Friday, 20 February 2015

Indian Summer has arrived

Intrigue, mystery, family conflict and an exquisite setting form the backdrop as Julie Walters rules in this season’s new ‘Downton’.

Written by Melonie Clarke
Channel 4’s epic new period drama, Indian Summers, is set in the Himalayan foothills of Simla in 1932. Paul Rutman first started to pen his ideas for the series after being shown a hoard of photos dating back to the Raj in a cupboard in a Darjeeling hotel. This reignited a fascination with India and its hill stations that had smouldered ever since he’d worked as a young teacher in a southern Indian boarding school.

‘I found the atmosphere, nostalgia, weather and buildings of hill stations fascinating,’ he explains. ‘And these were photos of people like us, 80 years ago, having tea parties and trying to recreate this idea of England in an environment that wasn’t England.’

IndianSummer-Feb20-02-590Days of the Raj: tea parties and trying to create their idea of England in a foreign land

There have been countless stories of the aristocracy at the height of the British Empire so Rutman took the decision to show the lives of the ordinary people, his belief being that the personal stories are as important as the political ones in Indian Summers.

‘I thought about this whole world being either forgotten or swept under the carpet,’ he says. ‘Empire is still something that many on the right are quietly proud of, but a source of deep shame and self-castigation from the left. With Indian Summers, I wanted to ride those contradictions.’

So let’s meet the ‘ordinary people’ of Indian Summers, starting with the queen bee of Simla’s social scene…

CYNTHIA COFFIN (played by Julie Walters)

As proprietor of the British Club in Simla, little happens without Cynthia’s knowledge or consent. She’s glamorous and lives by her own code of ethics.

With a part like this, Julie Walters seems to defy the belief that good roles for older women just don’t exist. So why does she think she has continued to land such great roles at her age?

‘I don’t know. It does slow down. I’d already established a career, which makes it easier. The majority of stuff being made in film and television is about people in their 30s and 40s because they’re at the peak of their working lives, so there’s more drama around that.’ She continues, ‘It is changing now: there are more women writing and producing, more women in positions of power. To find a strong central role is very hard at 64, but I’m very happy playing Cynthia.’

IndianSummer-Feb20-03-590There’s plenty at stake for Ralph and Alice Whelan (Henry Lloyd- Hughes and Jemima West)

Indian Summers provided her with the kind of female lead that we usually associate with this award-winning actress. ‘I read the scripts and thought, this is seriously interesting,’ she says.

Despite the project being very ‘attractive’, Walters knew little about the era in which her character lives.

‘There was The Jewel In The Crown and Gandhi, but I didn’t know anything about the real lives, especially working-class folk being out there. In my head, things about the Raj had been about upper-class people ruling over the Indians. I spoke to Paul Rutman about it, and he said that just wasn’t true. He sent me a couple of books, Plain Tales From The Raj and Women Of The Raj, which were very illuminating. The majority of people out there were ordinary people, because it offered them a good life – the money was better out there.’


Walters says Cynthia Coffin was great fun to play. ‘She’s a Machiavellian personality, which I found really interesting: her morals are based on her practical needs, rather than right and wrong. She does things that aren’t right but utterly believes they are. She knows everybody’s secrets. And I love the entertainer side of her. She’s great fun, as well as having this darker side.’

Through the 1920s, long-simmering discontent between different segments of Indian society was exacerbated by the divide between ‘them and us’. Attitudes towards the Indian locals can be shocking to people today.

IndianSummer-Feb20-05-590A glimpse of life in the Indian quarter

However, as Julie points out, they are true to the time. ‘Those feelings were absolutely prevalent in that period. It’s about Cynthia keeping her position of power, which depends on British rule: that ignorance and arrogance that “we’re better than them” was commonplace. The racism grew the more power the British had out there – at the beginning, they embraced Indian culture. Cynthia adores her servant, Kaiser, but their roles are very carefully defined – they don’t cross any boundaries.’

So is there a bit of party-animal Cynthia in Julie? ‘We did have little get-togethers,’ she says, ‘but I’m too old – I like going to bed…’

Indian Summers is on Channel 4 on Sundays at 9pm.

Meet the Raj Revellers

Aafrin Dalal (Nikesh Patel)
Aafrin Dalal is the primary earner for his family and works in the lower rungs of the Indian Civil Service. This summer changes Aafrin’s life forever as he finds himself being used as British propaganda to destabilise the growing independence movement.

Nikesh Patel, who plays Aafrin Dalal, says: ‘I’ve not had many opportunities to be in a period drama, especially one with the scope of Indian Summers, and this is telling a story that my generation hasn’t really seen. Aafrin goes on this great journey, and the position he occupies allows me to be in most places where the story happens. It was a no-brainer, really.’

Darius Dalal (Roshan Seth)
Roshan Seth plays Aafrin’s father, Darius. A kind and liberal family man, he was injured in the First World War and is unable to work. He is an Anglophile, which is the cause of many arguments with his pro-independence daughter.

Roshan Seth says: ‘India is deeply wrapped up in itself, wondering where it needs to go and how. If India can’t explain itself to itself, nobody can! But I think there are lessons [in Indian Summers] for all of us as human beings. It’s a wonderfully nuanced work of art. It makes you look at who you are and what’s wrong with you – where your prejudices lie.’

IndianSummer-Feb20-06-590From left: Aafrin Dalal, Darius Dalal, Sooni Dalal

Sooni Dalal (Aysha Kala)

In her first big role in a TV drama, Aysha Kala plays fiercely political Sooni Dalal. She wants to become a lawyer and is determined not to let her gender get in the way of her ambitions.

Aysha Kala says: ‘It was great to have such a gutsy, ballsy female character to play, especially because I don’t think this story in history is told very often. It’s nice to have it seen through the eyes of a young female.’

Madeleine Mathers (Olivia Grant)
Madeleine, the daughter of a wealthy American industrialist, has arrived in India to look after her sick brother.

Olivia Grant says: ‘It got cooler as we went on, but at times I felt as if I was in a radiator. We were given these drinks called 100 Plus. After one of those, you feel immune to the heat. Once my body adjusted, I quite enjoyed it by the end. Although I did get bitten by a scorpion…’

IndianSummer-Feb20-07-590Madeleine Mathers and Dougie Raworth

Dougie Raworth (Craig Parkinson)

Craig Parkinson plays a kind and gentle man who runs the Mission School in Simla, caring for mixed-race children who have been abandoned. Dougie’s dedication to the school may not be entirely altruistic and this devotion is a source of constant friction in his marriage as his wife questions his true motives.

Craig Parkinson says: ‘I loved Dougie’s humanity. It was unlike any part I’d taken on before. He’s stuck, personally and professionally, from the very first episode, which was very appealing. It was a great challenge to play.’

Ralph Whelan (Henry Lloyd-Hughes)
Ralph’s intelligence and charm have seen him rise quickly through the ranks to the very top of the Indian Civil Service but his jovial persona belies a ruthless cunning. Unbeknown to his peers, Ralph has a chequered past that he will need to contain if he is to hold on to his position as the Viceroy’s most trusted adviser.

Henry Lloyd-Hughes says: ‘The luxury of playing a character in a 10-part series like this is that I get to spend so much time with Ralph and explore him in real depth.’

IndianSummer-Feb20-08-590Ralph Whelan and Alice Whelan

Alice Whelan (Jemima West)

Ralph’s younger sister, Alice, is played by Jemima West. Alice is a determined woman who returns to India with her young son after parting with her husband. She finds love in the hills of Simla but her new relationship, coupled with a revelation about how she and her husband parted, threatens both Alice’s happiness and her brother’s career.

Jemima West says: ‘I loved how there are so many stories going on in Indian Summers, including Alice’s. I really got a sense of atmosphere and period and exoticism. I got caught up in it completely.’

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