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Ruling Class And Revolution Clash In Sumptuous 'Indian Summers'

In <em>Indian Summers</em> Sooni Dalal (Aysha Kala) is a bold revolutionary, determined to become a lawyer.
Matt Brandon
New Pictures and Channel 4 for MASTERPIECE
In Indian Summers Sooni Dalal (Aysha Kala) is a bold revolutionary, determined to become a lawyer.

Set in 1932, Indian Summers is a tale of two communities. The British rule India, and in their annual tradition, they retreat into the hills — with all their Indian servants — to stay cool during the summer. But while the British gossip over gin and tonics, the Indian streets are brewing with calls for independence. The new 10-part British TV drama — about empire and race and relationships that cross those lines — has just had its U.S. debut on Masterpiece on PBS.

Series creator Paul Rutman tells NPR's Robert Siegel that the inspiration for the show came to him during a family vacation to India. "My wife is Indian, and so we go back from time to time," he says. The family was traveling through Darjeeling and they went into a boarding house that had been turned into a very fine hotel.

The manager wanted Rutman to see something: "She opened this cupboard and out fell this sort of giant treasure trove of old photographs of how it was back then in the '30s and '40s," he says. The images showed ordinary Brits, dressed up and living grand lives. In the background were their Indian servants — "none of whom seem to be allowed to look directly to the camera," Rutman says. "They were always looking down, looking off."

Interview Highlights

On how the British — even if they were not high in the class system — lived very privileged lives in India

It was expected of people in India, and it was very much understood that, you know, a minimum of 12 servants to run a household, was recommended, and anything less than that was tricky. ...

What we've depicted is small-fry compared with the reality. ... People used to ... journey from Kolkata all the way up to Simla which would take over three days, carrying all their worldly goods and chattels on elephants and horseback with lines of coolies — as they were known — carrying them all the way up to the hills. And people did because they could, because they could get away with it. It was an exhibition of their power and supremacy.

Julie Walters stars Cynthia Coffin, the doyenne of a British social club in <em>Indian Summers</em>. Henry Lloyd-Hughes plays Ralph Whelan, Private Secretary to the Viceroy of India.
/ New Pictures and Channel 4 for MASTERPIECE
New Pictures and Channel 4 for MASTERPIECE
Julie Walters stars Cynthia Coffin, the doyenne of a British social club in Indian Summers. Henry Lloyd-Hughes plays Ralph Whelan, Private Secretary to the Viceroy of India.

On Julie Walters' character, Cynthia, who runs the club which is the social center of this British community

I was talking to Julie about this the other day, and we both get very upset when people describe her as a sort of monster, or purely wicked. I think she's a very compelling character. There's a rather sort of bitter survival instinct in her. You know, she'll do anything to protect her patch. I think she's someone who is willing to kind of say the things that other people won't say. ...

She's a sort of Cockney East End girl, a military wife. And has made a life for herself out here in India. And I think for her and for many people like her, home is India now. It is her club, and so she's there. She's hanging onto her life and to this idea of empire in a very personal way. Because if Britain loses India, then she has no home.

On the sexual encounters of the era

When the Brits first went out in the beginning of the 19th century, it was fine; British entrepreneurs gladly took Indian wives and nothing was thought of it. It was only towards the end of things after the mutiny in the middle of the 19th century, in those last years, that actually the British changed their attitude.

They decided that this was not the way to carry on and we had to be much more defensive about the way we lived out there. And the Indians should be kept at arm's length. And increasingly they were seen as something perhaps as a little more dangerous. So I think it was a live front line. And I think it was probably considered more acceptable for British men to have Indian mistresses, and rather less acceptable for British women to explore romantic encounters with Indian men.

On the way the show is received in England

I think the interesting thing is that we tend to sweep the whole thing under the carpet. The British are very uncomfortable talking about the Empire. And so in fact, the show when it came out did begin a bit of a debate here about that sort of thing. But I think in general people on the sort of the right wing, politically, tend to look back on the Empire as a rather wonderful thing, as a sort of grand episode in our history. And people on the left see it as something that we should castigate ourselves over.

And so in a way, it's sort of that rather kind of bipolar response to the whole thing makes it quite fertile territory. It makes it an uncomfortable viewing over here in the U.K. But you know, I think the story of Empire is in general is something that many different countries can respond to. That sense of kind of waning power of having let go of something. I think it haunts the British still. I think we're still bothered by it. We still have this feeling that maybe we were bigger, better people then, or a greater power then.

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