Who doesn’t like to see an occupying empire crumble? I’m not sure why the era of the British occupation of India is so specifically fascinating, but it has all the elements that make for good drama: politics, race, classicism, religion, two vastly differing geographies and cultures, and plenty of corruption.
Indian Summers focuses on the community in Simla, where, in the summer, the whole of the British power-players would retreat from the stifling heat of summer into the cooler foothills. The matriarch of the area’s British country club is Cynthia Coffin (the deliciously scheming Julie Walters), a widow, who by sheer force of will is keeping things as-is. No Indians are dogs are allowed in her club, which is the center point for the summer’s social life. Booze flows, political deals are negotiated, affairs spark and gossip spreads. But it is 1932, and things are changing. A fellow by the name of Gandhi is in the news, and the “locals” are getting restless.
Ralph Whelan (Henry Lloyd-Hughes) is the private secretary to the Viceroy, being groomed as the next great politician. India-raised, but totally British, Ralph seems to try to do what is best for the India he loves, but there is always an undercurrent of shiftiness behind his good looks. This guy has secrets. His sister Alice (Jemima West) has her own, having shown up from England with no husband but a young child. She tells people her husband is dead, but her slithery new “friend”, the missionary’s wife, has her number, and uses the knowledge for blackmail.
On the Indian side, we get to know the Dalal family for contrast, especially the young clerk Aafrin (Nikesh Patel), who unwittingly takes a bullet for Ralph Whelan in an assassination attempt, and gets a promotion for it. But the higher up that Aafrin Dalal moves in the British government (which he steadfastly defends to his political sister), the more he finds that the British he idolizes play a lot dirtier than he ever knew. It doesn’t help that sexual tension starts to brew between the buttoned-up Aafrin and his boss’ “widowed” sister Alice.
I’ve read some complaints that Indian Summers brushes the politics and the region with broad, stereotypical strokes, whether depicting the physical landscape or the look of the locals. Having no background knowledge of the region, this doesn’t bother me. I just look at Indian Summers as a political popcorn soap opera. It is one of those shows where outside research will give you a more accurate description of what was going on in India at the time. But if I want sheer entertainment, you can’t lose watching Julie Walters chew up scenes as the grand dame of her own crumbling empire.