We know all about our own colonial history under the British Crown, but few of us have done a cross study of other British colonies, such as the one in India, where the PBS Masterpiece series Indian Summers takes place. Politics drives the period drama as much as romance and personal clashes. Here are a few hard facts that will add to the viewing pleasure of those familiar with Indian Summers while bringing newcomers up to speed in time for the second season.
What Era is It? The Late Afternoon of the Empire
This new season of Indian Summers unfolds in 1935 (the first took place in 1932). The sun is setting on the British Empire in India, where it first gained its foothold in 1858 and has since been referred to as the British Raj. While the British Crown in London worries about Adolph Hitler in Germany, the British Raj — 3,600 nautical miles away in its seat in New Delhi — contends with Indian nationalists and Indian princes eager to fully rule. Leaders Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru and Mohammed Ali Jinnah have been pressing for independence for decades, which they will have by 1947, but at the violent price of India’s partition. Learn more about the inspiration for the series from writer/producer Paul Rutman (Indian Summers and crime drama Vera).
Who are the Characters in Indian Summers?
Lord Willingdon (Patrick Malahide): The oppressive lord is the Viceroy in India between 1931-1936, and he survives an assassination attempt. The Viceroy is the British Crown’s appointed leader in India and Lord Willingdon is the only historic character in Indian Summers.
Ralph Whelan (Henry Lloyd-Hughes): Ralph is British, but was born and raised in India. He’s the Viceroy’s ambitious, but conflicted secretary who has the support of the best connected person in town — Cynthia Coffin (Julie Waters), the owner of the Royal Simla Club who likes nothing better than money — and control.
Madeleine Mathers (Olivia Grant): A rich American heiress, Madeline hopes to win the heart of bachelor Ralph Whelan.
Maharajah of Amritpur (Art Malik): New to Season Two, the Maharajah represents one of the richest Stately Princes and presents a challenge to the Viceroy’s team as they negotiate the Government Act of India. The British Parliament passes the act in 1935, which allows eleven provincial assemblies to control their local affairs for the first time.
Aafrin Dalal (Nikesh Patel): Straddling the worlds of the British administration and nationalists, the civil servant and double agent Dalal is also the handsome love interest of Ralph Whelan’s sister, Alice Whelan (Jemima West).
Darius Dalal (Roshan Seth), Roshana Dalal (Lillete Dubey) and Sooni Dalal (Aysha Kala): Aafrin Dalal’s parents are Darius, an intellectual who supports loyalty to the British, and Roshana, a pragmatist looking for a good marriage match for her daughters. Sooni, Aafrin’s sister, is a nationalist who plans to become a lawyer. The family is Parsi — with ancestral roots in Iran — and practice the religion Zoroastrianism. When Sooni falls for a Muslim man, it adds to the count of star-crossed (and ethnically-crossed) lovers in this series.
Where is Indian Summers Set — and Where is it Filmed?
The series is set in Simla (also spelled Shimla), which rests in the Himalayan foothills and is so far north in India it’s nearly as close to Tibet, Pakistan and Nepal as it is to New Delhi, the governmental seat of the British Raj (British administration) since 1931. Remarkably, the entire government moved its operations 250 miles to the cooler northern clime just for the summer season. Hardly a boring government retreat, Simla was also the playground of British aristocrats and other British immigrants.
Indian Summers is known for its stunning scenery and sets, but not only is its Royal Shimla Club entirely fictional, the entire series was filmed in Penang, Malaysia, not India. The show producers found Simla had too many modern developments and discovered exactly what they needed on location in Penang Hill, which had also been a British colony. Unfortunately for the actors — so frequently dressed in suits and long gowns — Penang is very hot and humid and the opposite of a cool summer respite. Learn how the set designers carved out a set in the jungle. As the designers were rebuilding a structure to create the Royal Shimla Club, they discovered abandoned set elements from Indochine (1992).
PBS Masterpiece: Indian Summers season two airs Sundays at 10pm, September 11 through November 20. Revisit episodes of Indian Summers season one online.