Actor Shahana Goswami, whose work in BBC’s A Suitable Boy won her plaudits across the board, is excited about India’s reaction to the miniseries. Based on Vikram Seth’s monumental work of the same name, A Suitable Boy will begin streaming on Netflix soon. Directed by Mira Nair, the show also features Tabu, Ishaan Khattar, Ram Kapoor, Rasika Dugal, Vijay Varma, Namit Shah, Mikhail Sen, Tanya Maniktala and Randeep Hooda among others.
For the uninitiated, A Suitable Boy revolves around a young woman Lata (Tanya Maniktala) whose widowed mother is looking for ‘a suitable boy’ for her. However, chaos erupts when the heroine falls for a Muslim man named Kabir. After all, this is 1951’s India when the union of a Hindu and Muslim was not looked at favourably. Running parallel to this intimate love story with deep political colours is a somewhat similar love story of a young wastrel called Maan (Ishaan Khattar) who falls in love with the secretive courtesan Saeeda Bai (Tabu). Shahana plays Meenkashi, the young, stylish and westernised sister-in-law of Lata. She is, in Shahana’s own words, “free-spirited and even promiscuous.”
So how is the actor taking all the appreciation that has been coming the show’s way since it started airing on BBC? “There have been so many times when my movies have only gone to festivals, so I have experienced this often. But this is different as there is a hype and awareness for the show. Plus, there is a huge fan following for Mira Nair and Vikram Seth. Not to mention the cast members like Tabu, Ishaan Khatter, Namit Das, Vijay Varma, Ram Kapoor. All great people to collaborate with. However, the anticipation being built around it is something I totally understand. You have an all-Indian cast, the author is Indian and it is directed by an Indian. It is exciting, something to look forward to,” she said.
When you see Shahana Goswami as Meenakshi, it looks like an apt casting. However, the actor says that the journey to get the part was a long one.
“So there were, of course, Indian casting directors involved, namely Dilip Shankar and Nandini from Bombay. I was approached by Nandini’s team for two characters, and I auditioned for that. But after that process, the show took a pause for a long time. Indefinitely actually. About 8-10 months later, I heard from Dilip once again. They were trying to access my audition, but I had already deleted it by that time. So I was in the middle of a shoot in Sikkim when this happened, and with nearly no internet access, I somehow recorded and sent my audition again. Everything happened kind of serendipitously,” Shahana said.
But then A Suitable Boy is a big book over a thousand pages long. How does an actor prepare for a role when the source material is so dense?
“I haven’t read the book but I did want to read it, but it is such a big book and I got on board the last minute so I didn’t have time to go through it. Because by then, I had to start focusing on the script and dialogues. Weirdly enough, now I am curious to read the book, having lived one of its characters for some time,” Shahana admitted.
A Suitable Boy is also a story of the 1950s India, a young democracy still carrying the fresh wounds from partition. And therefore each of these characters represent a different kind of India. For instance, Shahana Goswami’s Meenakshi is the westernised Bengal, that is still under the grasp of the British mindset. Meenakshi Chatterjee’s own house, her sense of style and sensibilities speaks volume of that bygone era. As Shahana herself says, “Meenakshi comes from an anglicised, western family. She is a barrister’s daughter and she is married to the Mehra family and is Lata’s sister-in-law. She is free spirited, promiscuous; a risque character. Meenakshi sticks out like a sore thumb in the Mehra family. She is different from those around her.”
Over the years, Shahana has played a wide variety of characters. From the slightly annoying but practical Debbie Mascarenhas of Rock On!! to the earnest, but independent Kavya of Tu Hai Mera Sunday. How do these roles find her? The actor says it is her destiny. But it is also her own mind which has allowed her to make these bold choices.
“You know how I got cast for this (A Suitable Boy), it was destiny or serendipity or whatever. I am hugely grateful to Dilip, Mira and BBC for allowing me to play this person. Until and unless somebody takes a chance, nobody really knows whether you are capable of doing something different. And in this case, even I surprised myself because Meenakshi is very far removed from who I am, maybe not in terms of her thinking, but in terms of just being. I am really lucky because I managed to get parts that are so distinct from one another. The only credit I will take is I say no to the right things.”
A Suitable Boy marks the first collaboration of Shahana Goswami and Mira Nair. And everybody who has worked with the acclaimed filmmaker gets this token question asked about ‘the Mira Nair experience.’ Shahana confessed that her own was nothing short of fantastic. She said, “Mira di (Mira Nair) is incredible. I don’t know anyone who has that kind of energy and enthusiasm. Not just as a filmmaker, but for life in general. Her day used to be jam-packed. As actors we had days off, but Mira di was in every scene, every production meeting, and was also socialising and doing yoga by the side. And none of it would ever bog her down. She is so good at picking people. She has developed this great team who she has worked with over the years so all of them are highly capable technicians. I was constantly in a state of awe on the set. It was a very alive, very enriching experience.”
When the show finally begins streaming globally via Netflix, Shahana hopes that everyone involved gets their due, because that is what usually happens when someone is collaborating with Mira Nair. “I hope for all the talent in the show, whether it’s the make-up artiste or the actors, I just wish for all those people to be appreciated and noticed. Mira always does that, she is a team player. She lets people shine,” the actor concluded.
On the work front, apart from A Suitable Boy, Shahana Goswami will next be seen in Netflix’s Bombay Begums and Amazon Prime’s The Last Hour, which has been co-produced by Asif Kapadia.
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