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Sultry, Sumptuous and Achingly Beautiful, 'Indian Summers' Is an Epic for the Ages
September 27, 2015  | By Alex Strachan  | 4 comments

“It doesn’t matter what it means,” an old India hand says early in British playwright Paul Rutman’s elegant period epic Indian Summers. “What matters is what the world sees.”

Good news, then. Indian Summers is both meaningful and gorgeous to look at. Part period epic, part morality play, this Masterpiece masterpiece, Summers, is set during the waning days of the British Raj in India, where aging grand dames, pale, pallid civil servants and stern-faced army officers mix and mingle in a Himalayan hill station, away from the oppressive heat of the valleys and coastal plains below.

Early reviews have compared Indian Summers with Downton Abbey, and PBS — the series’ co-producer with Britain’s Channel 4 — has made no secret of its hope that Indian Summers can replace Downton Abbey in the hearts and minds of Masterpiece’s faithful following.

That’s a tall order. Downton Abbey was unique. It appeared at just the right time, when discerning viewers craved an antidote to The Bachelor and $#+! My Dad Says, TV with something to say about the class divide and income inequality, set against the country-estate backdrop of Edwardian England.

A more fair comparison would be The Jewel in the Crown, shot through with elements of White Mischief and The Year of Living Dangerously — a period political thriller masquerading as a romantic interlude, where tightly coiled tension and an ever-present threat of violence lurk beneath the faux social niceties of afternoon tea with cucumber sandwiches and white linen.

The Jewel in the Crown, adapted from the Raj Quartet novels by Paul Scott, first aired on PBS in 1984, and has dated over the years. It arrived during a time when British film and TV was preoccupied with the dissolution of the empire in far-flung colonies. Gandhi, Heat and Dust, The Far Pavilions and A Passage to India all emerged over a three-year period, in the early 1980s, and Jewel in the Crown was a part of that trend.

Indian Summers is set in a similar milieu, but it’s very different in mood and tone. It’s a period drama reinvented for the age of Mad Men and Game of Thrones, where every verbal exchange, every sideways glance and sharp look, hides a double meaning.

Despite director Anand Tucker’s exquisite attention to period detail — handbills warning of a cholera outbreak; a street sweeper laboriously polishes a bronze plaque with the inscription, “Royal Shimla Club: No Dogs or Indians;” scratchy-needle ragtime standards playing on a battered phonograph player — it’s the characters and their seemingly — and deceptively— simple problems that make Indian Summers so compelling, and such a joy to watch.

Henry Lloyd-Hughes (above) plays Ralph Whelan, the ambitious private secretary to the British Viceroy, rumored to be stepping down from the post any day now. Whelan, a confirmed bachelor, covets the post, but he’s hiding a checkered past, all the while trying to keep the reins on an increasingly fractious province. Agitators for independence splash a portrait of Queen Victoria with slogans  — the 1932 equivalent of tagging — and Whelan’s solution is to maintain a stiff upper lip and do as little as possible, for fear of riling the locals and making a bad situation worse  (“That picture was an act of vandalism long before our friend with the red paint got ahold of it”).

Lloyd-Hughes’ performance is seamless; he plays the conniving servant to His Majesty’s government as if born to the role, seems born to the role, all cunning and subterfuge, hidden behind a mask of false bonhomie and sworn loyalty to king and country.

His life is thrown into turmoil by the sudden arrival of his estranged younger sister Alice, played with a radiant beauty by Jemima West (right). At first, she seems the naive, idealistic counterweight to her brother’s constant scheming, but as Indian Summers progresses, the roles change. The tension between them — emotional, sexual, physical — is palpable from the first moment the two set eyes on each other for the first time since they were children, and the die is cast.

Their tension is complicated by the divide between brother-and-sister pair Aafrin Dalal (Nikesh Patel) and Sooni Dalal (Aysha Kala). Aafrin is an earnest, hard-working clerk in the Indian Civil Service, driven by a need to improve his parents’ squalid living conditions; Sooni is a promising student driven by social activism. a burgeoning revolutionary whose agitating for independence threatens to derail her brother’s career.

The two families’ destinies become inextricably intertwined, and the tension that builds through Indian Summers’ first hour inevitably snaps. When it does, the moment is as gripping and terror-stricken as anything in Jewel in the Crown.

Indian Summers may not share the broad audience appeal of Downton Abbey —  its setting in colonial India is too specific and limited in scope to play to a big room, the way Downton’s Upstairs, Downstairs-themed setting of an Edwardian country estate did  — but it has much to recommend it.

There are moments here that are achingly beautiful, and other moments that are undeniably harrowing. It’s an old-school epic remodeled for modern times, handsomely mounted and yet socially relevant, stately and yet timely.

It takes a simple story — can decent people find happiness together; will truth and justice win out in the end? — and tells it well, with no clear heroes or villains. It’s gorgeous and ambitious, with a mystery that only deepens and becomes more gripping over succeeding hours. In short Indian Summers is everything a discerning viewer could want from a Sunday night’s TV viewing in mid-autumn.

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Donna L Dale
The Jewel in the Crown was an excellent adaptation of the Scott novels. Remastered for an anniversary edition, it is a vivid reminder of the quality programming on Masterpiece, "dated" and eminently watchable.
Oct 3, 2015   |  Reply
Heard it was filmed in Northern states of Malaysia, Penang Island
Sep 29, 2015   |  Reply
elizabeth loehr
I would like to know where this series was filmed as I understand India was not chosen. Explain how the area was altered to resemble India scenes and family homes.
Sep 28, 2015   |  Reply
Judith Cartwright
It looks worthwhile checking out
Sep 27, 2015   |  Reply
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