Indian Summers is Channel 4’ s new flagship show – and, with a budget of £14 million, the most expensive it has ever commissioned. In the media, it has often been compared to Downton Abbey, and with some reason. For the past ten weeks, it has occupied the same airing slot of 9pm Sundays, and is, like Downton, a series led by an established British actress (in Downton, Maggie Smith, here, Julie Walters) but otherwise mostly cast with young, relatively unknown performers. It also charts a period of social change. However, those thinking that Indian Summers is simply a ‘Downton in India’ are much mistaken. To all the credit and brilliance of its writer, Paul Rutman, this show carries much more depth and subtlety - and is best compared to Mad Men, if anything else.
Set in 1932, Indian Summers portrays a microcosm of power. For up to six months a year, the British ruled India from the small Himalayan hill station of Simla, escaping Delhi’s sweltering heat. The plot revolves around half a dozen characters, Indian and British alike. There is Ralph Whelan (Henry Lloyd-Hughes), secretary to the Viceroy, and his sister, Alice Whelan (Jemima West), returning to India after a long absence. While held together by strong mutual affection, the pair couldn’t be any more different. West’s Alice is all kindness, looking for a place to call home, while helping indiscriminately those surrounding her. Meanwhile, Lloyd-Hughes carries more than a whiff of the Don Draper as Ralph, carrying out intricate political manoeuvres with similar moral ambiguity. Aafrin Dalal (Nikesh Patel), an ambitious civil servant, epitomises the dilemmas of young educated Indians of the time: is it best to keep quiet, and work your way up the ranks, ensuring success but remaining subject to the prejudice and rule of the colonial elite? Or should one risk everything for principles, and join one of the Independence movements gathering momentum across India? Patel’s performance deftly joins a strong sense of duty to a humane struggle for dignity. Meanwhile, Aafrin’s sister Sooni (Aysha Kala) vocally supports Congress and Gandhi’s leadership.
Political machinations, murders, and passionate affairs populate this world, dominated by Julie Walter’s Cynthia Coffin, owner of the Simla Royal Club, the social epicentre of the station for the British. While Walters’ acting is excellent, and her character fascinating, she is somewhat underused in the series. Rather than leading with plot lines of her own, Cynthia interweaves in one or two of the others’ characters stories. Yet, she gives formidable resonance to the final scenes of the season.
Indian Summers is subtle and realistic; the characters believable, and acting is restrained and credible. There is no puerile over-dramatization, nor there is a drive towards cheerful, neat endings. The plot’s careful complexity allows for hints to linger for several episodes before emerging into surprising developments. This strength, unfortunately, results in slow-paced first episodes. The first three instalments are interesting and enjoyable, but could have done with sharper editing. Some shots are too long, and the artful, but too frequent juxtapositions of the wealth of the British and the poverty of their Indian counterparts drag on. The pace picks up from episode four, from which point it is difficult to tear away from any piece of the tale. At the end of the season, when characters ready themselves to move back to Delhi, it is almost angering not to be going along with them.
By nature of its time period, the show also faces another great challenge. More than half its characters are British, most of which have repulsive racist attitudes towards Indians. This is necessary for a realistic portrayal of the period. However, it is difficult to persuade audiences to have any empathy for individuals living by such profoundly abhorrent views.
Sets are full of gorgeous luminosity and verdant greens. Costumes are also extraordinary, adding a rare quality of texture. If the Simla of the show does not look as gritty as one might imagine it would have been in 1932, it is easily forgiven for its superb photography.
Indian Summers portrays one generation desperate to hang on to the home they have made abroad, in parallel to another deciding on how to participate in the sweeping changes lying ahead for their country. If Rutman is harsh with the British, he makes no gifts to anyone else. The colonialists are portrayed in all their ugliness– oppressive, racist, opportunistic, hypocritical. But he does not shy away from addressing issues endemic to Indian society of the time, such as discrimination across religions and castes, the treatment of unmarried pregnant women, or that of Anglo-Indian children. On the Empire, he casts no judgement – and as is the best way, lets audiences untangle the situation for themselves.
The DVD comes with an informative and surprisingly frank behind the scenes documentary and a photo gallery.