What will Indian viewers make of Channel 4’s major new drama, Indian Summers, which started last Sunday (15)?
The 10-part series, which begins in 1932 in Simla, the summer capital of British India, has been written by 44-year-old Paul Rutman. He has had a love affair with India since he went to the country at the age of 22, after having read English literature at Gonville and Caius College Cambridge.
He thought up the whole story, but the responsibility for bringing the script to life fell to Anand Tucker, who has directed the first four episodes of the first series.
Rutman has now completed writing six episodes of the second series in the hope and expectation that the first will be well received by British TV audiences. The grand plan is to have 50 episodes, over five seasons, which would take the story through to partition and Indian independence from British rule in 1947.
There is a temptation to describe Indian Summers as “The Jewel in The Crown meets Downton Abbey”, concedes Tucker, referring to two of British TV’s most successful dramas.
But The Jewel in the Crown, based on the novels of Paul Scott, was shown over 30 years ago, while Indian Summers is entirely the product of Rutman’s imagination, insists Tucker, the son of an Indian father and a German mother.
“And Indian Summers is not Downton Abbey set in Delhi,” he says.
Instead of telling the tale of English “toffs” in India, Rutman has created a world inhabited mostly by middle-ranking British civil servants who interact with the Indians over whom they rule.
One of the pivotal characters is Cynthia Coffin (played by Julie Walters), a woman with such a working-class accent she could have strayed off the set of EastEnders. But Rutman has her running the British club, a centre of social activity and adultery in Simla. Episode one had an Indian servant polishing its brass plate bearing the rules of admission: “No dogs or Indians.”
Other characters include Ralph Whelan (Henry Lloyd-Hughes), private secretary to the viceroy of India, Lord Willingdon, the only real person in the series. Whelan is joined by his sister Alice (Jemima West), who looks destined to fall in love with an Indian – a dangerous liaison for the time.
The Parsis, who were loyal to the British, are represented by Aafrin Dalal (Nikesh Patel), his parents Darius (Rothan Seth) and Roshana Dalal (Lillete Dubey), and his sisters Sooni (Aysha Kala) and Shamshad (Ashna Rabheru).
Tucker says: “Nikesh Patel is incredibly handsome, an absolute star who has something of the young Cary Grant about him”.
There is an American brother and sister, Eugene (Edward Hogg) and Madeleine Mat-hers (Olivia Grant) – pretty early on in the first episode, Whelan has an assignation with her in a locked room in the clubhouse. He is depicted as a “British Indian” – a Brit born in India, who knows he would be a misfit if he left India for England.
There is Dougie Ra-worth (Craig Parkinson), a kindly man who runs a missionary school, but he is attracted to his be-autiful mixed-race assistant, Leena Prasad (Amber Rose Revah). However, his wife Sarah Ra-worth (Fiona Glascott), looks down on Indians.
In episode one, a nationalist shoots at Whelan but misses and hits young Aafrin instead. It looks like his life is in the balance, but clearly he will survive and have an affair, probably with Alice, who is estranged from her husband whom she has left behind in distant England.
Simla of British times is now Shimla, a crowded tourist destination and changed beyond recognition. So Indian Summers, which was allocated a budget of £14 million, has been shot on the Malaysian island of Penang.
So how did Rutman first conceive of the story? After Cambridge, he wrote to schools across India asking for a job, which is how he ended up teaching drama at Lawrence School, Lovedale, in Ootacamund in the Nilgiri Hills in the south of the country. Then followed a stint working for a health project in Bangalore.
His wife, Natasha Narayan, who writes novels for children, came to Britain from Bangalore when she was five. Three years ago, after a trekking holiday in Sikkim, they stayed at an old boarding house in Darjeeling, the Windermere Hotel, where the manager showed him an amateur film she had made of British life in Simla.
She also opened a cupboard which was full of photographs of the British at work and play – and the idea of Indian Summers was born. Rutman, who lives in Oxford, spent a year researching his theme at the Bodleian Library.
“I was reading a lot of Indian books in my teens,” he recalls.
He had devoured RK Narayan’s Malgudi series. Now he read works by Patrick French and other historians; the books of Nirad C Chaudhuri; Rohinton Mistry’s A Fine Balance; personal accounts of Britons in District Officers in India 1930-1945; and, perhaps most important of all, Indian Embers, an account of life under the Raj by Rosamond Napier (Lady Lawrence).
What Rutman did not want to do was judge the British by contemporary moral standards.
“The temptation and the easiest thing to do is tell a story which simply denounces from the start every aspect of British rule,” he points out.
“From a British perspective, that is the safe place – to stand in judgment from 2015. I was trying to think myself back into what it must have been like in 1932 – there were good people and bad people doing what they had come to do.
“Occasionally, when I found myself getting angry about what the British did out there, I would go back and read Indian Embers and just temper my anger,” he admits.
Rutman showed a couple of his scripts dealing with aspects of the caste system to his wife’s aunt, Uma Chakravarti, a feminist historian and author who had taught at Miranda House in Delhi from 1966-2008. He also avoided reading or seeing the adaptation of The Jewel in the Crown.
The scripts he has written, Rutman emphasises, are not history lessons: “It’s drama first and foremost. Although there is a lot of politics in there, I am not trying in the first series to tell every aspect of the story of the fight for Indian independence.
“If we are lucky enough to get another series and we find an audience, the hope is we will take the road to 1947.”
Tucker adds: “The biggest challenge is to make that story feel absolutely alive and compelling for a modern-day audience.”
There is a good reason why only two of the main characters have been taken from India while the reliance is on UK actors.
“In a show like this, there is an issue – you need to know that the cast are prepared to come back year after year after year, which means they have to be in position to not commit to other things,” Tucker states.
“So that does make it very difficult with casting a lot of Bollywood actors, for the sake of argument. It is very difficult to pin them down to a five-year commitment.”
Perhaps Indian Summers will also help young Indians in Britain to understand “they are here because the British were there”, he adds.