Voice coach Hetal Varia on working with Mira Nair and the cast of A Suitable Boy
Netflix’s latest mini-series, A Suitable Boy, helmed by the evergreen Mira Nair, has many talking points. Besides being Mira’s debut OTT release and an adaptation of Vikram Seth’s behemoth book of the same name, the manner in which the English language is spoken in the show has also drawn considerable attention. In fact, quite a few comments on its trailer on YouTube also talk about the same, with people puzzled about why the actors are speaking English with a pronounced accent. Turns out, it was a deliberate move by the director, who wanted her characters’ articulation to be relevant according to the timeline of the story. One must remember that the novel is set in the 1950s, not long after India got independence. So, much of the cultural and societal representation in the series will portray a country that is still trying to move on from its colonial past.
However, the required vocal adjustments wouldn’t come easy, which is why Mira turned to voice coach Hetal Varia to train her cast for the same. Recommended by veteran actor Shernaz Patel, Hetal’s professional affiliations include teaching stints at Mumbai-based organisations like Drama School Mumbai, Indian People’s Theatre Association and Gillo Repertory Theatre, plus Ninasam in Karnataka. Needless to say, a project of this magnitude demanded a certain scale of research and the 34-year-old ensured she had multiple meetings with the director before starting her work.
While she got to work with the likes of debutante Tanya Maniktala, Ishaan Khatter, Danesh Razvi, Ram Kapoor, Rasika Dugal, Amir Bashir, and others, she didn’t get to train Tabu, since the latter’s character speaks Urdu in the show. “I did not have time to do a thorough research for that language since I was solely focused on English with the rest of the cast,” shares Hetal, who is also a Voice Studies graduate from The Royal Central School of Speech and Drama, London.
As the show releases today Hetal reveals a bit more how her background in theatre helped her become a voice coach while explaining her role in managing to find the right voice in A Suitable Boy.
Tell us how you became a voice coach.
I was trained in Indian classical singing when I was a child, from when I was around six to seven years old. And I continued doing that until I became a professionally trained singer. Years later, in 2007, I was called by the Indian People's Theatre Association to work for them as a singer, as a part of one of their plays. And that was my beginning with theatre. I was around 21 at the time. I continued to sing and act since then, largely with Gillo Repertory Theatre after that. Then, I reached a point when I began to think about what to do next. Although I was pretty much settled and happy with the way the theatre circuit was going on for me, I realized that I needed to hone my skills in a different manner. So I started looking out for courses, which was besides acting and singing. As a module, they are fine. But as an intensive course, I didn’t want a Masters degree in them. That’s when I saw a Masters course in Voice Studies at The Royal Central School of Speech and Drama, London. It was developed in-school sometime in the 1960s and happens to be one of the best courses for voice. And I went ahead with it. Surprisingly, I went there as a performer because I was very open to learning. I thought I'll go with a clean slate and learn whatever I can and use that knowledge as a performer since I was aware that the course was designed in a way to help us become voice teachers. I later got selected in Birmingham School of Acting for a performance-related voice course, but I instead chose to do a central school course. Little did I know that I'll come back to start coaching others, which I did while I was still studying. So, I found myself training a few people from the film industry. Not actors necessarily, but a lot of my friends who were in the industry. I kind of put my work into their practice to see if that helps them as well.
So you knew people in the film industry before?
I would rather say that I had a good foot in theatre. As for films, it happened recently, more specifically with A Suitable Boy. Of course, as a part of projects, I was already working individually with a lot of actors. But on a wide-scale production level, A Suitable Boy is the first one. In short, if I have to say, I'm right now very much into coaching, singing and acting – in that order.
How did A Suitable Boy happen?
Mainly through word-of-mouth, because of my theatre background. Shernaz Patel, with whom I had worked before, recommended my name to Mira. Shernaz thought I could do the job well because there was a wide bandwidth of actors on the show, about which I had no idea. All I knew was that it is going to be a series with multiple characters and not just a couple of actors. I did not anticipate the scale of the cast but I think it turned out great because all of us worked to be on the same page in terms of the tonality and sound of the language.
Tell us how you went about starting your work for the show.
Mira and I had an initial chat over call, just for her to understand what I do and how I was planning to proceed. And for me, I wanted to understand what she was looking for. We would meet up whenever we could, and eventually, we had a couple of readings with her actors. The more we connected, the more I found myself in the company of her cast, which enabled me to observe and listen to them and decide on the kind of English Mira wished for. She was very clear that she needed Indian English, but of the 1950s, a time when we spoke clearer and more deliberate English than we do now.
Yes, of course. We had just got out our independence; besides Hindi and Urdu, the only other language that Indians were exposed to at that time was English. The language wasn’t just limited to the politicians, but regular people as well, mainly the upper-class.
What were the challenges you faced and how did you overcome them?
We were all serving a director's vision. We needed to understand what it is that Mira wanted in terms of visuals, texture, sound and body. An actor will understand this from their own perspective. But, for me, it was about what kind of correct English she wanted, because there are many versions of correct English. So she shared a few samples with me, and I shared a few with her too, so that we could be on the same page and come to a consensus. We didn’t intend to replicate the 1950s; all we did was try to bring the movie as close to that era as possible, and make sure all the actors are speaking with a similar tonality of sound as it was back then while keeping in mind the respective socio-economic backgrounds of their characters. There’s quite a bit of Hindi as well, but that wasn’t my choice to decide how much of either language had to be there in the show. I only had to focus on whatever was there in English, while trying to find a balance between a period show and a contemporary one.
Keeping the language and diction part apart, I also had to work on correction and comfort of speaking. In the former, I had to get their Ws, V's and T's on point, since in India, we have stronger or more affected sounds. As for the comfort aspect, the challenge was for them to enable them to embody the dialect while placing it on the dialogue and owning it. The key was to blend the voice-work with the diction-work. I've understood that in films, whenever it comes to speech or diction, it's very rare to find a synergy between voice-work and diction-work. It is generally focused on zubaan (speech), diction and accent. But what we forget is that this too is coming out of the same body. So, we need to kind of hold ground and not lose it. So, there were a couple of actors I worked with who found that synergy – that, for me, rather than a challenge, was more beautiful because then I could give them a holistic journey. Another challenge was availability. While I was in Bombay, some of the actors were not. So we had to juggle things a bit and figure ways out.
Lastly, what are your thoughts on the book?
It is very beautifully written and is extremely illustrious,” she opines, adding, “It manages to draw a clear picture while having a very unique pace of its own. All the characters are given justified time and space to grow. Hence, it’s okay if the book is overwhelmingly huge because it is rightfully so. Otherwise, without a bit of patience, we wouldn’t understand the story.
A Suitable Boy releases today.