Indian Summers – a 2015 Masterpiece TV Series (PBS)

Indian Summers, a recent PBS drama from Masterpiece has good bones. I’m talking about heritage here, as in its dramatic predecessors. Nothing more.

In 1924, E.M. Forster penned his classic novel A Passage to India. The setting was India in the era of the British Raj in the 1920’s. Passage to India was made into a film in 1984 that was directed by David Lean.

The Raj Quartet was a series of books authored by Paul Scott. He began writing them in 1966 and he completed the series in 1975. Once again the subject was the British Raj in India, with the first book beginning in 1942. This book was called The Jewel in the Crown. In 1984, a mini-series, based on all four books aired on television.

Now, in 2015, Masterpiece has produced and aired on PBS a 10 episode series called Indian Summers. The story takes place in 1932, and the location is an Indian Hill Station called Simla (Shimla) where the senior British government officials, and their staffs, collectively known as the ICS (Indian Civil Service) moved their operational headquarters during the summers.  Simla is in Northern in India. The Himalayan mountains form a backdrop to the location.

Easier to govern once one has escaped from the summer heat in New Delhi – was the idea.

This series can be described as A Passage to India and The Jewel in the Crown meet Downton Abbey. After my recent (and continuing) immersion into Downton, I was eager to see Indian Summers. I had read the Scott and Forster books, and had watched the movie and the tv series that each had spawned. But that was 30 plus years ago. So I had high expectations for Indian Summers.

I am happy to say that expectations were met. This may have been 1932, and the British would stay on for sometime. Mr. Gandhi’s Quit India movement would not launch until 1942. Mr. Nehru would not give his Tryst With Destiny speech (announcing India’s independence) until almost midnight on August 15th 1947:

Long years ago we made a tryst with destiny, and now the time comes when we shall redeem our pledge, not wholly or in full measure, but very substantially. At the stroke of the midnight hour, when the world sleeps, India will awake to life and freedom.

But as I said, we are in the late spring and summer of 1932. The colors are amazing. Be they the hanging wisteria that adorned the home of  the Private Secretary to the Viceregal of India in Simla.

Or the lush greenery of the tea growing plantations.

Or the meticulous gardens of the homes of the British

This was an India  of pomp and circumstance, of customs and traditions. The air was filled with heat, and dust, and rain. The place had its fabrics and textures, its colors, and its pace. But it was both and more and less than the surface appearances would lead you to believe.

At the front gate of the Royal Simla Club a sign was posted. Have a look.

And that is what is at the heart of the story. The Brits made no secret of how they felt about the people they ruled. There it was at the front gate. No dogs and no Indians were allowed in the club. But within the club, which is to say, within the British themselves, class awareness and snobbery was ever-present. And that’s on top of the racism.

But lest you get the wrong idea, within the Indians themselves, were the issues of religious communities, and caste. As Mr. Gandhi went forward with his ideas of democracy, the British actively worked to subvert his Congress party by making overtures to the Untouchable people. The British hoped to weaken Congress by helping the unfortunates. Divide and rule, indeed.

While all of the above was happening, we do not see Mr. Gandhi. He’s only mentioned when people discussed the news in the papers, or what they’ve heard on the radio. No, our story is much more localized. Let’s have a look at the players:

Ralph Whelan is the senior British official in Simla, in the absence of the Viceroy Lord Willingdon. He’s played by Henry Lloyd-Hughes. He’s a slippery customer to the say the least, but as the story and the secrets unfold, at times, he is sympathetic and worthy of our trust, and just as often, we begin to feel unsure of his character and trustworthiness. His character definitely demands that we do so.

His sister, Alice Whelan (played by Jemima West), is on the train to Simla as the series begins. She is arriving with her infant son, and will be put up at brother Ralph’s home. Her story is that she is a widow. And as expected, we will have reason to doubt her story, and as we watch, she will soon be struggling with more than a few dilemmas.

There’s a young Indian man, one  Aafrin Dalal who is played by Nitish Patel. He is a clerk in the direct employ of Ralph Whelan. Soon Dalal will be hand picked by Whelan for a key promotion to Senior Clerk. When an assassination is attempted, Mr. Dalal is in the wrong place at the wrong time. He takes a bullet that was intended  for Ralph Whelan. Of course he survives.

Cynthia Coffin is played by Julie Waters who also has a role in the film Brooklyn. She is the owner of the Royal Simla Club, and the series makes no bones about it, and loses no time to disclose that she is the most racist, and the ugliest person in the whole series.Walters has a role that she really sinks her teeth into, and the truth is that you’ll hate her within minutes.

Olivia Grant plays Madeleine Mathers. She has the role of the hot-to-trot g/f of Ralph Whelan. She is not the only one to have sex in this series, but she has the most, and is easily vociferously loud in her enjoyment. For the record, she wears the most revealing of clothes of all the characters.

Fiona Glascott plays Sarah Raworth. She’s married to the Missionary Dougie Raworth. She’s unhappy with the lack of attention she gets from her husband, but she chafes even more because she’s been marginalized (you may read that as snubbed) by the crusty Club crowd. So much so that she goes to the trouble to dig around in Alice Whelan’s storied widowhood – with the express purpose of hoping to find something she can use, and hold over Alice, that will get her a higher standing in the community.

Yes there are secrets about passions both past and present, and secrets about yearning and dissatisfaction. Want more? Wait until you see how the British judicial system, in India really works. Deception and lies occur not only about people’s lives and loves, but also about evidence in criminal matters. And it seems that there’s no end to them, the lies and deception of course.

What I like most about this series is the way we find out about these indiscretions. The series takes its time in revealing it cards.

Meanwhile, as we gather information, we always know more than the characters, but tension and the stress continue to mount. I’d call it a delicious sensation as you wait for the proverbial other shoe, or in the case chappal (the Hindi word for sandal or slipper) to drop. Truly, this series plays from the same playbook as Downton Abbey. Yes, if you would like to be caustic, you might call this a period soap opera set in an exotic location with beautiful clothes, gardens, and lacking only the automobiles. But just as we do about Downton, we must also say that this is an intelligently written series. Then, when you add in the fact that this series is the single most expensive series produced for English television and then audiences world-wide, I think I’d call it a hit.

Did I mention secrets – illegitimate children, illicit love affairs, murder, and that’s besides the maneuvering and plotting by the British government. But then you must consider that a rally is held in Simla, and a speech is made by a firebrand espousing self-rule for India. This speaker, Nalini, is arrested. And so is Sooni Dalal, played by Aysha Kala (above) who is the sister of Aafrin Dalal. Imagine his embarrassment as he’s trying to make his way in the ICS hierarchy, and his sister is arrested and jailed.

But the sister is far smarter than her brother. She has an idea about what is really going on. When Aafrin calls out his sister for associating with violent criminal people, she hurls it right back him. You fool, you are being used as propaganda for the British. And she’s right. We know it, and she knows it – only Aafrin doesn’t.

Aafrin has his own hands full as he’s been secretly seeing a Hindu woman called Sita (played by Ellora Torchia above) despite the fact that he and his family are Parsees, and they are dead-set against Aafrin marrying a woman from a different community. And that is only the beginning of the issues that will face Mr. Dalal. I don’t know if the expression ‘between a rock and a hard place’ was in vogue, or even in use in 1932. But these days it is certainly an apt description for this character.

The cast seems so eminently chosen, and the roles are uniformly performed admirably. I’ve not even mentioned Lord Willingdon as a character, nor the assistant to Mrs Coffin at the Simla club , Kaiser. Then there there the Eurasian school teacher at the mission school, Leena who is portrayed by Amber Rose Revah. 

She is rejected by the Indians as she is neither Indian nor British. And the British also think she is unworthy of their care or concern. Hence she is employed at the Missionary School.

I am highly recommending this series. Expensively mounted, superbly written and cast, and uniformly marvelously performed – what more could you ask for? There is a DVD available or you can see it via Amazon Prime via either a rental or a purchase. Since you have read this far, kindly take a look at the excellent trailer

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2 thoughts on “Indian Summers – a 2015 Masterpiece TV Series (PBS)

  1. Dear JustMeMike,
    I read your blog with pleasure and the usual dismay. You post an image of the brass sign from the ‘Royal Simla Club’ that reads ‘No Indians or dogs’ and you seem to think it is genuine. It’s a film prop, a piece of fiction. There was no ‘Royal Simla Club’ and there were no signs outside British clubs in India thatsaid ‘No dogs, no Indian’. Think about it. Why link Indians and dogs? The first mention of such notices begins long after Indian Independence. What is historically accurate is that these clubs were nominally private and owned by their members so that ‘Members only’ was the rule. The linking of dogs with people starts with Bruce Lee’s 1972 film Fists of Fury, which has a fictional notice in it to that effect. Then it gets picked up in India to become ‘No Indians, no dogs’. Yes, there was racist segregation in British India, particularly on the railways, but no dogs, please!
    Charles Allen,historian.

    • Thank you for the comment Charles. Early in your comment you referenced the sign posted outside of the Royal Simla Club. Of course the club itself, as well as all the accoutrements of the club are creations, or said more succinctly – fictional creations.

      As a historian, you take pains to take me task about that sign, and you even write about said sign – “you seem to think it is genuine.”

      Really?

      Please read my opening paragraph again where I clearly state:

      “Indian Summers, a recent PBS drama from Masterpiece has good bones. I’m talking about heritage here, as in its dramatic predecessors. Nothing more.”

      I will not challenge your statements that such signs did not exist. I’m not a historian. I’m just a guy who watched a dramatic series on my tv. And wrote about what I saw. This is a review of a tv series, not something else, and certainly not a treatise on history.

      The sign was made up and appeared in the series. If not accurate historically, you can blame the writers of the series and the historical consultant – one Alistair Bruce who also consulted on The King’s Speech, The Young Victoria, and Downtown Abbey.

      Thks.

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