Before Mira Nair’s adaptation of A Suitable Boy came along, Tanya Maniktala was largely unknown. Just a few days into the BBC-developed series’ international premiere, she came to be known as the star of what is inarguably the most exciting text-to-screen adaptation of Indian fiction in recent times. And that is saying something coming from an ensemble cast that features Tabu, Ishaan Khatter, Ram Kapoor, Vinay Pathak and several critically acclaimed actors. Based on Vikram Seth’s bestseller of the same name, the show centres around 19-year-old literature student Lata Mehra whose mother is bent on finding her the titular “suitable boy” to marry. Over the course of six episodes immersed in culture and costumes from the ‘50s, the show chronicles Lata’s journey of finding love as three very different men try to win her heart.
Don’t let the title fool you, A Suitable Boy is Lata’s story set in 1951 on the backdrop of a post-independence and post-partition India. Ahead of the show’s release on Netflix, we chatted with Tanya Maniktala to get her readings of the literature, politics and production of the series. “I thoroughly enjoyed being Lata, I think you can’t just play Lata you have to feel her. She’s a feeling,” says the actress as she talked about her suitable casting. And that’s just one of the aspects in the project that comes with an extensive source text.
A Suitable Boy marks your second role and it’s a hell of a role to bag. So how did you get involved with the series?
Tanya: It is a hell of a role to bag, yeah. I never imagined that I’d be here but I’m so grateful for this opportunity. I was actually working as a copywriter prior to this and acting was never really something I had in mind, or I had planned to pursue. But, one of my friends from my theatre circuit started working as a casting director and he showed my pictures to his seniors who liked me. He called me up to come in and audition for a project and he did not specify what project it was for but he did mention that it was something big. And I took my chances and went and that’s how I met Dilip Shankar who was holding the round for auditions in Delhi. And I read with him and I learnt that it was for A Suitable Boy and it was being directed by Mira Nair. So after my first reading, a few weeks later he called me to tell me that Mira wanted to do a Skype interview. I spoke to her on Skype for the first time I met her and we just talked at length about the character and about the story. And then she came to Delhi to audition me in person. And after that, she called to tell me that I was her Lata and that’s how A Suitable Boy came to me.
Lata is this young woman fighting for her independence with her literature-tinted perspective. How much do you relate to the character?
Tanya: Big-time because I’m a literature student too and I sort of understood where Lata came from. I mean her love for books and her fascination for the written word. I also understood the passion that she had and the drive. When there is so much love for the books that surround you, you also have a very different take on the world around you. And I saw that in Lata and I feel that way too so it was very relatable for me to understand Lata in that sense. But there is so much more to Lata than this love story (to put it very simply) that A Suitable Boy is. Ultimately I see this as a journey of her self-discovery and you see this shy university student turning into this independent fierce young lady, and she’s so elegant, she does everything so beautifully. There is an old-school charm to her and there is so much rawness and freshness to her. And that is something I aspire to be too. Her sense of freedom, independence and her opinions, her mind I feel was one of the most charming aspects of Lata and that drew me towards her. I feel she is so rounded and that is what I aspire to be as a person. Wanting to explore herself, unafraid of failure and unafraid of being rejected. That is where I strive to improve because I am personally very afraid of being rejected. But I learnt through Lata that the best things happen when you let go and live in that moment and go with the flow of things and that’s when you discover who you truly are.
Lata, Saeeda Bai (Tabu) and Meenakshi (Shahana Goswami) are very different progressive women for the time. What are your thoughts on the exploration of women from the ’50s in the series?
Tanya: You would see Saeeda bai in her own world. She’s a courtesan and you see her in this world that is very detached from Lata’s world and it’s almost like a bubble of her own that she has. I see Saeeda Bai as a warrior. She is this Queen who is very protective of her kingdom. She’s protective about her younger sister and everything is a battle for survival and there’s a sense of dignity she embodies. On the other hand, Meenakshi is a very worldly person. She is unafraid of what society might say. She just goes with what her heart wants and is very indulgent in these worldly pleasures I would say. Lata on the other hand is a very young girl who is discovering her identity and it’s a formative period for her. You see all these influences on her and even after that, you see Lata sort of pave her own way. Even though her mother might want something, you see how Lata always stands her ground and she asserts herself. I feel all of them embody an aspect of the modern woman in a very different way. It’s fascinating to see a mix of different characters and yet there is a common point that draws all of them together which is a sense of defiance that all of them have.
A Suitable Boy is very much a British TV series but, it’s set on the backdrop of the partition of India. As an Indian who has grown up hearing stories about the partition, can talk about the relevance of re-staging that chapter of history?
Tanya: I mean it is a very Indian story at the heart of it. It is a story about a forced partition and a newly independent India coming of age along with its people. I feel it’s very relevant to go back into time and see where it all came from and to see how far we’ve come. It feels very relevant because there is always a sense of evolution and we’re constantly evolving so you have to go back.
What is it like working on this big BBC miniseries?
Tanya: It’s all new for me. It is only my second appearance on screen and the scale of the production is nothing that I could’ve ever imagined so it was a really enriching experience because I learnt so much about how the technical aspects of acting work and how there’s so much more than just the glamorous side of it. And that is what (I think) people see but it’s a very hard job to do and I think I am grateful for this lesson because I sort of undermined how difficult acting really is because you’re always being watched and you’re always on camera so you’re putting yourself out there for the world to see you and criticize you, appreciate you, love you whatever it might be. It’s daunting for anybody to do that and I have so much admiration for this profession and this craft.
What was your top takeaway from the sets of A Suitable Boy?
Tanya: My top takeaways from A Suitable Boy would definitely be the people and the team I worked with, I’m so grateful that Mira di put together this great team that was always supportive of this new talent who is very unaware of what she’s supposed to do and what is expected of her. So I’m grateful because I found this great family who is always looking out for me. Just living Lata was a true honour for me.
A Suitable Boy will release on Netflix Friday, October 23.
Cover artwork: Bhavya Poonia/Mashable India