Yes, there’s a big Indian population
there. We got lucky. We found
these incredible buildings falling
apart in the jungle and have renovated them over a year or two.
I have an actor friend who is
acting in the second part of the
series, Arjun Mathur, and now I
understand why he is in Penang
shooting the show.
He’s fantastic. He’s great in it.
So you saw these photographs, and
I know you have worked on TV before.
Did you think about the fact that there
hadn’t been a show about the British in India
since The Jewel And The Crown?
That’s right. It was in the early 1980s. I think there is a feeling in Britain — and it doesn’t apply to the States in the same
way — that people don’t really care about the colonial history. It’s been swept under the carpet. The story of the empire
is not taught in schools. This is the generation that fought in
the Second World War and we regard them as heroes. But
what no one wants to talk about is that they also provided
over the last days of the empire.
So, is it true that British colonial history isn’t taught in
schools in England?
Yes, that’s true. When the show started last year there was
a debate and a number of people said we should be teaching
it in schools. I think every country has a bit of their history
that they rather not talk about. The problem with that is
mythologies, which aren’t based on truth, spring up.
Was it a hard sell then to do a multi-part series on the
British colonial history in India?
My very first conversations about this were with Simon
Curtis (executive producer of the show and also a film director). He’s an old friend. We had immediate interest from others, including Charlie Pattinson, who came on board as an
executive producer. It actually wasn’t a hard sell. And we had
support from the Masterpiece team.
Perhaps the timing was right because no one had touched
this period for some time.
In terms of writing the characters, especially the British
characters, you have given all sorts of dimensions — some
who are outright racist like Julie Walters (Cynthia Coffin)
and others who are nuanced such as Ralph Whelan (Henry
Lloyd-Hughes). What was the thought you put into that?
I spent about six months reading books, memoirs from the
British side, history books and also Indian memoirs. The
truth is that there were a lot of good inten-
tions from the British side, but there
was also clearly a certain level of
Then there were others who just
loved being in India, a life they
couldn’t have dreamed off.
Actually when they came back to
Britain, they weren’t at home
anymore. I wanted a spectrum
of characters to play all those
On the racism thing, for me, the
interesting question is why are people racist, or are they. I tried — if it
doesn’t sound too paradoxical — to
explore that, or investigate these characters
with a little bit of compassion as well. Like the missionary’s wife character, Mrs Raworth, is clearly quite racist.
But it is also a product of the situation at home, misery and
insecurity. That’s much more interesting to me.
It’s interesting you say that some of them went back and
realized that England was really not their home. Even Ralph’s
character and his sister were born in India. Although they
lived a privileged life, they are much happier in India.
I think for them Britain was someplace you were sent to,
you read about it. They were raised in India; they had an
idyllic first few years and then put on a boat to go to boarding school in England. They were told they would love it, but
they found out that they hated it. Their experience of Britain
is a few kind of institutions.
For many of them, the first chance they got, they came back
to a place they regarded as home.
In a way the tragedy for a character like Ralph is even more
than that of Alice (his sister). He is an Indian, but he didn’t
have the means to say I am Indian, because that choice was
not available to him.
That so true. He was born in India, so he was Indian.
Yes, what did he have to do with Britain?
There are some really interesting scenes where Ralph is sitting on the floor and eating at the house of Bhupinder, his
main servant. Bhupinder appears quite familiar with Ralph,
a few times even putting his hand on his British employer’s
Ralph goes to Bhupinder’s house because they have been
friends since childhood. You see that in the writings of Ruskin Bond, who is sort of the last voice of the Anglo Indians.
He wrote a lot about the longing as a child to go play in the
bazaar, but he was always trapped indoors and his father
would not let him go out. Going to the bazaar offered him the
freedom. I think for Ralph it is almost the same story.
Yes that’s the character — the little boy who is the missionary’s son who wants to go study in the school of Indian
orphans. Tell me about the Indian characters. You have a
range of them. You have Aafrin Dalal (Nikesh Patel), who
really believes in the fairness of the British.
Yes, he is a product of his time. From the early 19th century there was the policy of encouraging English-speaking
schools and you have generations of highly educated Indians
who completely absorb British culture. They know more
about British culture than they do about India.
I think Roshan Seth’s character Darius (Aafrin’s father)
and the Parsis were the product of the time where they would
go between the two cultures.
It’s complicated for Aafrin, because he is trying to find a
way, he is grappling with himself, to be an Indian. But he is
doing it in a parlance that is entirely British. It’s interesting
to me that all the historical characters — Nehru, Gandhi,
Bose or Jinnah — they all went off to Britain, they were
lawyers in British chambers, went to school there. India is
now trying to leave that sense behind, that Britishness.
I was interested in Ramu Sood (Alyy Khan), the tea
planter. He to me is the Indian businessman, the entrepreneur. He’s quite a modern character. He gives a lie to the
British belief that the Indians are children, they can’t possibly run their own businesses, their own affairs. Actually he
does it better than the British do and he has to deal with that.
Obviously there is a second part coming up. So, there aren’t
absolute changes in the characters. But I loved the little revo-
lution you bring when Aafrin and his father walk into the
British club. It’s significant for the moment.
They have to go step by step. I saw in books like Nehru’s
autobiography where he is very honest about sensing that for
a long time he felt he wasn’t Indian. It was only during his
20s that he discovered his Indianness. In a way that was part
of his relationship with Gandhi. I found that very moving
and honest, and his account was very useful.
I read a lot of Indian fiction also — Rohinton Mistry and
Vikram Seth, although they don’t cover the same historical
period, but I got the world of the families from those books.
I also wanted to ask you about how each episode works mov-
ing forward, the mystery of what happens to Ramu Sood for
instance. You don’t realize in the beginning that the show will
start to become a courtroom drama, almost like a thriller.
In the UK, people often write six-part series, unlike in the
US. The advantage of having 10 hours is that you can pick
stories up slowly, drop them for a couple of episodes and then
pop them back in. What I enjoyed about having that range of
storylines was that we could have episodes, like a courtroom
drama and then go back to another story in the next episode.
Having a bigger a canvas enables you to try and make each
episode rich and hooking. And they don’t all feel the same.
Hopefully it’s a world that people can escape to, it’s a different world that many viewers haven’t seen before. And it
offers escape, and it’s also quite challenging. It’s not a world
that seems to be ending into a safe place. n
Roshan Seth, left, and Lillette Dubey as the Dalals in Indian Summers. The series, which will premier on Masterpiece on PBS September 27, is the story of Ralph Whelan, below right, a British man born in India. But it is also story of Aafrin Dalal, below left, an Indian loyal to the British.
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