age story not just for Lata, but for ethnic and female portrayal on television. “The representation of women is changing, not just in Bollywood, but across all industries,” she says, “and going in different directions when it comes to the representation of women. We have come a long way in giving women roles on many levels. This is just the beginning.