INDIA. BBC television drama miniseries A Suitable Boy is now streaming on Netflix. Directed by Mira Nair, the six episode series is based on Vikram Seth’s 1993 novel of the same name. Set in 1951-52 India, A Suitable Boy follows a young girl named Lata Mehra whose domineering mother desperately wants her to get married to a suitable boy. The miniseries stars Vivaan Shah in the pivotal role of Lata’s younger brother Varun. It’s a comeback of sorts for Vivaan whose last significant release was Bombay Velvet in 2015. Although, he did subsequently star in the 2017 film Laali Ki Shaadi Mein Laddoo Deewana and the 2019 web-series Only For Singles. In the interim, Vivaan wrote a crime novel titled ‘Living Hell’ which released in January 2019.
In an exclusive interview with Transcontinental Times, Vivaan talks about his association with A Suitable Boy as well as the preparations for his part, experience of working with Mira Nair, character dynamics and the challenges of the long form storytelling, interactions with his legendary actor father Naseeruddin Shah, global impact of COVID-19, and his upcoming projects.
Q1. Tell us about your character Varun Mehra and where does he fit in the socio-cultural milieu of 1951 India?
A. Varun Mehra, the son of Rupa Mehra and brother of Lata and Arun Mehra, is an interesting, wayward sort of chap; a punter who drinks Shamshu and bets at the racetrack, something of a blacksheep within the family, and no doubt what would be referred to in his day as a ‘bewda’. He has something of an antagonistic relationship with his older brother.
Q2. Tell us about your preparations for the part. Did it also include reading/re-reading the novel?
A. It did. In fact, that was one of the first things I did when I got the part. I had read it when I was in my teens, and remember being immensely affected by it. I hadn’t revisited it though for over a decade, and on this subsequent re-reading I was able to see past the story and into the social commentary that probably wouldn’t have occurred to me when I first read it. That was part of the fun of it. This beautiful, seamless marriage of literature and the filmic medium.
It’s also the meeting of two of our most singular artists. The book is loaded with socio-cultural minutiae of the time, and both Vikram Seth and Mira Nair have this first-hand, intuitive experience and knowledge of the era, which is something that—to get back to your first question about the socio-cultural aspect of India in 1951—really helped set the required milieu for the actors. The almost surgical attention to detail was mind-boggling. Just to walk around those period cityscapes in that attire was close to time travel.
Q3. What was the briefing given to you by Mira Nair? What kind of interactions did you have with her on the sets?
A. Working with her was a marvelous experience! I learnt so much! She is one of the most articulate people on planet earth! Her directions border on the prosaic. It is truly startling. She can describe each action and movement, and note with the clarity of a paragraph of prose. She has an encyclopedic knowledge of all art forms and mediums, music, literature, theatre, photography—even things like antique furniture, and certain garments and textiles. What a truly fascinating filmmaker and artistically enriching person to work with. Her films have been so vital to me. In particular, Salaam Bombay, Monsoon Wedding and The Namesake, which I have been so deeply affected by at different times of my life.
Q4. Your character Varun shares a very tender relationship with his sister Lata. On the contrary Varun’s relationship with his elder brother Arun is a difficult one. How difficult was it for you as an actor to develop these contradictory dynamics with two characters existing in the same space? What kind of interactions did you have with Tanya Maniktala and Vivek Gomber away from the camera?
A. I had a terrific relationship with both of them. They’re such vivid personalities that I was able to draw from their performances to determine what kind of an individual Varun would be. We all became like a family. We used to call ourselves ‘The Method Mehras’. We kept calling Mahira ‘Ma’, and I’d keep referring to Tanya and Rasika as ‘Behena’ and Vivek as ‘Bhaiya’. It was great fun. Mahira, Tanya and Rasika have this elegance and grace which is just, for lack of a better word, poetic! Watching them work, I was able to infuse some of my characterization with their mannerisms and idiosyncrasies. Same with Vivek, whom I have actually known since I was a kid. It wasn’t at all a stretch for us. In fact we’d both keep jokingly playing the characters off-screen as well.
Q5. Your legendary actor father Naseeruddin Shah Sir recently made his web debut with Bandish Bandits. And now your show is streaming on Netflix. How do you see the web as a medium? Also, how do you look at the long form storytelling? Did you seek any advice/guidance from Shah Sir before or during the shooting schedule of ‘A Suitable Boy’?
A. Yes, I keep taking advice from him. We often talk about the differences between shooting a two to three-hour feature film and an eight to twelve-hour long form narrative; how that requires a somewhat different approach, in that there is essentially less time to cover each scene and also sometimes less time to rehearse, as we are used to in the theatre. I must say that however, in the shooting of ‘A Suitable Boy’ each shot was meticulously rehearsed, almost like one does in a play, which is really the ideal way to work on a shoot. It makes things much more organic and lived-in.
Q6. How has COVID-19 affected you as an actor? What kept you busy during the lockdown? What according to you is the way forward given how the creative world has suffered during to the pandemic?
A. COVID-19 has affected every line of work in ways that are difficult to quantify. It has affected people materially, emotionally, psychologically and spiritually. We really need to be there right now for our fellow human beings, and help rebuild and contribute to society in whatever way we can. A person like me is fortunate in that I have a roof over my head and three square meals a day, but there are many who don’t! It is imperative that we do whatever we can to give back to society and help people around us. In the Buddhist context of things, it is impossible to be at peace when your fellow human being is suffering.
Q7. ‘A Suitable Boy’ ends with your character Varun’s mother teasing about finding a suitable girl for him. Was Mira Nair alluding to the possibility of a sequel with your character now becoming the centre of all attention? How do you look at the prospects of such a sequel on a personal level?
A. I try not to think of such things (chuckles). It would be a sheer joy to play Varun again in a sequel. He’s a truly eccentric character and someone I had a whale of a time playing.
Q8. Tell us about your upcoming projects.
A. I have two films which should be out soon. One of which is a film called ‘Coat’ and the other is ‘Kabaad’.