'Indian Summers': TV Review
An eclectic ensemble headlines PBS' compelling nine-part series about the waning of the British Raj.
With Downton Abbey entering its final season, the PBS-Masterpiece Theater faithful may wonder where they’ll be able to get their historical soap opera fix going forward. Based on the premiere episode, the delightfully sudsy and sun-dappled Indian Summers might very well serve as a suitable replacement once Downton finishes its run next year. The nine-installment series will air over consecutive Sundays beginning September 27th, and a second season has already been ordered.
The year is 1932, when India was still firmly under the British dominion in place since 1858. Summer is almost here, and the colonials and their families are moving to the verdant seasonal capital of Simla at the foot of the Himalayas for what will prove to be a dramatic six months. The 70-minute opener, written by creator Paul Rutman and directed by Anand Tucker, does a terrific job laying out the varying strata of people who inhabit this seeming paradise.
If there’s a central figure it would be Cynthia Coffin (Julie Walters), the tart-tongued, widowed owner of the Royal Simla Club, where all the ruling classes converge for rambunctious nights of imbibing and assignations. She’s the series’ Dowager Countess, and Walters owns the role from the moment she shimmy-shakes her way out of a plain pullover to reveal a luxurious evening dress underneath. The character’s ingrained bitchery is extremely entertaining. After orchestrating a hot-and-heavy tryst between Ralph Whelan (Henry Lloyd-Hughes), the private secretary to the British Viceroy, and seductive American Madeline Mathers (Olivia Grant), Coffin has a hilarious moment where she smells, shall we say, some post-coital odor on Whelan’s fingers. "Lucky girl," she quips. "Wash your hands before dinner."
The Brits may play (and usually in service of political gain), but the series keeps as open an eye on the native Indians who are increasingly ruffled by their European masters. Aafrin Dalal (Nikesh Patel) is the primary focus, a semi-submissive clerk in the Indian Civil Service who's in love with a girl outside his caste, and also brother to Sooni (Aysha Kala) a headstrong woman agitating the gentry more and more in the wake of the Viceroy’s arrest of Mahatma Gandhi. Aafrin has quite the arc in the first episode — scolded by his mother for his illicit love affair, treated like a stooge by his British employers, exasperated by his sister's clumsy revolutionary activities and finally felled (if only temporarily) by a bullet meant for the manipulative and insensitive Whelan.
That’s all in addition to the myriad additional plotlines involving everything from an exiled half-caste boy discovered clinging to life on the train tracks to the comical plight of Sarah Raworth (Fiona Glascott, coming off like a snobby Judy Greer), a primly racist housewife way out of her depth in this foreign country. (Her main purpose in the premiere is to be indignant over the illegal leasing of her silk dress by some con artist dry cleaners.)
Pleasingly, Indian Summers never feels overstuffed, just exceedingly generous in the way it approaches the disparate people and situations portrayed. Rutman and Tucker ground all the cliff-hanging and histrionic machinations within a vividly realized recreation of 1930s Simla (the series was filmed on the Malaysian island of Penang) that keeps everything from feeling setbound. They also clearly have a handle on the historical moment through which their mostly fictional characters are living, and never privilege the British perspective over the Indian or vice-versa. It’s easy to see how the series (a worldly, all-embracing view of a prohibitive era) could build its Downton-like drama over several seasons to the ultimate independence of India in 1947.