‘Indian Summers’ rewards the patient viewer
Over the summer, PBS sent out the entire first nine-episode season of “Indian Summers” to TV critics.
Wise move, that. Because this particular “Masterpiece” saga, set in the waning days of the British Raj, doesn’t take off right away. It waits on the runway, idling, promising a spectacular flight but sitting still.
Reviewing TV series is endlessly interesting, not least of all because of their fluidity. A movie is a movie, a contained piece; you see it in its entirety. But a TV show is a trail of episodes that can get better or worse in time. You have to watch to find out, keep your mind open, rein in your final judgment.
If I’d only seen the first two or three hours of “Indian Summers,” I might have given it a disappointed review. Those episodes are interesting enough, as they introduce the characters and set the troubling scene of a world where signs read “No dogs or Indians,” where Gandhi is in jail, where British and Indian souls live together but apart in an untenable colonial situation. It’s 1932 and independence — which comes in 1947 — is still almost a generation away.
And the first episodes are visually stunning, too, as they bring us into the Himalayan hill town of Shimla, where the local civil servants who rule India take their summer vacation. “Indian Summers” doesn’t look like a typical “Masterpiece,” despite the many British accents; the color schemes are vibrant and the fields of tea plants lush. The title sequence says it all, as a good title sequence should, with bursts of volcanic color exploding over sepia images from the series. Like the hatred among the classes and cultures, the tones on “Indian Summers” are anything but muted as the repressed multitudes begin to take action.
But, at first, the story lines are fragmented and listless. It all seems muddled. And then, at some point in episode three or four, when the characters and their story lines finally cohere, when the themes of impossible love and social rebellion begin to connect emotionally, “Indian Summers” becomes a formidable and thoroughly addictive narrative. It becomes the kind of ambitious drama that shows how political situations determine personal lives, how brutality — physical and psychological — can filter down from the top, how social change gains momentum based on decisions of the heart. Gandhi is off-stage, but his mission of independence from British rule, and his imprisonment for it, reverberate through the story.
Ultimately, “Indian Summers” fits in quite respectably, if not triumphantly, beside other well-known stories of the Brits in India, including “The Jewel in the Crown,” “A Passage to India,” and “Heat and Dust.” It’s a melodrama, for sure, but one with enough intelligence to make larger points about the problems of British rule through those fighting it and those still clinging to it — some of them Indians afraid their nation won’t be able to stand on its own.
At the center of “Indian Summers” is the handsome Ralph Whelan, played with a Ralph Fiennes-like cool by Henry Lloyd-Hughes. He is the private secretary to the Viceroy, hoping to be next in line and willing to do almost anything to fulfill his ambition. When the story begins, his sister, Alice (Jemima West), shows up for an indefinite visit, having left her husband in England for reasons that are unclear. Like almost everyone else in “Indian Summers,” she has a few secrets, one of which the snooty British local Sarah (Fiona Glascott) figures out and uses as blackmail — despite the fact that Sarah’s own marriage is ridden with secrets.
Ralph and Alice are one of three sets of brothers and sisters in the series, each of whom clash in significant ways involving core values. Aafrin Dalal (Nikesh Patel) is a young Indian who is wounded when a mysterious man tries to assassinate Ralph at the end of the first episode. He becomes Ralph’s assistant, and he beams proudly as his prospects are looking up. But his sister, Sooni (Aysha Kala), is swept up in the movement against British rule, which makes Ralph’s life complicated. The third brother and sister, Gene and Madeleine Mathers (Edward Hogg and Olivia Grant), are Americans looking for financial security, with Madeleine trying to secure an engagement with Ralph.
Behind all of the drama sits Cynthia Coffin, the owner of the resort called the Royal Simla Club. She is among the most malicious characters in the series, pouting and posing and using her influence to oppress anyone who disagrees with her. She is played by Julie Walters with a grand haughtiness that is endlessly entertaining to watch. The camera zeroes in on her singing a song, or smoking a cigarette, and you can see the ill will emanating from her being. It’s a compelling performance, a miraculously faceted take on malevolence. Heroes are hard to find among the many narrow-minded and defensive characters in “Indian Summers,” but leave it to Cynthia to track them down solely in order to corrupt them.
MASTERPIECE: INDIAN SUMMERS
Starring: Henry Lloyd-Hughes, Jemima West, Aysha Kala, Julie Walters, Nikesh Patel, Patrick Malahide, Roshan Seth, Olivia Grant, Edward Hogg. On: WGBH 2, Sunday, 9 p.m.