The Pulse Interview-Shubham Saraf
A Suitable Boy, the BBC One adaptation of Vikram Seth’s epic novel of post-Independence India, stepped into the Sunday evening slot on our TV screens in late July. Among the large cast you would have spotted the polished and elegant son of the Nawab of Baitar, Firoz, played by Shubham Saraf. As he is one of only two British Asian actors cast, Pulse was eager to talk to Shubham.
The interview was conducted by Samir Bhamra of theatre company, Phizzical
Q. So how did you get this role?
‘Hard work, luck, manifesting what you want in the universe. When I first read on the BBC that they were making an adaptation of A Suitable Boy I thought, wow the BBC is finally doing something which is about me. I got onto my agent Charlie and told him “Get me in the show!”. He found out who was casting and initially I was invited to audition for the role of Amit. Then I heard nothing for a whole year. I would get Charlie to call every two months, so that they kept me in their minds. Then one day when I was at The Almeida playing in Three Sisters, I got a call; they asked me if I would audition for the role of Firoz. I sent in my tapes and also met Mira (Nair) who was in town to audition some of the British actors. I passed the audition and got the part.’
Q. What was it like working with Mira Nair?
‘Mira Nair for me is a legend. I have grown up watching her films like Monsoon Wedding and The Namesake, in fact my artistic sensibilities are shaped by these films.
Before doing my first take with her I was expecting Mira to find her muse in me. And then she went “Stop, stop, cut, cut, why are you playing him like a child?” I got really nervous, but thereafter it was fine. It was just the biggest learning curve of my life. Mira is like a mother on the shoot, everything is done with so much love. But her standards are exacting, she will not move on until she is completely satisfied. She set the standards that I have for myself. If I said to her “Mira, do you think that I could have another take? she would agree- we were mostly exactly on the same page.” I also have to give a shout-out to Shimit Amin (director Chak De India) who was co-directing with Mira, he was brilliant and really helped me.’
Q. How did you relate to your character?
‘Well, I’m playing an aristocrat and I’m not exactly from a family of Nawabs. So I had to learn not so much the inner emotions but more the outer manifestations of mannerisms: the stance, the style, the adab (greeting by bowing), almost a stiffness. I had to hold my hands in a particular way – I wanted to be playful and silly at times, but I couldn’t, I was playing a prince.’
Q. How would you describe the process?
‘The filming process in India was, well, beautiful and hugely chaotic (laughs). It was the biggest rollercoaster experience. Every day, that I was there, I felt completely alive. You know in India, there is such a hotchpotch – either too many cooks or no cooks. So you have to take responsibility.
There is this scene in which Firoz is leading a march on Muharram – the Shia ritual of mourning for Hussain, which some of the background artist didn’t seem to be getting. So I decided to take them around the corner and rehearse them, building up the frenzy of shouting ‘Ya Hussain’. The ritual is something deep and meaningful, not be treated lightly. Some people just live for the intensity of those ten days. So I just had step up and do what needed to get the shot.
This was a new experience for me and something that would only happen in India. As an actor in the UK one can be much more passive because the systems are all in place: someone will lead you from the trailer to the set and tell you where to stand and what to do.’
Q. Any further insights from the experience?
‘This is the difference between the making of A Suitable Boy and past BBC productions set in India, that in the past, we have seen India through a British lens. Therefore, very little attention is paid to spiritual and ritual practices like the Muharram march or Saeeda Bai’s ghazals. In a British drama these would end up looking like as a trope, they are not treated with the depth and specificity that is needed to be authentic. We needed to make sure in this adaptation these practices were done properly.’
Q. What’s next coming up?
‘I miss the routine of going to the theatre, meeting up with cast members, rehearsing all day, cracking a few drinks after and going home. The next day doing all that all over again. I am hungry for community.’
Shubham stars in the BBC's A Suitable Boy, directed by Oscar and Bafta-nominated director Mira Nair. He starred in Netflx's international drama series Criminal opposite David Tennant and Hayley Atwell, and played a major role in Rebecca Frecknall's production of Three Sisters at the Almeida Theatre, as well as the lead role of Dinesh in the celebrated Lions & Tigers by Tanika Gupta at the Globe Theatre.