A Very Feminist Reading of Masculinities in ‘A Suitable Boy’

In the Netflix series A Suitable Boy, Lata Mehra, a Masters student of English Literature at Brahmpur University, is given some advice by her professor, by no coincidence a woman, that she should marry a man who will give her “space to grow”. This leaves one in a quandary since none of the three men who want to marry Lata – and who Lata considers turn-by-turn as her future husband – show this particular quality.

Her first love, Kabir Durrani, unfortunately a Muslim, makes her heart flutter and “unsettles” her in ways that do please her momentarily, but which she is wise enough to know is characteristic of “frantic” love. When Lata impulsively wants to elope with him, he does not agree with her as he feels that they will never “stand a chance”. This lack of a show of solidarity and the kind of reciprocation she was anticipating puts her off. Though he remains special to her, one knows that Kabir will indeed “never stand a chance”.

Next to breeze in is the very charming internationally-acclaimed poet Amit Chatterjee, who dilly dallies till he takes Lata seriously enough to propose to her. She is flattered, of course, but not enough to moon over him and accept his proposal, for not far behind in the queue of suitors and admirers and fast catching up is Haresh Khanna – a man her pragmatic mother dearly likes and her anglophile brother passionately dislikes.

Haresh Khanna is the man Lata will eventually choose, though one is not quite sure why. In a way, all three men are not very different from one another. If Lata accuses Kabir of being self-invested and “all about himself”, Amit actually wears it on his sleeve and Haresh practically flaunts it. From a social class lower than Lata’s – as her brother is quick to point out – Haresh nonetheless is a hardworking, enterprising youth who aspires to climb up the social and professional ladder. He is principled and idealistic to a point where he finds it difficult to compromise at the workplace, which indeed are admirable qualities and conventionally associated with masculinity.

But the point is, is he the man who will give Lata the “space to grow”? What prompts her to choose him over the other two? When he is hurt, Haresh is capable of flying into a rage and not softening till Lata apologises. Even if Haresh is not a snob like Lata’s brother Arun, he certainly is class-conscious and one of the main reasons he wants to marry Lata could be prompted by his desire to tie the knot with a woman of a class higher than his.

He arranges a gala Christmas lunch for Lata’s family at the Prahapore club, a very white space, exclusively meant for the Czechs. Most of his conversations and letters start with accounts of his work. The space he inhabits with Lata during the courtship period is dominated by him as he calls the shots and decides where he’d like to take her, including the tannery where he works. The one occasion when she refuses, he throws a tantrum and goes into sulk mode.

All in all, most of the boxes he checks to match the criteria of “a suitable boy” are more to the liking of Lata’s mother. Lata’s final act of proposing to Haresh then seems to be prompted more by a resistance to her brother than imagining Haresh as the man who will give her “space to grow”.

Thus, the tremendous onscreen potential to depict more nuanced masculinities when it comes to the three suitors has been clearly wasted.

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Moreover, the series and the subsequent media coverage it has got gives a lot of attention to the character of Maan Kapoor who, to say the very least, is a checkered character. His repressed anger, resulting out of his constant vilification and invisibilisation by his high profile politician father Mahesh Kapoor, often fails to find a just outlet. In fact, the viewer is even expected to sympathise with him for accidentally stabbing his best friend and ending up in jail. This prolonged lens of sympathy which is accorded to him not only undermines his disruptive, offensive and violent behaviour towards Saeeda Begam – the woman he loves but who he doesn’t hesitate to treat as an object and a possession when she resists him – but also completely blindsides his father’s role and responsibility as a parent who has always dismissed Maan as a wayward prodigal younger son.

Instead, the camera compels the viewer to look at Mahesh Kapoor through a sympathetic and highly normative patriarchal lens, which positions him as a man committed to a higher goal in life which is above family and loved ones – something which is bound to have a deep mythic resonance. All his efforts are towards a greater good, never mind his insensitive interactions with his younger son or the extent of his self-centeredness when he chooses to go campaigning instead of being there for his distraught wife after Maan lands up in jail. Predictably enough, when his wife suffers a stroke and dies, one fails to witness even a trace of remorse or grief on his face. After a momentary break, Kapoor resumes campaigning.

The viewer is, however, manipulated into feeling sorry for him even as he loses the election and acknowledge the magnanimity of his heart for forgiving Maan for clearly being the cause of this debacle. Never once is Mahesh Kapoor seen, even in a private moment, grieving his wife’s death or wondering if he could have done better as a father.

Similarly, the narrative does not give any screen space to any sort of interaction between Saeeda Begum and the Nawab of Baitar over their illegitimate daughter Tasneem, who is being raised by Saeeda, or her future. The series thus normalises a culture where men are preoccupied in self-invested and self-centred pursuits and also sanctions them to treat the women around them as they want to, which ranges from taking for granted their complementary and subservient role, using them as they please, patronising them to idolizing and obsessing over them, denying them agency, stalking them (as in Kabir’s case later), or even engaging in emotionally and physically abusive behaviour towards them. In fact, the narrative acquits them of all their faults and foibles, and gives them every opportunity of a fresh start.

The series undermines these and several other instances of micro-aggressions located in hetero-patriarchal locus centres by either normalising them or through extreme pathological depictions of certain men as sexual predators through deviant portrayals of Lata’s maternal uncle who, it is implied, molests his own daughter and the Maharajah of Marh who epitomises decadence in royalty. However, in the case of the second depiction, the narrative quite insensitively conflates the physical with the metaphysical, equating the Maharaja’s body and cumbersome movements to gluttony, lechery, unbridled power and religious fanaticism thus adding to already prevalent and deeply entrenched fatphobic prejudices in our collective unconscious.

If there is any man in A Suitable Boy who actually fits the bill of “a suitable boy” by being uncannily good, it would be the Nawab’s son Firoz: sensitive in love, empathetic as a son and steadfast beyond expectations in friendship, he is the embodiment of all qualities traditionally associated with the feminine. He remains inadequately explored, yet with a promise.

Interestingly, in the series, if the promising site of positive and progressive masculinity is this quiet, shy, sensitive and balanced Muslim male, the ultimate site of violence is the subaltern body of another Muslim male, Rasheed, a socialist and an incurable romantic, disowned by his very feudal father who languishes in lost love and broken visions of a rural society free from the oppressions of the feudal system. Such a man is, of course, a misfit in the project of nation-building and therefore will have to perish.

All in all, one wishes that the series had invested a little more in the portrayal of the myriad masculinities and done justice to them by humanising them instead of reducing them to uni-dimensional characters.

Dr. Shyaonti Talwar is an academician, researcher and a writer whose areas of interest include art, culture, lifestyle, social inequality, literature, mythology and gender.