Review: ‘Indian Summers’ a Worthy Diversion

When you are hungry for some truly compelling, fascinating, engaging drama, your stomach can growl with anticipation. Some of the TV we immerse ourselves with does not always keep us glued to the box, and can actually leave you feeling starved. Airing earlier in the year in the UK, Indian Summers begins this evening on Masterpiece PBS. I, for one, am craving the audience reception to this in America. As I may have mentioned before (via Downton Abbey) I hold my hands up and say period dramas revolving around the English is not always my cup of tea. I will give most things a try though, as I did with this 10-part feast.

The promotional build-up – teasers, trailers – here in the UK for Indian Summers (aired on Channel 4) was impossible to avoid. And like the overall feel of the show itself, in spite of how you sit with it in the end, it makes sure you are full to the brim with curiosity. Indian Summers turned out to be not only one of the most expensive ventures in Channel 4’s history, but also soon secured a second season after very decent ratings. Focusing on a time early last century in Northern India, the show delves into the social ramifications of the last chapter of the British rule, but an extensive knowledge of history is not really required here – thankfully. It keeps the setting confined, in Simla, a small ruffled community surrounded by beautiful scenery.

A feature-length opener for starters steadies the pace so we don’t choke too early. Any series with a pretty hefty ensemble cast of characters ought to walk us through it the first time we meet them. Indian Summers just about feeds us enough here, although perhaps none of the characters appear larger than life or over-the-top, we are given a clear instant idea of some of their traits and dilemmas.

The steam train brings many of the English to the Indian village, this includes Alice (Jemima West), angelic and troubled all at the same time. Her brother Ralph (Henry Lloyd-Hughes) is the Private Secretary to the Viceroy in India – so quite a big deal here basically. His somewhat arrogant, ruthless demeanor is miles away from his sister’s seemingly quaint, charming aura. Both have secrets that have to spill out eventually. A rather frustrated Sarah (Fiona Glascott) feels like a spare part as she arrives with husband Dougie (Craig Parkinson) – he teaches the Indian kids and is blatantly in love with the beautiful Leena (Amber Rose Revah). Then we have the civil servant worker Aafrin (Nikesh Patel), he’ll soon find himself embroiled in matters of politics and romance. His rebellious sister Sooni (Ayesha Kala) speaks her mind and rallies with the rest of the angry locals about the plight of their countries ruling. The most recognizable face is Julie Walters, as the empowered local club owner Cynthia, but don’t get too excited, she plays a rotten cow – and my goodness does she nail it.

The narrative is paced nicely, simmers more than it bubbles over. Which is helpful to an audience who may feel a little at sea at times. The dialogue is also a welcome aid, often explaining current society and its predicaments without the characters sounding like they are reading from a life manual. These are normal people living in a rather precarious state of affairs, but there is a hell of a lot going on here so you need to keep on track. The various plots interweave, but sometimes drift off a little. Not necessarily a terrible thing, I mean, an onion with many thin layers can still contribute to a satisfying supper.

What Indian Summers does not do is force red herrings down your throat, it certainly lacks the pretentious vibe we’ve seen elsewhere – its subtle promises are kept for the most part. There is not a lot of room for upper class etiquette either, the majority of the characters no matter their social status tend to fumble around, nobody is really sure of their place. That makes for encouraging viewing of a level-headed nature, we can judge and praise these people for their views and choices, that they could be just like us. There’s ample amounts of joy and romance too, don’t worry. There is also racism and malaria, so this is not a perfect world.

There is more than character conflict and affections to this though. The breath-taking scenery is photographed so invitingly, so majestically, you can almost feel the heat. It is cinematography so grand you may find yourself a little hypnotized on occasions. The luscious art direction and costume design follow suit. This has captured the era and the climate perfectly – I would imagine. That is to say the production values are so vivid and appetizing you are not meant to make much effort to feel you belong there.

In the end Indian Summers is a little light relief as far as TV drama goes. Whatever is on your menu this fall, be it an action-packed platter of a crime thriller or a juicy bacon double cheeseburger of a family drama, it might not hurt to leave a bit of room for Indian Summers – an refreshing, alluring, vividly colorful salad of a period piece, with perhaps just the right amount of drama and intrigue to fulfil your palette. Try it, and if Indian Summers is not to your tastes, you can always order something else next time. Bon appetite.

Indian Summers premieres Sunday at 9/8c on Masterpiece PBS.

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