February 17 2015
Lavish Channel 4 period drama infuriates and delights almost in equal measure…
By Chayya Syal
ON SUNDAY night (February 15), we finally got to see the first episode of hugely anticipated Sunday night drama “Indian Summers“.
The show currently fills the “Downtown Abbey” slot and is the most expensive drama ever produced by Channel 4 in recent times.
As the programme started, I felt a sense of sadness tinged with curiosity. Sadness because this is a large part of my heritage as a British Asian woman and I felt upset that such a large part of history (for Indians and Brits) is continually ignored, whitewashed and/or glamorised. I then felt curious, because I wanted to see what was so different about “Indian Summers“.
I wanted to know whether this show would depict the rosy idealisation of Empire from a white perspective, or provide a close-ish depiction of what colonialism meant for Indians back then and how its impact affects us now.
I had two questions in my head while it was playing. Was this going to be a good, thought-provoking Sunday night TV show or a toe curling cringe worthy affair of white people pretending to save the ‘savage brown beasts’?
Despite a fiery negative backlash on social media about the show, I was pleasantly surprised by what I did watch.
The 10-part series takes place in 1932 and is set in the Himalayan hill station Simla (Shimla), India. For those who know their history, this was the summer holiday destination where British officers and their families, would go to escape the blistering lower land heat of India. The show explores race, caste, religion politics, identity and conflict.
For a first episode, it was intense, as we were thrown in at the deep end in the midst of love triangles, drama, themes, plots and sub-plots against the backdrop of colonialism. It was all guns go from the start as a mixed-race boy was found lying face down on the train tracks and a portrait of Queen Victoria was defaced with the words “Inqilaab Zindabaad”.
The main theme was conflict and there were many of sources of it. From the obvious Brits versus the Indians, to divisions within and among various Indian communities, the tension in the air only became heavier as the episode unfurled.
Unfortunately, the intensity was stalled due to the amount of adverts and the very slow pace of the show. I felt extremely irritated by this as I felt it interrupted the flow of the story.
We were introduced to an array of characters that were vibrant and came with their own interesting (and mysterious) storylines on both sides of colonial life.
The Anglo-Asian cast balances out this tempestuous tale of conflict and identity, as Indian acting veterans Roshan Seth and Lillete Dubey complemented Julie Walters. The cast is a relatively young one; Aarfin Dalal, played by Nikesh Patel, is a Parsee junior clerk who wants to keep the peace, while his sister Sooni is a fiery young woman who is part of the freedom fighter movement.
The trials and tribulations of the British are focused in the Royal Simla Club, where they have regular knees up, formal dinner and regular toasts of: “To the King!”
The owner of the club is the matriarchal, chain smoking Cynthia Coffin (Julie Walters) who appears to be the puppeteer behind much of what goes on. She is certainly one to watch!
Ralph Whelan (who also plays school bully Mark Donovan from “The Inbetweeners“) is the private secretary to the Viceroy of India who has an attempt made on his life by an assassin.
Judging by his shocked cry of: “You!” it is unclear as to whether or not they know each other. Accompanying him is his sister, Alice Whelan, who has arrived with her child and is pretending to be a widow. Other main characters included Yorkshire-man Dougie who is clearly in love with Leena, a mixed-race woman, his wife Charlotte, plantation heir Iain, Aarfin’s love interest Sita, and sassy American Madeleine who vies for the affections of Ralph.
While the programme was an immersive piece of television which kept its viewers engaged, some scenes did feel very cheesy. A prime example was Aarfin kissing Sita in the alleyway of saris – which resulted in one of my followers on Twitter say: “This is Shimla, not Chandni Chowk!”
The programme was well made with bright lighting and beautiful cinematography. “Indian Summers” presents a glimpse into the various sources of conflicts that both form and surround the often idyllically depicted British Empire. It is an important area of British history for everyone to read up on and become familiar.
Episode 1 ended on a cliff hanger as the camera zoomed in and out of the elderly assassin who dramatically sat in silence, cross legged and shrouded in blue light, in his prison cell.
I, for one, am looking forward to next week’s episode.
ACV rating: ***1/2 (out of five)
Picture: Dougie (Craig Parkinson)
*’Indian Summers’ continues on Channel 4, at 9pm on Sundays.