MUMBAI — “Iye dawn’t think Iye ever wont to get married,” Tanya Maniktala’s Lata Mehra tells her mother as they watch Lata’s sister Savita’s bridal farewell.
“What else are yew going to dooo?” her mother responds.
It’s 2020 and we’re watching Mira Nair’s long-awaited adaptation of Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy that premiered on Netflix this Friday, October 23. But it feels that the ghost of Peter Sellers, whose brown-face Indian-origin character Hrundi V Bakshi in the 1968 British film The Party set the tone for brown stereotyping, hasn’t quite left us.
As the Twitterati gets its teeth into the show, the accents in A Suitable Boy are bound to attract much comment.
But Hetal Varia, Mumbai-based voice, dialect and accent consultant who worked in A Suitable Boy has a more provocative thesis: This is what Indians speaking English in the 1950s sounded like.
It is up to you to believe her, but Varia said a lot of research went into developing how each character in Vikram Seth’s sprawling novel speaks.
“A Suitable Boy takes place in the 1950s in post-independent India. The language we spoke then was English, of course, but it was still spoken by Indians for whom it wasn’t the first language,” said Varia, who has a masters degree in Voice Studies from the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama in London.
“The important thing to remember is that most characters in A Suitable Boy are from very well-bred families and their manner of speech is inherently different,” she said.
For modern viewers, A Suitable Boy’s dialogues feel unnatural and theatrical — as if the actors are over-emphasising the words for fear of them not coming across as clearly as they’d like to. The over-enunciation also sounds uncomfortably like Indian actors sounding the way a western Netflix executive or BBC suit would expect them to sound.
Hetal acknowledges that part of her brief was to make the dialogue more accessible.
“What for you is over-enunciation, for someone else it’s just something that makes the dialogue accessible. And they were clear about making it accessible for everybody,” she said.
But she also points out that the commonly accepted “Indian accent” is an ever-changing construct.
“We’ve a lot of affectations in our speech now. It’s a hybrid of the US and the UK. In the 50s, there was emphasis on the speech being pure, correct, regal. There was a colonial hangover that the country suffered,” Varia said. “The high-society people exclusively spoke in English.
“So my brief was to get the artists to speak deliberate English but steer far from the South Indian stereotype. In that deliberation, they couldn’t sound like caricatures who’re hitting the consonants.”
Varia points to the struggle of the difference between the English spoken by Ram Kapoor, who plays Mahesh Kapoor, and Ishaan Khatter, who plays Maan, his carefree young son.
“There’s always a difference in the speech of the young and the old. They’re both well-spoken but have a different style of speaking. We needed to ensure that all the characters spoke in a way that indicated they belonged to the same era and at the same time, not sound like each other,” Varia said.
Yet as anyone who has tweaked their syllables to appear more comprehensible to a foreigner will acknowledge, conversations about accents cannot be separated from larger questions about power, race and colonialism.
Some Indian reviewers have expectedly viewed the show’s accents through the prism of colonisation.
“We have a cast of mostly talented Indian actors trying, bafflingly, to sound browner. The cadences are unforgivable as characters try to add weird Hindi-esque lilts to English sentences,” a review in Mint Lounge says. “In this day and age, for Indian actors to take a Peter Sellers approach for an adaptation of an Indian masterpiece is utterly confounding. Is it the BBC’s revenge on Indians for writing better English?”
But the point, Varia says, is that the show is not set “in this day and age.”
“We all have a different muscularity,” Varia says, adding that since English isn’t our first language, an accent is bound to creep in.
Varia says that when a language “isn’t yours” — as English wasn’t for many Indians at the time – a little extra effort in the speech is bound to show itself, like it’d happen if someone had newly learnt Russian or French.
“You’ve to also factor in that in the 50s the language was new and it takes a hell lot of time for muscle memory to build. Till that doesn’t happen, the language will always sound very demonstrative,” she said.
“The broader trick is to get the emotionality of the dialogue right so it appears that the character is speaking from within and not just parroting the lines,” Varia said, adding that she was yet to see the show in its entirety. “I am curious to see the end result this Friday.”