When I spoke to Namit Das, he still had not seen A Suitable Boy in its final version, the version that had been airing in its six-episode series on BBC. But he had dubbed his parts in Hindi for the release in India. Much of his experience was not from watching the series but from acting in front of the camera completely. In my conversation with Namit, we got into the differences in having a scene depicted in a book versus the visual medium of cinema, the importance of diction, and his character, Harish’s, soul. I could have probably kept talking to him for much more than the thirty-five odd minutes we spoke, but that would have been a very long interview, and he was also in the midst of work. But here’s our chat, one of the more interesting chats I have had in a while.
A Suitable Boy is a very tough read because of the sheer mass of it. But you got through it, although it took you a number of years.
(chuckles) In 2001, I got the courage to pick up the book.
It’s massive. It is very hard on your wrists actually. I remember telling Vikram as well. I would finish it at the same point – the 500 page mark – and leave it, up until 2015. For 15 years, I could only finish to that page. There are just so many characters. But in 2015, I gave three months of my life to it and finally finished it. I fell in love with the characters and that story. When I finished it, I felt the gap as a reader. I did not go back to any book for three or fourth months because I was missing the characters so much.
Now I’m an avid reader myself and very weary of novel adaptations to any cinematic format. The way a book develops characters and settings is just not the same in a two second visual. I also am afraid of whether what I imagined visually and comes out on screen. I will also say that I’m glad A Suitable Boy is a series, not a film, because a film would not have done justice to the sheer volume of the book. Did you have any of the same apprehensions?
This is where the person who is directing the adaptation comes into the picture and becomes so important. With a text like A Suitable Boy, which is 1500 pages long, there is an essence to the story. Mira is the only person who could have directed this in the world. She is an insider but she is our voice to the global fraternity. She understands the world in a complete sense. She can see it from the Eastern and the Western perspective. Andrew Davies also did a fantastic with the screenplay, but it is Mira’s vision also which is closely matched to the world Vikram Seth created in the book. So, maybe you do not have the satisfaction of the sunrise that is described, but you will have the essence of the sunlight in the series.
The other thing is that the characters are very lovable and very real. Something that happens with text and history is that actors get into certain postures that seem very plastic. But the truth is, the way Vikram has written the book is with characters that are so real, and they are going through the situation at that point. That is the reason why the book works. That’s the essence which Mira has been able to capture through each actor, each situation. That’s her beauty and skills.
One can compare it to the book only to a certain point. The essence of the book lives in these six episodes – but she has now made it visually stunning and it also achieves something that is very real.
I agree. The characters are still very relevant; while the political backdrop has changed from 1952 to 2020, the emotional upheaval of each character is very relatable. I also think the produvtion design by Stephanie Carroll is magical. I remember watching an interview where Ishaan Khatter said that sometimes he would just wander about his own house that was created on set. When did you first feel like you were in that era, playing Harish?
The moment I put my pants on. We had a screen test which was also looking at the colour schemes and how it would look – one and a half months before the shoot. I remember wearing my pants and I realized that I am not used to them. I realized I would seem very plastic if I do not get used to the pants Harish wears. I told Mira that we should not look like people who do not talk like this or do not wear these clothes.
Arjun Bhasin, the costume designer, and the magician himself, he sent me pants – I was shooting in West Bengal at that time. I actually started to sleep in the pants to get used to them.
See, Harish is a cobbler and he is in the shoemaking industry. I spent time with shoemakers. Mira made sure I go to a factory to get to know what it takes to make a shoe – obviously, in 1952, things were very different. A cobbler would come to my house and teach me how to make a shoe so I should know the basics at least. I started working with him and sitting with him on the sidewalk. These are things you create for yourself to make the character alive inside you. Only when you are feeling it inside is when you can show people what he is going through inside. I think you need to go through this process to make it gradual so I could feel like Harish.
I also identify with him so much. I think I am him somewhere as a human being, as a person. I was also lucky there. Because sometimes you are just trying to find how the character existed. And by the end of the project, you sometimes skim through and don’t end up understanding the character. But I think the process was beautiful and Harish is beautiful (chuckles) and I completely understood him.
You’ve talked about that before – that he is organized like you, he likes to do things a certain way. But what you talk about are habits which anyone can inculcate. There are layers to Harish though – he is very endearing, and there is something unsaid whenever he comes on screen. So, how did you identify with his soul?
Wow, this is the first time I have been asked about creating the soul of a character. I really do think I am like Harish. When I read the book, I was very fascinated by Harish. But not many people are because he can be seen as boring. But I think there is a comedy in that, and I think what he brings to the table is hope. The hope of a bright future, somebody who has come from the bottom and worked very hard for his way up. I identify with that a lot.
I remember as an actor, I was 17 years old. I had no money and I did not have the support of my family. I initially wanted to sing. I remember knowing I had to start at the bottom and I remember being paid 300 rupees for my first gig as a production assistant. I was that guy in the black moving around the furniture, ironing the actor’s clothes. But I knew that I would be in front of the camera. But I know where I come from today. And I don’t want to hide that reality from anybody. That’s who Harish is and he is so proud of that fact. Everything around him has so much hope because he has so much hope. That’s what I poured into him each time I became that character. Harish is actually modelled after Vikram’s father – Aradhana is Vikram’s sister and is also the executive producer of this. I told her I really want to meet uncle one day. But they would say he is 94, lives in Noida, so we will try. But each time they spoke about their father, I identified with him.
You won’t believe, Armin. After a month of the shoot, Aradhana said to me, you look so much like my father and you are starting to sound like him, and you have really come so close to the character that Vikram had written. That’s when I quietly congratulated myself. That’s when I realized I was in the right direction.
I think it was very internal, and I’m so happy you noticed it – he is one of those people who will not say it but he feels a lot.
And, of course, there is the diction part of it all. The way you speak, your body language is very different in the 1950s than 2020. What did you find out about yourself in the process of the voice coaching?
You know, Armin, I didn’t even realize that my sentences tend to trail off…it is unclear what my thought it towards the end. It starts off fine and then it just…the last part of the sentence is usually eaten up. Our English is “whadaryoudoinggyaar” – it is a lot of Hindi mixed with English. It is a new language and I am not looking down upon it. This is also how I talk. But we do not speak properly.
I have now become aware that my language sounds like nothing. I have changed the way I enunciate certain things. I also finish every sentence. These are things you keep learning.
Another thing we were made aware of was that we say “ya” a lot – that was a word that was banned on set by Mira. I have not used “ya” since then. It is either “yes” or “no”, said Mira and I’m trying my best to stick to it.
But having said that, my goal is with Harish to not have you think of his character ending with a full stop but instead, trailing off with a dot, dot, dot.