A Television Review by Akash Singh
NOTE: SPOILERS OCCUR!!!!!!!
The latest offering from PBS Masterpiece bears all the hallmarks of a prestige BBC period drama, yet buoyed significantly by a distinct setting that gives it a far greater sense of vitality than its narrative so far achieves. Indian Summers begins in the year 1932, a year notable for the imprisonment and hunger strike by Mohandas Gandhi. The year is in many ways represents the twilight of the British Empire, a period when it was collapsing round and round without it becoming noticeably apparent that such a thing was happening at all. By the end of that decade, the entire world would be thrown into the whirlwind and the final blow would be dealt to any hopes that the British Imperial Empire would remain a force at all. The British subjugation of the Indian subcontinent has been the subject of a plethora of artistic interpretations in a variety of mediums and Summers is a worthy entry. The story may wobble, but there is in the premiere a subtlety worthy of commendation, buoyed by a steady pace. The quiet is just enough to where those subtle moments jab sharply through the air all on their own and that’s welcome, because the over the top moments here are obnoxious. The soapy elements of Summers are keeping it back from reaching its full potential, yet there’s nevertheless a significant amount going for this new offering.
The best part of Summers by a considerable margin is its ability to pull back and simply observe the elements of colonial India that ought to be make anyone with even the most lackadaisical moral compass feel uncomfortable. Imperialism has never been about civilization, its primary driver has always been the conquest and exploitation of others for the sake of a nation considering itself to be superior in every way. The myth of bringing a civilization to the savage masses was nothing but a euphemistic coating crafted to cloak true savagery with the faint vein of benevolence. That state of mind is present in every frame, the British heightened by director Anand Tucker’s camera. That deferential bow is just as dehumanizing as one would expect it to be, drowning in the indemnity of inhumanity. The camera moves over the sign on the Royal Simla House, where in gold letters it says without any hint of irony whatsoever: “No Dogs or Indians Allowed.” As British civil servants are on a train, going through the countryside, impoverished countryside Indians can be seen, trudging through the insufferable heat. “I wonder how they can all stand it,” Alice wonders out loud, shifting uncomfortably in her seat. “Well,” her companion across the table responds pithily, “it’s different for them.” The camera quietly moves on, but the line lingers, never quiet leaving the space no matter what occupies it.
Summers most closely shares its narrative pedigree with the popular Downton Abbey, which had the best effect of introducing more people to the joys of Masterpiece programming. Downton arrived with a keen eye for understanding and dissecting the class differences at the twilight of the British aristocracy, primarily through the Granthams upstairs and their servants downstairs. Then it devolved really quickly and became a soap opera about dumb rich people that somehow still garners best drama nominations. Summers has the difficult balancing job of not only portraying the class differences within the British and Indian character circles, but layering in those constructs within one another as those character paths intertwine. There’s the aristocratic hierarchies so defined and entrenched in British societies and the caste system so prevalent in Indian ones, merging in a byzantine clusterfuck. Largely the show succeeds at that narrative treachery, but where those class constructs are displayed well, other tropes exist in abundance. Forbidden romance, for example, is almost always regarded with a bit of an eye roll in consideration of how cheaply it’s often used. In Summers, it’s mostly thrown so casually at the screen that it feels like the show is simply chucking those hollow stories in the hope that they largely stick and feel compelling and relevant. One of them succeeds, but that’s on account of the relationship being given some prior weight and not arriving out of nowhere.
That jarring narrative reveals what is so far Summers’s greatest weakness. Unlike most traditional pilot episodes, the episode rarely feels stuffed, as if the series is trying to show its potential audiences everything in the hopes they might like something. It does, however, drag significantly in portions. The premiere to note adds up to a running time of one hour and eleven minutes, a distance that feels above all like an unnecessary indulgence. Occasionally something will happen, puncturing the languid air, but the bubble will simply build upwards again. The opening of the young child with stones being cast at him was fraught with an absolute tension, primarily because there was a knowing sense that something was about to go wrong quite quickly. That tension remained strong throughout the episode, even providing a segway into the most authentic romance of the hour. Other storylines were not so lucky. Sooni being a nationalist rebel fits neatly into the series’s political and ethical paradigms while providing a neat gender role reversal. But the storyline is executed so far in such a jumbled fashion that emotions run high and abandon logic at several interludes. Similarly, Dalal’s accidental shooting while he’s in front of Ralph is exciting but happens far too suddenly A surprise attack being a successful surprise is a god, if not great, thing, but it has to be built upon something. Here at least is an intriguing conflict – the assassin had shouted something, something that latched into Alice’s psyche. The assassin had called Ralph a rakshas, the devil, and Alice cannot reconcile the brother she had left behind as a child, a sudden burst of doubt ensnaring her mind and refusing to let go. The Indian summer of Simla may remain the same, but the people within it are another matter entirely.
Great/Not So Great Moments Not Mentioned Above:
+“We have seven hours to make ourselves faintly civilized.”
+The “Persephone?” moment
+“I wish they wouldn’t always interrupt.”
+“Inqilab zindabad. Right on her fat German nose.”
+“From who? From whom?”
+“Just because a few Britishers are afraid of the sun, why do we all have to march up to the top of the hill like the grand old Duke of York?”
+“She had to let the cook go.”
+The arc of the young child Adam was poignant in ways I never expected it to be
+The gun in the fields is intriguing
+Temple lighter being used for cigarettes
-I am generally annoyed by the lack of episode titles by this point, so I’m going to just make one up for the posts and the alternative titles will also be down below.
Episode Title: Episode One
Alternate Title: Inqilab Zindabad
Written by: Paul Rutman
Directed by: Anand Tucker
Image Courtesy: PBS