In this age of identity politics, multiculturalism, and Western self-flagellation, anyone making a British television series about the twilight years of imperial rule in India faces an obvious dilemma. If the show offers a nuanced, evenhanded depiction of the colonial experience, it risks being accused of whitewashing racism and exploitation. Yet if it paints the British Raj as irredeemably wicked, it risks becoming tedious and ahistorical.
The achievement of Indian Summers, which aired recently on PBS’s Masterpiece, is to strike an admirable balance in its treatment of history while delivering a costume drama worthy of comparison with Downton Abbey.
Lushly photographed and lavishly designed, the show is set in the northern Indian city of Simla— known today as Shimla—which functioned as the summer capital for Raj administrators and other British elites seeking refuge from the heat and humidity of Delhi. The year is 1932, and the country’s independence movement is gaining steam. Its supporters include an aspiring lawyer named Sooni Dalal, whose brother Aafrin works for the Indian Civil Service as right-hand man to Ralph Whelan, private secretary to the British viceroy. The combative relationship between Sooni, a fierce revolutionary, and Aafrin, a career-minded bureaucrat, illuminates the tensions that were percolating across India as Gandhi’s National Congress pushed for greater freedoms and London tried to negotiate a compromise.
Aafrin is in many ways the central character of Indian Summers—the character who bridges two different worlds, who embodies India’s internal debate over the costs and benefits of British rule, and whose feelings about the Raj evolve considerably from Episode 1 to Episode 10. The show’s other key figures include Ralph Whelan’s beautiful but mysterious sister Alice; Indian landowner Ramu Sood; hard-drinking Scottish entrepreneur Ian McLeod; British missionary Dougie Raworth, his homesick wife Sarah, and his fellow missionary Leena Prasad; a troubled young orphan named Adam; American socialite Madeleine Mathers and her brother Eugene; and, last but certainly not least, Cynthia Coffin, the matriarchal owner of the Royal Simla Club, which serves as the hub of expat social life.
British media outlets have described the series as “Downton goes to India” and “Downton meets Delhi.” (Indian Summers is actually filmed in Malaysia.) While both shows have their fair share of soap-opera moments and improbable romantic subplots, each one succeeds by treating its characters as human beings rather than one-dimensional stereotypes. Downton Abbey creator Julian Fellowes emphasized this point in a 2011 interview with the New York Times Magazine: “I think one of the things we got right with Downton was that we treat the characters of the servants and the family exactly the same. Some of them are nice, some of them are not nice, some of them are funny, some of them are not, but there is no division between the servants and the family to mark that.”
Likewise, the makers of Indian Summers resisted the temptation to present a crude ideological morality play. “What’s great about the show is it’s not ‘Brits bad, Indians good,’” the actor who stars as Aafrin Dalal (Nikesh Patel) told an interviewer. “Everyone’s got shades of grey.” The series portrays Brits behaving badly, but it also portrays the harsh realities of India’s caste system. Meanwhile, it reminds us that the effects of British rule were complex, multifaceted—and not entirely negative for the Indian people. For example: During a dinner-table conversation, Sooni Dalal ridicules her father for praying that the Prince of Wales would quickly recover from an illness. “Mock me if you wish,” he replies. “But remember, [it was] the British that gave you the education to sit there scorning your own father.”
As creator Paul Rutman explained to the BBC: “I tried not to take sides and to understand what it would have felt like, whether a young Parsi family or a British man living the life you dreamt of as a child. . . . Empire is still something that many on the right are quietly proud of, but a source of deep shame and self-castigation to the left. I want to ride those contradictions.”
Even before Season 1 of Indian Summers finished airing on Britain’s Channel 4, the broadcaster confirmed that there would be a Season 2, set in 1935. Rutman hopes to do five seasons altogether, culminating with independence and partition in 1947. Based on his initial success, that aspiration seems likely to be fulfilled.