A British-Asian actor who stars in an ambitious new drama series about the British empire says it was “baffling” that children don’t learn about the subject in school.
Dubbed as Channel 4’s most expensive drama (it cost £14million to make), Indian Summers is a new 10-part series which chronicles life in the plantations of northern India in 1932, as the British empire begins to decline and Indian independence becomes possible.
Nikesh Patel, who plays a young Parsi working in the Indian Civil Service, had three auditions before he secured the role early last year.
The 29-year-old from northwest London was previously seen in the play Drawing the Line at Hampstead Theatre, which focused around the time of India’s partition. Patel said he believed it was important that school children knew about this aspect of British history.
“This is not something you learn about in school, which is kind of baffling, as for someone who is British Asian, this is a really important story about being British. We look at the past to better understand where we are now. If you look at the events school children look at, then to leave the empire out entirely, is baffling,” he said.
Patel added that it was exciting to be part of something which focused on an “interesting” but “fragile” period of the British Raj.
“I was quite lucky doing Drawing the Line, as the play was set just before partition. So it’s interesting to go 15 years before that in this show to see where the cracks start to appear in the empire. It was a slow burn for Indians to realise that self rule was a possibility.
“There is definitely an appetite now in 2015 [for something] that is different to what people have seen before. That means treating the Indian characters as equally important as the British ones, not just hanging around in the background.
“Indian Summers doesn’t make generalisations. All the characters have shades of grey in terms of their moralities. I think it’s fair to say people like the comfort of looking at the past and seeing it as the ‘good old days’, which this serial doesn’t show. It’s quite challenging in that respect.”
The period drama is set in Shimla (formerly Simla), the capital city of the state of Himachal Pradesh in India, but producers decided to used Penang in Malaysia which was was identified as a suitable location only at the last minute. Channel 4 reportedly decided first against modern-day Shimla, on the grounds that it was over-developed.
Patel and his co stars, who include award winning actress Julie Walters (Harry Potter, All My Sons), Indian actress Lillete Dubey (Monsoon Wedding), Henry Lloyd Hughes (The Inbetweeners) and Roshan Seth (Gandhi), all stayed in Penang for six months of filming.
“I had about six days off in those six months to come back and spend some time at home. We would have a cast dinner every Sunday – roast chicken, Yorkshire puddings and gravy. But you get so much for free filming in Penang. It’s oddly appropriate because there are 1930s British colonial heritage architecture there. The Malaysian government allowed us to film in the building.”
He added that he didn’t have to worry about food because it was “incredible” in Penang.
“When I was Skyping home every Sunday, my mum would say, ‘Are you missing your Indian food?’ and I would say ‘You know what, mum, I’m doing alright actually.’ The mix of cultures there means there is Thai, Chinese and Indian dishes.”
In order to prepare for their roles, Patel and Lloyd-Hughes went to the British Library to dig out some archive material.
“I was able to find out about the Parsi community at that time and the Indian Civil Service,” he said. “There’s such a great wealth of information. I’m hoping more people come forward with stories and anecdotes beyond the stuff we already know. Just to see these black and white photos from the period gave us a sense of Shimla. There was a lot of pomp and entertainment, all at odds with the job at hand, which was to run the country.”
He revealed how the writer and creator of the series, Paul Rutman, has already started writing another, which Patel hopes will get commissioned.
“I think we have scratched the surface with the first series. Paul’s kind of picked 50 hours for five series. Each series brings you a few years closer and the fifth series takes you to Independence. An arc like that is ambitious for British telly. It’s something we usually see the Americans do – I think there is an appetite for that and the audiences will love to see it.
“Even in the first series, we have been knocked for a six at the twists and developments. Paul is a bit of a twisted genius, so I’m looking forward to see what happens.”
Indian Summers begins on Sunday (15) at 9pm on Channel 4.