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Mira Nair's 'A Suitable Boy' Makes U.S. Streaming Premiere

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Nobody throws a wedding party like Mira Nair. Her six-part series, "A Suitable Boy," opens at a wedding - piles of flower petals, bright saris twirling, brilliant turbans swirled as a bride and groom, who have spent perhaps an hour together total, under the gaze of a chaperone, are joined for life. At a moment of supreme celebration, a young woman, Lata, tells her mother...

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "A SUITABLE BOY")

TANYA MANIKTALA: (As Lata Mehra) I don't think I ever want to get married.

MAHIRA KAKKAR: (As Rupa Mehra) What else are you going to do?

MANIKTALA: (As Lata Mehra) Become a nun. (Laughter) It's all right, mom. I was only joking.

SIMON: After more than 25 years in various stages of development, Vikram Seth's massive-in-all-ways, best-selling novel has come to the screen, now available in America on Acorn TV's streaming service. It stars Tanya Maniktala, Ishaan Khatter, Ram Kapoor and about a hundred other fine actors. And Mira Nair, the award-winning director of "Monsoon Wedding," "Vanity Fair" and so many other films, joins us from New York. Thank you so much for being with us.

MIRA NAIR: It's lovely to be here. Thank you, Scott.

SIMON: My word, "A Suitable Boy" is a massive novel and vastly beloved - 1,300 pages. How do you wrangle that into a shooting script knowing that each change you make, each character or exchange you drop is beloved by somebody?

NAIR: Oh, well, it's really daunting, but I loved it so much that I didn't want the party to happen without me (laughter). So for me, the exciting thing about Vikram's novel was the time it was set, which was 1951, just as India prepared for its first democratic elections after freedom from the British. So it's a real reflection of the extraordinary culture that we come from, you know, the syncretic nature of the Hindu and Muslim culture from way before even the British came into our country. And that is fast being eroded in some ways today.

SIMON: Well, and I must say, as a fan, that's part of what makes it so astonishingly compelling because just as we see in the first episode, a Hindu Temple is being built, may I say, provocatively next to a mosque, and many Muslims feel besieged. And, you know, your series stepped into some controversy, didn't it?

NAIR: Yes, a controversy about a kiss between a Hindu girl, Lata, and a Muslim boy, her first love, Kabir, which takes place near a temple, actually on the boundary walls of something where you see a temple out of focus behind them. So completely unintended controversy has arisen, which is a little bit more of the nature of what we are going through as a country now.

SIMON: Yeah. Well, let me ask about some of the directing part. I was struck by an interview you gave (laughter) in which you said your key impulse is, quote, "keeping the buns on the seats."

NAIR: (Laughter) Now, these days, it's gone to couches.

SIMON: Well, I was going to gently point out. But still, the challenge of spinning a story with consistent characters for six episodes, how do you figure out the storytelling part?

NAIR: I actually treated it as long-form cinema. It's about rhythm for me. It's about trying to find that thread that takes us through. And of course, music for me, and I know for Vikram as well, is really the oxygen that drives my cinema.

SIMON: The music is beautiful, my gosh.

NAIR: Thank you so much. It's Alex Heffes and Anoushka Shankar and several great Indian musicians that I have loved and known. So music also was the ultimate connector, especially as the heart of one of our main characters, Saeeda Bai, the courtesan, played by the legendary actress Tabu. You know, she sings the poems, the ghazals, the songs...

SIMON: Beautiful scenes, yeah.

NAIR: ...Of these great poets - of Ghalib and Madhav and Mir and people that Vikram really brought so much to life in his own writing that for me, those ghazals, how they comment on the drama was a big unifier. And that came together to make this six hours. What was very daunting for me was actually finishing all post-production in this small room in New York City on a series of devices because the lockdown had come in. And, you know, we were forced to make all these - the editing, the music, the grading, all was done remotely through devices and my dear fantastic colleagues on other sides of those devices. So that was a revolution and a first time.

SIMON: Miss Nair, I have to ask you - back to the first film of yours I saw, "Mississippi Masala." Your films have been a wonderful celebration of the masala, if you please, of multiculturalism, of people from all various parts of the world spontaneously being thrown together and making a society out of themselves and each other's lives and joining together to create something distinctive and unique and amazing. Are you worried about the prospects for multiculturalism in today's India and, for that matter, today's America?

NAIR: In America, I feel that we are waking up to multiculturalism. We are waking up to the power of culture, of color, you know? I mean, with the whole movements, finally, of Black Lives Matter and even the #MeToo movement, there's been an enormous sort of galvanizing. So I feel actually here, energized. Part of what inspired us, Sooni Taraporevala, the writer and myself, to make "Mississippi Masala" was first the racism within us in our own Indian community. And that led into this interracial love story, really, with the African American community in Mississippi.

I sort of see it as an anthem to Kamala Harris. Like, Kamala Harris is, in a way, the child of Mina and Demetrius in "Mississippi Masala." And finally, 30 years later, today's young can see that she didn't come out of nowhere, that this is a culture that is there and not seen. So I must say, there is a feeling of being heartened here.

In India, I refuse to despair, but I am deeply disturbed about the systematic obliteration, really, of precisely that that makes us powerful and strong, which is, I think, our plurality and our layered - our interconnectedness, not just really from - you know, from the entire silk route, from Iran, from, you know, all through Pakistan, Balochistan to India. This is a region that has influenced so many aspects of who we are as Indians, you know, today in religion and music and poetry. This is so much what also is in "Suitable Boy." So I feel that that is our power. And it would be very reductive to make it a one religion, one nation. That is not the absolute extraordinary glory of where we come from.

SIMON: Mira Nair - she directs the six-part series "A Suitable Boy" on Acorn TV's streaming service here in the U.S. - thank you so much for being with us.

NAIR: Thank you, dear Scott. Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.