Journey back to 1993. Clinton’s in the White House, Meat Loaf is topping the charts forever and author Vikram Seth has just released a gigantic novel – 1300 pages to be precise – on the subject of forbidden love. If you never quite got round to finishing (or even starting) the book, or you want to see the characters brought vividly to life, you’re in luck. The BBC have adapted this epic set in India in 1951 – four years after the partition of what was British India into India and Pakistan – into a six-part series.
Written by Andrew Davies (Bridget Jones, Sense & Sensibility, House of Cards) and directed by Indian-American film director Mira Nair, the achievement of wrestling such a gargantuan tale into “only” six hours isn’t the sole revelation. This period drama is the BBC’s first production to have no white actors among it’s 110-person cast.
“Vikram Seth’s story is about India and the people of India,” says lead actress Tanya Maniktala, “so how could you expect anybody else to do it but us?”
For the 23-year-old, dialling in from New Delhi, A Suitable Boy is her breakout role. Since first appearing in YouTube web series Flames (a heartwarming story of teenage romance), Maniktala has to-and-fro’d with the idea of acting.
“I sort of convinced myself that acting wasn’t for me, so I quit and started working as a copywriter,” she admits. Battling shyness and a crisis of confidence, Maniktala contemplated leaving India entirely. “I had actually planned on going to Australia to visit my sister to get a fresh start from all of this because I was clearly done with life. I couldn’t figure out what I wanted to do. Then Mira called me.”
Maniktala plays Lata Mehra, an assertive university student on the hunt for independence, who defies her mother’s wishes of arranged marriage.
“There is the obvious theme of love and romance, but there’s also a political context to all of it – we see these rebels in this story,” she says of an intense story based around love across religious and political divides. “[So] it’s not a period drama in that sense because these themes are still very relatable.”
The polished, expensive-looking series, which took three years to complete, features some of Bollywood’s biggest stars, including Tabu, Ishaan Khattar and Namit Das. Shot on location in Lucknow and with the dialogue combining English, Urdu and Hindustani, A Suitable Boy celebrates historical authenticity while also successfully highlighting the ongoing political tensions between India and Pakistan.
“The partition is ingrained, it’s in our bones,” continues Maniktala. “I feel like if you don’t tell your story, nobody else will. I want people to receive this story the way we’ve told it, with an open mind and open heart.”
Ever since the BBC trailer was released, Maniktala’s phone has been ringing non-stop. “I have been receiving a lot of calls to audition but I’m trying to take my time with the roles that I’m being offered. I really do want to explore different shades of Tanya and I’m waiting for something to really excite me.”
Trying to comprehend the idea of newfound fame, the actress insists it’s important to stay grounded and humble.
“I hope there will be a lot of appreciation for Lata but I also know there is a lot of criticism coming my way,” she says, acknowledging the pressure that comes from meeting the expectations of the book’s myriad fans. “I have to be prepared for both.”
A Suitable Boy continues this Sunday, 9pm, BBC One.