"Savita reminds me of the people I grew up with" - Rasika Dugal on A Suitable Boy

Every time I speak to Rasika Dugal, I feel my mind exploring new thoughts or thoughts packed away at the back of my mind. This time around, when I speak to Rasika Dugal about A Suitable Boy, the series directed by Mira Nair, I delve into the era the series and novel was based in and somehow we end up discussing how our understanding of feminism has evolved while discussing her character, Savita. 

A Suitable Boy was a part of the Toronto International Film Festival in 2020 and is releasing in October 2020 on Netflix. Here’s my chat: 

In all candour, A Suitable Boy sat on my bookshelf for ten years before I decided to pick it up and read it from front to back. 

You actually finished it but some people didn’t finish it!

Well, it took a couple of tries but when I finally did and I heard the novel was going to be adapted into a screenplay for a series, I was nervous. Very seldom do I enjoy novels being turned into films. But with A Suitable Boy, I actually watched a few episodes of the series and then wanted to go back and revisit the characters. Did you have any apprehension of being a part of a series based off of the Vikram Seth novel?

I used to have that trepidation a few years ago but I think in the last few years, even my patterns of consumption have changed. I used to read a lot but now I’ve become a lot more visual than I used to be. I consume a lot of content visually. Therefore, my hesitation for a piece of literature to be translated on screen is not there anymore. In fact, I’m very excited and think that the adaptations are a beautiful way to archive a piece of literature, especially a novel like A Suitable Boy, it was impossible to make that novel into a film. And with the coming generation, visual consumption has become a lot more popular than reading, as far as I know. I think for those people who may not read, it is a great way to keep the literature alive. Those are the reality of the times we live in. I mean, sometimes, I lament the fact that I don’t read as much as I used to. I’m sure it would have been very hard to leave out any part from the book in the series for Vikram (Seth) or Mira. I mean, you also have someone like Andrew Davies who is adapting the book into a screenplay, who has some great work so I was not worried.

All the doubts or any small hesitation that I might have had actually came later even though I was very excited to work with Mira Nair. That was driving my excitement. It had been on my bucket list. I was not sure if it would get checked or not but it did. I’m so happy for that experience. I was excited from the word ‘go’ because of Mira. 

Now, Mira Nair makes sure that each character is pivotal to the plot in the film, which is not always something directors can accomplish with an ensemble cast. Like each one of you is integral to the story. This is also a feat that very few screenwriters can accomplish and of course, Andrew Davies has so much experience.

Yes, I mean, if you look at all of Mira’s previous work, she has worked with ensemble casts. Maybe with another director, I would have the fear that maybe this part is too small, maybe it won’t get any attention, but with Mira, I know that each character in her film gets a lot of attention. I think that comes from a unique ability of Mira’s to give you her complete attention with tons of things happening around her. 

In ensemble casts, every actor comes with the insecurities of whether their parts are good enough but with Mira, I was very sure that whichever way my character would be shown. I knew there would be something about Savita that people would take back. 

You said in an interview once that you had joked with Mira that you feel most comfortable in the era of A Suitable Boy – the 1950s. When did you first feel like you stepped into that era? 

Several times. The first time I felt like that was when I went for the costume trial with Arjun Bhasin and I cannot tell you what kind of joy it is to work with somebody like that. Not only is everything particular to the era but also, the clothes are so beautiful that you are spoiled for choice. There is hardly a costume trial where I just feel like seeing everything (chuckles) where I want to keep things for myself. The sarees are just so gorgeous, the material is just so beautiful.  That kind of creativity and knowledge and that kind of collaboration which Mira and Arjun have, it is just so beautiful to watch.

I remember when we were shooting my wedding sequence, there was a miniature painting that was his reference for the colours. I was like, “wow, what a lovely reference to use.” Like at my wedding, everyone is in brocade sarees, and everyone is in cotton sarees at Lata’s wedding. No wonder his work is so good, like his reference was from art, not just another film. 

Wow, it just shows the attention to detail. 

Exactly. I’ll give you another example. There is a scene in which we are looking for Bhaskar, I think it starts in the third episode. There are about 150-200 people as junior artists and they are all supposed to be in this scene. There is one junior artist that Mira notices. Mira said to that one person, “you are not wearing our costume.” That’s the level of detail they work with. I thought he belonged right in the crowd. But she said, he was not wearing the right colours. So I was very impressed with that. To notice that in such a large crowd, knowing the colour palette you are working with, is just phenomenal. 

So what has been your biggest take away from your character, Savita? 

What I felt with Savita is similar to how I felt with Safia in Manto with Nandita Das. Even though Savita and Safia are different entirely, but there were parts to them that I did not entirely identify with for myself but they reminded me of the people I grew up with. People who made certain choices in life with a lot of agency, courage, and strength. 

When I was in college, my idea of feminism was sort of about women making different choices, and not traditional choices. But my more nuanced view of feminism happened a couple of years after college, that feminism is about choice and not the choice you make. Safia and Savita both reminded me that you can make some traditional choices but do so with grace and dignity, even though Safia’s life was much more full of hardships than Savita’s life. But the kind of grace and sensitivity with which they chose to live their lives is something very remarkable. 

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