While that begrimed and opaque series The Luminaries didn’t do much for the reputation of BBC historical drama (hands up who made it to the end?), Andrew Davies’s adaptation of Vikram Seth’s family epic set in India a few years after partition fulfils our cosiest evening viewing requirements. The book, so huge that some readers seriously cut the original into three chunks for easy handling, renders down into six episodes of swiftly flowing plot and perfectly paced accumulation of detail.
Admittedly, in episode one we had to get over some brisk yet laborious exposition. But that hurdle over, there’s plenty to luxuriate in: all the beautiful fabrics, domed rooftops, lush vegetation and dawn riverbanks one could desire in these travel-starved times. Singer and kept woman Saeeda Bai (Tabu) even has a swing seat in her living room! Bangles jangle, nose-piercings sparkle, heavy plaits swing, plangent music plays and, this being Davies, there’s a bit of rumpy-pumpy too. Bliss!
But this is also a time of social change, with cocktails and tango parties vying with prayers and obedience to family. Literature student Lata Mehra is torn between twin fates: the marriage her mother expects of her, and the life of the mind she craves. Poetry-loving Kabir (Danesh Razvi), the gorgeous student she meets in the college library, could square that circle for her, except for one terrible factor. On being told his tell-tale surname, Lata’s hysterically overprotective mother, Rupa, asks “Is he a Parsi?”, a timid hope that turns to a shriek of “Dirty, violent, cruel, lecherous!” when she learns the truth.
Mira Nair, always a terrific director of actors, brings out the full depth of characters who could seem merely stock: Rupa, forever having conniptions over her children’s mildest rebellions, is made truly loveable by Mahira Kakkar, showing the deep sorrow that underpins her melodramatic outbursts. Vivek Gomber and Vivaan Shah as Lata’s brothers, uptight Arun and feckless Varun, form a poignant double act, the former a pompous cuckold, the latter seen as a clown to be slapped and scolded. Tanya Maniktala expresses a deep soulfulness as Lata, the good girl longing to be swept away by passion. Lata’s storyline is counterpointed by Saeeda, the melancholic courtesan, who grasps at happiness with Maan (Ishaan Khatter), possibly her last chance to enjoy a younger lover.
For Seth, a poet himself, literature and music are not just pretty motifs but plot motors; spellbinding phrases and thrilling songs inspire characters to act upon their dreams in unexpected ways. In the background, the politicians with their verbal slipperiness prepare for the Indian election, but true liberation belongs to the lovers, and the lovers of words.
Continues August 2 on BBC1 at 9pm
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