A SUITABLE BOY
So often internationally helmed productions seem to ingratiate themselves when handling the diverse and universal panorama of an India-set story; this is almost as if the ‘cultural aspect’ itself is alien from the rest of the world and hence has to stand out without any deep probing of its unity with social structures everywhere/anywhere. A SUITABLE BOY, a screen adaptation of Vikram Seth’s classic novel, finds the astute Mira Nair refusing to tie down her saga of newly independent India in knots or a singular perspective. Of course the ‘marriage-obsessed’ narrative vis a vis a nubile young girl’s future prospects seems like a fairly conventional trap for a story made within the nation’s backdrop. (So are end number of Austen adaptations then) But since I haven’t read the novel yet, the BBC/NETFLIX six part mini-series turned out to be so much more. It is a wide-ranging tale traversing a volley of emotions and experiences. Each interpersonal relationship is memorably etched, whether filial or conjugal and by extension societal and especially romantic.
Ms. Nair, like the other great chronicler of multiple, transnational narratives Deepa Mehta, strings together socio-political unrest tantamount to nationalistic tendencies and religious strife, in the run-up to the first general election of independent India, with delicacy, befitting the contemporary flavours of its import within each episode capsule. But the secular and syncretic collaboration of hearts and generations lends it a timeless charm.
What always made it stand out for me was that it was shot in and around some of the best locations of my own culturally prominent city Lucknow(including some close to my own apartment). It employed not only its citizens in bit parts and supporting arcs but truly captured the diaphanous and enduring legacy of its time-honoured diversity, cutting across religions and class divides. Contingent with the novel’s setting Bhrampur, Lucknow comes alive like none other, becoming the sum total of its classical and metropolitan heritage. I was so proud to have all the places I love and recognize visually put up on the big screen with such grace. Ditto the sequences involving the river shot in Maheshwar ( in the neighbouring state of Madhya Pradesh)
Then there’s the wholesome cast, with Tanya Maniktala debuting with luminous and confident screen presence as central protagonist Lata Mehra. It was such a beauteous experience to have the story of a nation set in Lucknow and reach out to the world with its sundry beats, staying true to the timeless universality of human resources.
Madhur Bhandarkar’s highly underrated INDU SARKAR cleverly uses its title to not only capture a fiendish era under an Indian premier but the titular protagonist’s journey from silence to conveying truth to power. The brilliant conceit here being that INDU SARKAR ( the mesmerisingly talented KIRTI KULHARI) suffers from a stutter and has brought herself up in a world with no guardians to speak of. A conventional marriage doesn’t ensure peace either as we discover, given the many chapters her life goes through .
The literal and figurative hence come together, spotlighting the very real dangers of gagged speech and press censorship under the Emergency during the later years of 1970s, a historical blackout of democracy that will forever haunt the pan-Indian consciousness. Real figures from Indian polity, the elite classes and a post-independent nation’s ambitious middle classes all enter this minefield of wheeling-dealings, to posit that the roots of corruption reach from top to bottom and vice versa, influencing both genders and ideologies.
KIRTI, forever etched in the annals of Indian cinema with her presence in the powerful ensemble of PINK(2016) is gifted with a well-rounded characterisation that is written with sensitivity and zest for personal and political agency here, refusing to be guarded in her opinions or innate dignity by her speech impediment. Stellar supporting actors like ANUPAM KHER, SHEEBA CHADDA, NEIL NITIN MUKESH, SATYAJEET SHARMA and TOTA ROY CHOUDHARY justify their acquired worldviews, dividing the righteous from the power brokers with distinctive strokes.
Coming from Bhandarkar, a filmmaker who ushered in the emotional structures of various classes and set-ups in such classics as CHANDNI BAR, PAGE 3, CORPORATE, TRAFFIC SIGNAL and of course FASHION, it designs his most courageous and politically astute screenplay, without it ever picking sides, atleast according to me. The dialogues by Sanjay Chhel especially register their impact. Minor hiccups aside, INDU SARKAR rises with the evolution of its protagonist and matters because it owes its debt to historical facts and the loss of democratic values, something that deeply resonates in the modern era, owing to the wave of self-destructive nationalist politics of our age.
THE MARVELOUS MRS. MAISEL SEASON 3(2019)
Continuing the trend of period settings and their illuminating spotlight in the present epoch, I pick one of my personal favourites first. Yes, that is the mother of stand-up comedy THE MARVELOUS MRS. MAISEL. As a series in its third year running and being released in December 2019, its resonance was felt throughout 2020 and that’s when I watched it too.
It found its footing again, keeping the roster of characters and episodes afloat with lively period appropriate comedy and social commentary. I loved it owing to its incorporation of Midge’s cresting career opportunities leading to on-location shooting in Miami, Las Vegas and elsewhere and slyly attuning itself to the class consciousness of the Maisel and Wiseman families.
But the most beautiful gift of this season was in the form of Leroy McClain as Shy Baldwin, an iconic singer whose fame and fortune corresponds with his racial and personal narrative. His scenes with Midge( the always reliable Rachel Brosnahan) and Sterling K. Brown are suffused with all the heart and glow that puts this show above the heap of laugh tracks and weekly episodic attributes. Plus, he emotes so well that it is impossible to believe he’s not singing himself. Then there’s Luke Kirby and he’s full of suave, vulnerable charm as the rabble rousing, truthful comic mentor and ally Lenny Bruce. His Miami arc with Midge was beautifully written and made me swoon with its innate dignity of characterisation.
From among the ensemble, keep an eye out for a memorable extended sequence featuring Jason Alexander as Abe’s (Tony Shalhoub) best friend, Marin Hinkle’s journey back home to a generational patriarchal nightmare, Alex Borstein’s double duty as manager to Midge and the temperamental Sophie Lennon ( an excellent Jane Lynch) as also the Maisels ( Caroline Aaron, Kevin Pollak and Michael Zegen) keeping us entertained with their quirky and earnest ways, in that order. Also, Liza Weil (Bonnie from HOW TO GET AWAY WITH MURDER fame) is unrecognizable as the supportive, self-dependent tour member in Shy’s musical entourage while WANDA SYKES is well her legendary self as the iconic Moms Mabley.
The third time’s definitely the charm for THE MARVELOUS MRS. MAISEL and I don’t think that after MAD MEN, there is a show this carefully detailed, cinematically proficient in its period composition and social matrix. It’s a win-win situation then as the Palladino couple (Amy Sherman and Daniel) employ sharp comic perspectives and deeper emotional conflicts, creatively assured in their intermingling currents, just like life itself.
RATCHED SEASON 1
There are twists and turns in Ryan Murphy’s otherwise compelling RATCHED that resemble maneuvers from a period dime-store novel or even soap opera, given its pulpy reimagining of the brutally honest and shockingly restrained Nurse Ratched’s origins from ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO’S NEST. Louise Fletcher gave her restrained and brutal aura in the 1975 classic a timeless, Oscar winning stamp of approval. It was a portrayal of anti-social consciousness in cahoots with institutional corruption.
RATCHED actually benefits from those twists and turns, given its late 1940s period setting and all departments come up aces in giving it that retro sheen, from the cinematography to the impeccable production design. These two aspects also highlight how under the veneer of post-war reconstruction, society was burrowing deeper into a hell of its own making, down to the vistas of mental health and its practitioners. After all, picture perfect postcards can seldom convey the horrors of the homefront.
RATCHED lets Sarah Paulson’s star turn as the titular protagonist cover a lot of socio-political ground, from controversial lobotomy trials to child abuse, state-sanctioned institutional rot to sexuality. All of these points land with impact. However, this series cannot be praised without according plaudits to SOPHIE OKONEDO and VINCENT D’ONOFRIO for their pitch perfect performances as a victim of multiple personality disorder brought on by racial forebears and as the slimy governer attesting state apathy respectively. Both deserve all awards for their contributions. JUDY DAVIS, CYNTHIA NIXON, JON JON BRIONES, SHARON STONE etc are similarly efficient.
Put together, RATCHED has an interesting screenplay divided over eight episodes and succeeds in capturing our attention. Its period essence is particularly earned, including the Bernard Herrmanesque score ala PSYCHO and Stanley Kubrickian influences.