Here in the UK, if you’ve even casually glanced at Channel 4 over the last month, then there is no way you will have missed the relentless build up to Indian Summers. In fact, those trailers were so omnipresent you were likely to get a glimpse of this new drama even while merely channel-hopping. Supposedly one of the biggest budget productions in the channel’s 30-year history, the publicity juggernaut for Indian Summers combined with the potential to fill the void left by Downton Abbey only emphasises this new drama’s potential prestige. Was the build-up worth the wait? I believe that answer, over time, will prove to be absolutely.
The advertising does its job of enticing many viewers. The UK ratings of around 2.5 million were still impressive (even if it was trumped by the BBC’s The Casual Vacancy of J.K Rowling fame) showing that those trailers – whether quick teasers or full 2-minute mini-epics – really pack a punch. The featured inviting montages show us various and contrasting lifestyles of Brits and the people of India during the latter days of British rule in the 1930s. There’s clearly joy, intrigue, heat, repression, and drama… high drama shot to near-perfection with its vivid colors and lighting. One particular cut of a trailer has the increasing volume sound track of the chug-chug of a steam train, effectively building the tension.
I’ll keep spoilers to a minimum on the first episode. A running time of around 75 minutes (minus commercial interruptions) is a feature-length opener with the remaining nine episodes appearing to be a more standard 45 minutes each. I am not sure what you may or may not know about the parts of history when Britain still owned India, and to be honest it may not matter too much. By this I mean Indian Summers delivers just enough entertainment and allure to satisfy many a palate, certainly in readiness for the second part. As I watched this first episode, I couldn’t help recalling how I might have felt seeing the first Downton Abbey and being introduced to so many characters set in a time almost a hundred years ago. Quite a task you might think.
Although the ensemble is impressively large, there are a bunch of main characters we can thankfully count with both sets of fingers. We have Alice (Jemima West, The Borgias), over-heating but radiant in orange, visiting Northern India with baby in tow and husband left behind in England. It seems her classically handsome brother Ralph (Henry Lloyd-Hughes, The Inbetweeners) is Private Secretary to the Viceroy, and eager to succeed even further with ruling (and with women?). There is a couple with marital issues from the outset. Sarah (Fiona Glascott) appears a little frigid and inappropriately opinionated, and Dougie (Craig Parkinson) is in love with an Indian co-worker, Leena (Amber Rose Revah). Then we have civil servant worker Aafrin (Nikesh Patel), who is attempting to do the right thing and support his family – even though his rebellious sister Sooni (Ayesha Kala) objects to British rule. And of course, Julie Walters (Billy Elliot), who is a high member of society as Cynthia, who owns the local Royal Simla Club (one of its signs being cleaned early on reads ‘No Dogs or Indians’).
Add to that further supporting players, none of whom we truly know how significant they could be to future plots, and viewers are forgiven if they get a bit lost in all this. Indian Summers does a fair job explaining a few things along the way (that Aarfin is a respected clerk while his sister is a vandal of the headquarters, for example). Much of the other dramatic developments are more than ample to keep you focused such as a cross-country train stopping because a young boy lies dying on its tracks. As the title may perhaps suggest or even promise, there is some truly breath-taking scenery captured by the inviting cinematography, and we are witness to some vibrant colors and flawless lighting. The artistry is so beautiful here then (as are most of the people it turns out) it is perfectly natural to be reminded of A Passage to India or even Martin Scorsese’s underrated Kundun.
As the trailers hinted, Indian Summers succeeds in building tension as we admire the landscapes and get to know our characters. Alice clearly has her own personal history here at the huge house her brother bought for them. Her husband has wronged her too, but we are yet to know why and how. An assassination attempt reveals more, but not enough. And you don’t need a degree in British Colonial History to get a tight feel for what might be coming. You could justifiably argue that the drama is spread a little thinner than we would like. Yet, had it gone for the throat even in the extended running time, we would now be grumbling it was rushed and had not developed character.
I cannot possibly account for the tastes of two million Brits (or Americans when it lands there sometime later this year), but while I am not singing aloud at the top of my voice the praises of Indian Summers, I can certainly vouch for its appeal. A slow-burning, intricate, gorgeous to look at production, which did more than enough for little old me to absorb the so-far sedated action. I look forward to the second episode, firstly because I like what I saw – the history, the characters, the scenery – but I also want that intrigue to be quenched.
When you open a bottle of red wine, I’m talking quality red wine that ages well, it is often advised to let it sit for a while before taking the first sip. Here’s hoping all of you have the opportunity to luxuriate in Indian Summers and its sumptuous production design as the drama unfolds.
In the UK, Indian Summers airs Sunday nights at 9pm on Channel 4. It’s premiere episode is still available on Channel 4 On Demand via the website. It will air in the US later in the year on PBS’s Masterpiece.