British television is on an epic over-drive. After the success of Downton Abbey, their latest series Indian Summers, which premiered on February 15 on Channel 4 HD opened to encouraging reviews. Set in Shimla during the initial years of the Indian nationalist movement, the 10-part series lays bare the repressive policies and laws of the British government that ruled Indians before independence. Produced by Channel 4, UK, this is their most expensive TV series at 14 million pounds. Series creator and writer Paul Rutman looks back at the show’s making, his special connection with India, owing to his wife being from the sub-continent and the gamble taken by the producers. Excerpts:
How did you develop an interest in period drama?
I did not start thinking about this until I visited Darjeeling for a personal trip with my family. That was about three years ago. My wife and I checked in to a hotel at the hill retreat. We saw hordes of photographs of Britishers posing from the ’30s and ’50s hung up on the walls of the hotel. They were not British aristocracy but ordinary citizens who were posing and looking into the camera in a very regal fashion.
It felt both poignant and painful. There was an unreality about it, looking back. India is an economic power-house nowadays, its GDP is on the point of outstripping the UK’s. That is when I realised there is this perplexing bond between Indians and Britons, which dates back to the days of Raj.
You have lived and worked in India before. Tell us about that period.
I became interested in India when I was 23 when I first came here on a teaching assignment to Ooty, at the Lawrence School, Lovedale, Tamil Nadu. It was in 1993 and that was more than two decades ago and I had just completed my graduation in English from Cambridge. I was asked to teach drama at the school. In between terms, I would go and visit Darjeeling for personal work. The atmosphere of Ooty was nostalgic. The shock of the cold, as well as the landscape, especially in January – when I first arrived – felt very familiar. It wasn’t hard to see why homesick Brits might have alighted on these hill-stations as a refuge. The race-track, the Ooty club, as well as the lanes and rose-covered cottages, the resolutely European names of buildings and roads, still carried a flavour of that homesickness. Back then there were still a few Anglo-Indians living in and around Lovedale, retired planters who now bred horses. They were the last relics of those days.
How did that visit influence your thought process?
Upon my return I met with British director Simon Curtis and he asked me to think about a TV series based on what I saw. I was writing a detective series called Vera, for the British network ITV and there were other projects in different stages of development.
What sort of research went into producing and recreating the period drama on screen?
Mainly books. I spent a long time reading, especially Jawaharlal Nehru’s autobiography and from the British side Indian Embers by Lady Lawrence. I spent most of 2013 reading and then in 2014 I wrote over a four-month period. I consulted Raaja Bhasin, a historian in Shimla, Alistair Bruce (who also was consultant for the TV series Downton Abbey) and Uma Chakravarti, a historian from Delhi.
How did you shape up the characters and the storyline?
Being a spare part of an Asian diaspora gave me the confidence to write my way into the Parsi family of the Dalals, who are my central Indian family. I was interested in writing about Parsis, because in some ways this community found itself caught between the British and other parts of Indian society. Like the British, the Parsis are a sort of endangered community, fighting for their survival. The mood of elegy, of decline, infects the Dalals, as much as it does the British figures in the story.
As for the British family – the Whelans – they are what would, at the time, have been called ‘blue-bloods’. They have been working and living in India for many generations, and are more at home in India than in England. In fact, they have some status here in India, but it’s not matched back in Britain, where they have few roots, if any. While the story and characters are fictional, with the exception of the Viceroy himself, I wanted to feel confident that I could defend the world of Shimla, as we portray it – that the events that unfold resonate with history.
Is their currently an audience for such shows in Britain? Were you mindful of it at the time?
I try not to think about that for any of my show. You write something attractive and hope that it finds its own audience. Brits here spoke vaguely of having some distant uncle or relative posted in the Punjab at one time. But as a consensus there is a sense of shame that prevails among the British about that period of their history. So while making the show I was under no illusion that people on the right and on the left would be uncomfortable with what is shown.
The first season of the 10-part series starts from 1932. Why have you selected this period?
It was a repressive campaign led by the Viceroy during and between 1931-32. It is the point on history when the British administration comes down heavily on the Indian Nationalist movement. Another 10 episodes to be commissioned in March-April.
In the past there have been shows such as Jewel in the Crown and the film A Passage to India.
I was 14 when Jewel in the Crown released but I was more interested in playing my guitar then. I made a conscious decision to stay away from those serials. So I never watched Jewel in the Crown, while writing this series, so as not to cloud my vision.
What will be the future of Indian Summers?
The idea is that the producers and Channel 4 have already commissioned the second season of the show. It is set in 1935 as it is the then Viceroy Lord Willingdon’s last summer in India and also the government of India when the British are about to launch a new law. We are hoping to do five series till 1947, when India gains independence. But it is a big gamble that the producers (Channel 4 and CBS) have undertaken. We are waiting to see if it pays off.
Some of the characters in the serial have an accented English, even the Indian characters. How was the casting done?
The casting was done out of Mumbai, London, and Kuala Lumpur and we have an eclectic cast. The honest truth is that these actors were best suited for their roles. We gave them dialect training to create that period, not just for Asian parts, but also for the Scottish and American roles.
You are recreating Shimla of the ’30s, but the series was shot in Penang, Malaysia. Why?
We scouted possible locations in India such as Cochin, Ooty and Munnar but it was not suitable. Secondly the Raj-era properties in Shimla have been taken over by the Indian government so it would not have been feasible to shoot there.