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Good People and Bad People Meet in Shimla

The UK television show ‘Indian Summers’, set in the 1930s Raj summer capital of Shimla, has been Channel 4's most expensive drama ever. As it concludes its finale this weekend and readies for a second season, will it go beyond an understanding of the British Empire as largely a case of bad manners and political incorrectness?
Noting that he had so far quite enjoyed “Indian Summers”, the very well-received and much-hyped television series on Britain’s Channel 4 which is set in 1930s British India, an academic friend of mine wondered aloud, tongue firmly in cheek, whether he was being insufficiently ‘postcolonial and ironic’ about the whole thing: “It does make the empire look quite fun, which is obviously worrying.” 
It’s fair to say that there is sufficient ‘postcolonial’ awareness in Britain (some here denounce it bitterly as unacceptable ‘postcolonial guilt’) that most of the liberal mainstream media tries hard – though not always successfully – to ‘do India’ differently. There are far fewer snake charmers, edible monkey-brains and burning widows being rescued on screen these days. Indeed, if the highly successful filmThe Best Exotic Marigold Hotel and its recent sequel are anything to go by, India has turned into the place where unhappy Brits (and not just the hippies and spiritual seekers of yore) go to be emotionally and personally rescued. 
Thirty-odd years after the screening of the last high-profile television series set in the subcontinent during the Raj – ITV’s “Jewel in the Crown” (1984), based on Paul Scott’s The Raj Quartet – nostalgia for the heyday of empire may not have quite gone away. But it has certainly mutated into something that is more aware of South Asian voices and perspectives on histories yoked together by the British Empire. “Indian Summers” has emerged into a British cultural milieu that is, if not precisely historically informed – there’s a long way to go before we get to that point – certainly more cognizant of the subcontinent’s diversity as well as the fraught nature of the legacies left behind by the Raj. Set in the Raj’s summer capital of Shimla sometime in the 1930s, the series dramatizes lives on either side of the ‘civil lines’ and the relations between their various denizens: British officials, planters and missionaries on the one side and, on the other, Indian clerks, nationalist cadres, young educated women and rich landowners. But the focus is largely on the Dalal family – Parsis who are divided politically on the question of British rule – and Leena Prasad (played by Amber Rose Revah), a young ‘half-caste’ woman in love with the benign British missionary, Dougie Raworth (Craig Parkinson).
So does this series – which does offer very substantial parts to Asian actors – indeed offer us more to work with than the routines of 30 years ago, or is it more a case of Mira Nair’s 2001 film Monsoon Wedding with more politics and no songs?

Certainly, much like Mira Nair’s box-office success, “Indian Summers” emerged onto television screens bringing into the drab greyness of the late British winter a welcome pop of what one critic calls“gorgeous saturated colours”, one of the many on-going functions of screen renderings of sub-continental life in Britain. The series is reputed to be the most expensive produced by Channel 4 and it certainly proffers all the pleasures of period drama – lavish costumes from two cultures, gorgeously made-up hair, eyes and lips on a parade of relentlessly good-looking actors, and, of course, lush green Indian scenery – except that, for ‘infrastructural’ reasons it is, in fact, Penang that provides the sets for this drama leading to the curious phenomenon of coconut palms en route to Shimla on an unrecognizable railway line. Still, East is East, I suppose, though one wonders whether it would have been utterly impossible to get the actors, including Asian ones, to pronounce a handful of Hindustani words properly (the gutturally garbled Tamil is beyond rescue). There are hopes that the series will cross the Atlantic and become a phenomenon that marries the American successes of those other British cultural super-novae, “Downton Abbey” and Slumdog Millionaire. Success in the challenging sphere of American popular culture is still a very special mark of achievement in Britain, particularly as British actors routinely seek success in Hollywood.

In recent years, though, as India’s economy provides lucrative business opportunities, there has also been much talk of Britain’s other ‘special relationship’ – that with the former jewel in its imperial crown. It’s a relationship in which the unveiling of a Gandhi statue in front of the Houses of Parliament generates encomiums from politicians who have just concluded high-powered armaments contracts, platitudes to peace sitting comfortably alongside billion-dollar killing machines. “Indian Summers” emerges into this milieu where Gandhi and Churchill stand side by side, former foes now amicable, if stoically silent, companions. Sanjeev Bhaskar, the comedian best known for the series “Goodness Gracious Me”, which put British Asian humor firmly on the map, plays an ‘untouchable’ politician, Dr Kamble, in the series – which, to its credit, does raise the question of significant fractures within Indian nationalism, not least that between Gandhi and Ambedkar, with the former trying to retain his position as sole spokesman for all Indians. Ahead of the series, Bhaskar wrote in The Guardian about his childhood memories of Shimla, adding what has now become a familiar theme in encomiums to the British-Indian relationship: “There is a unique complexity to the relationship between India and Britain. Master and servant at one time, certainly, but there was a bond that made it more than acceptable for people like my parents to choose to dwell in the land of their former oppressors.”

Showing that “not all Indians were saints and not all the British were sinners”, as Bhaskar puts it, “Indian Summers” is, on the face of it, about the “complexity” of the imperial relationship. And in some ways, the series does break the mold. In Britain, where it is still far more common to hear bullishrefusals to ‘apologize’ for empire than acknowledgements of the damage done by colonial rule, this particular Raj-inspired series gives more than nominal space to anti-colonial and nationalist voices, mainly through the character of Sooni Dalal (Aysha Kala) – the sister of one of the lead characters, a young Parsi woman who gets caught up in nationalist fervor. Impressively enough, it is not just Gandhian nationalism and Gandhi’s version of non-violence that makes it to the script; there is also acknowledgement – in the form of the militant nationalist, Nalini Iyer (played by Ayesha Dharker) and the double-agent, Sergeant Singh (Sudarshan Chandra Kumar), that there were anti-colonial forces in India who were prepared to use violence, deemed, of course, ‘terrorists’, by the British Indian government. (There is, however, oddly enough, no Muslim character of any significance in the series so far with the exception of the ‘fixer’, Kaiser, played by Indi Nadarajah, who works for the arch-villain with the sinister name, Cynthia Coffin, played by Julie Walters). Through Sooni, we get long speeches not only on the evils of colonial rule but on the ways in which that rule is made possible by collaborators like her own brother Aafrin (Nikesh Patel), who works as a civil servant. 
But it is not long before that old, beloved – and entirely questionable – chestnut is wheeled out: the idea that Indian anti-colonialism was made possible only by English education, indeed, that the colonizer taught the colonized how to be anti-colonial. Darius Dalal, Sooni’s father (played by Roshan Seth) berates her for criticizing collaboration with imperialism: “The British gave you the education to sit here scorning your own father.” The Trinidadian historian and later, Prime Minister, Eric Williams once noted wryly that it was almost as though the British had invented slavery for the sole purpose of abolishing it. Much the same case is often made with the British imperialism – an empire seemingly set up in order to teach people how to be anti-imperial and make their own nations.

The real problem, however, with the televised version of “complexity” presented both by Bhaskar and “Indian Summers”, however, lies in the understanding of empire itself as largely a case of very bad manners and political incorrectness. If only we were less rude, the television Viceroy confides to his private secretary, Ralph Whelan (Henry Lloyd-Hughes), so much unpleasantness could have been avoided. In some sense the whole question of Saints versus Sinners is irrelevant: colonial rule is not about good people and bad people – who populate all cultures, needless to say, with most people being a bit of both – but about structures of exploitation which inevitably involve collaboration from among those who are ruled. Merely removing the signs which say “No Dogs or Indians” and allowing princely rulers into the Shimla club changes very little in a system that is about extracting the maximum economic profit from land and labor. Colonialism is not primarily a tragicomedy of manners involving racist matriarchs and caddish youths who leave young Indian women pregnant and forsaken. If it were, it would have been much more easily overthrown – just a question of pointing a pistol at the said cad like the angry father, Chandru Mohan (Mano Maniam) does in the series – and its legacies far less messy, violent and long-lasting than they have been.

Where “Jewel in the Crown” was more indebted to Rudyard Kipling’s bombastic and self-regarding paeans to imperial rule, it is fair to say that the writers of “Indian Summers” owe something to EM Forster’s far more nuanced and critical vision of the Raj. Indeed, many key scenes in the series so far seem to explicitly reference his brilliant novel, A Passage to India: the Sipi Fair at the Shimla Club to which Indians are admitted once a year for a garden party; the trial of a ‘native’ questionably charged with a horrendous crime; nubile Englishwomen who go exploring erotic carvings in jungles; the truth-telling outsider to British society who will be cast out for his solecisms. The last takes the form of Ian McLeod, played by Alexander Cobb – a stereotypical drink-prone Scot rather than Forster’s more straitlaced Fielding). We also have the well-meaning not-racist Englishwoman who truly loves India and ‘gets’ Indians, a role given here to Alice Whelan (Jemima West) who falls in love with Aafrin Dalal, a character who, a bit like Forster’s Aziz, is at first conflicted by his imperial affinities but over time, becomes increasingly anti-colonial.
In “Indian Summers”, it appears as though love and friendship across racial lines – however fraught – will provide the true conquering solution to the challenges thrown down by politics and power. Forster too had a vision of friendship as the horizon of emancipation, the point of connection between human beings where race, religion and identity become irrelevant. But his great novel famously ends on the realization that it’s not that simple – that all manner of profound changes – including metaphorically driving “every blasted Englishman into the sea” will have to take place before it becomes possible to become great friends.
The season finale happens this weekend, and it remains to be seen what manner of resolutions, if any, “Indian Summers” – now commissioned for a second series – will produce. In the meantime, there’s probably no great harm in sitting back and enjoying the costumes, color, and dashing villainy.

original from: https://in.news.yahoo.com/good-people-and-bad-people-meet-in-shimla-114509846.html