"Indian Summers" is one of those period pieces only the Brits could do, as only they seem to have the courage to examine the warts of their history with an unflinching eye. This is a two-season mini-series and my only criticism is that is didn't run longer.
It is March 1932 and the ruling Raj has already seriously plunged into the explosively deep decline of the British Empire as it spirals into decay throughout India, punctuated by riots, rallies around Gandhi and myriad competing parties all jockeying for power and position.
Yet, seemingly oblivious, the British aristocracy observes tradition and escapes the sweltering heat of Delhi by moving the entire government to the cooler summer capital of Shimla, (in the foothills of the Himalayas) where peerage, entitlement, private clubs for English only and dressing for dinner remain the order of the day.
The world, meanwhile, continues to wallow in the Great Depression, as Japan invades Manchuria and Hitler begins his ascent to power. The Raj, however, is more concerned with inter-racial marriage, RSVP exclusive parties, who will get appointed to what commissions and how best to stave off home rule.
These are the closing days of the British Empire and we watch its futile, impotent efforts, notwithstanding highly proclaimed best intentions, to wrest control of a land too diverse to be denied a complex democracy.
Exotic, historical, and realistic describe this series done on a scale of David Lean and Lawrence of Arabia — you can’t not see the massive tea fields and think, “This is just too big, it’s gotta be CGI.” The joke, however, is slightly on us inasmuch as the series was filmed in Penang, Malaysia, not Shimla, owing to the modernization of Shimla and the remaining colonial structures of Penang.
In the U.S., we think we know pretty much everything there is to know about the nuances of making a television series, e.g., if the best thing about a series is plot, it’s going to wind up on a broadcast channel; if character is what you’re looking for, you’re going to wind up part of a cable audience.
But the Brits think there is a third element that often gets ignored over here in the Colonies called “acting,” at which they tend to excel. And excel they do in "Indian Summers."
Julie Waters (Harry Potter) is the conniving grande dame, Henry Lloyd-Hughes (The Inbetweeners — could there BE a more English name) is the Viceroy to be, but for certain interracial bedroom indiscretions, Nikesh Patel (Honour) should be arrested for stealing the series in his portrayal of a young Indian civil servant torn between what he is and what he could be, along with his love affair with an English (code for "white) woman… there's more of everything including people you love to hate and hate to love.
The depth of character actors in this series is impressive: Art Malik (True Lies), Roshen Seth (Gandhi), Guy Williams (Sherlock Holmes), Patrick Malahide (Game of Thrones), and Rachael Griffiths (Brothers & Sisters), just gets us started.
And wonder of wonders, they manage to do all this -- portray the transition of an epoch, the birthing pains of a nation, forbidden love between classes, race and status, the struggle between that which is legal and that which is moral -- they manage to do all that and more WITHOUT waving guns at one another in each episode.
This is an intriguing, provocative, and poignant series. Is it authentic… which is to say, does it present the era truthfully and represent the people accurately? I have no idea. I did not issue from the loins of British aristocracy, never been to India, and am conversational in its history only insofar as WWII and "Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom."
My point is that when you embrace a period piece you have to recognize it was written, directed and edited through the contemporary lens of revisionist history — it may or may not be authentic, but it’s not a documentary. So, if you swing onto Amazon Prime some night and fire up "Indian Summers" and hate it because they “got it all wrong” — you could be right. But if you don’t know any better, it’s a hell of a story with fine acting and stunning cinematography!
Enjoy the ride because unlike so many contemporary television series, you will not have to suspend disbelief.