Julie Walters plays the glamorous doyenne of an English social club in the twilight era of British rule in India. Set in a subtropical paradise, Indian Summers explores the collision of the high-living English ruling class with the local people agitating for Indian independence. As the drama unfolds, the two sides alternately clash and merge in an intricate game of power, politics and passion.
Nature abhors a vacuum. When a person or even an empire leaves or falls in stature, a hole is left that requires filling. Sometimes it can even be a hit television show like the BBC's 'Downton Abbey' that is set to conclude after the upcoming series. With that gigantic black hole facing the network and its worldwide Public Television counterparts, a slew of successors have been rushing into the fray to fill the void. Shows like 'Call The Midwife' or 'Mr. Selfridge' and 'Grantchester' have been modest hits, but even these shows have their narrative weaknesses and may not last long enough to fill such an impressive scheduling hole. 'Indian Summers' on the other hand, offers up a lush and sumptuous exotic location, is set during a tumultuous time for the English Empire, and provides plenty of upper crust societal soap opera drama - but it may have too much going on for its own good.
If you were a member of English Society in India during the time when the Empire was at its height of power, it was very common for you to leave your regular city of residence and head towards the foothills of the Himalayas and enjoy the sweltering yet vastly cooler air of the mountains and escape the dreadful summer heat. Every year these resort-style towns would thrive with an influx of regulars and visitors on holiday and then contract at the end of the summer season leaving these places to be virtual ghost towns. For the esteemed widow Cynthia Coffin (Julie Walters) this is her routine. Ever since her husband passed away, her private English Only clubhouse has been the place to go for some fine English food, some merriment, and quite a bit of socializing. It also gives Cynthia a chance to play puppet master as she is often exposed to important government and industry power players. She's even given ample opportunity to arranges power relationships as she does with the handsome Viceroy Secretary Ralph Whelan (Henry Loyd-Hughes) and the beautiful young American woman Madeleine Mathers (Olivia Grant).
As much as Cynthia attempts to maintain the established English traditions, threats from the Nationalist movement as well as empathetic English socialites aim to upend everything generations Englishmen like Cynthia's deceased husband have built. Issues like rampant poverty in the Indian quarter for example, acts of vandalism, as well as an assassination attempt on Ralph Whelan's life, and a politically charged murder are just some of the things that crop up. While the English go about operating as if everything was normal and fine, it's the people like Aafrin Dalal (Nikesh Patel) and his family as well as a well-meaning reverent Doug Raworth (Craig Parkinson) and his bored and discontent wife Sarah (Fiona Glascott) who have traveled to the area to manage the orphanage who will feel the impending political upheaval firsthand.
While tensions rise and the old traditions are threatened from every direction, the hope for a better and more inclusive society begins to simmer in the summer heat. Through their own way, everyone will have to face their past while bracing themselves for an uncertain future. As men like Ralph and his sister Alice (Jemima West) lose a little piece of the pie, Aafrin and his father Darius (Roshan Seth) and their family will be the ones who are forced to carry on and pick up the pieces in order to create a united India. As romantic affairs take heat, violence, intrigue, and murder flow through the sweltering summer winds.
'Indian Summers' is a lush and beautiful looking show with an incredibly talented cast of characters. The setting of the year 1932 and the rise of Indian Nationalism proves to be a rich well to draw some strong politically motivated story arcs from, and the beautiful scenery is the perfect place to set the show. Where 'Indian Summers' may have a hard time winning some people over is the fact that so much is happening and happens so quickly that it's very difficult to get a handle of who each character is and what their relationship to the story will be. To be blunt and to the point with that particular aspect, it required two viewings of the first 80 minute episode and all the way through the second episode before I had a grasp of what was going on and who everyone was and how all of these political as well as social plot threads were going to potentially intersect. 'Indian Summers' is a bit of a stumble out of the gate and takes some getting used to, but when you put the time into the show the payoff in the later episodes is well worth the effort.
At just ten episodes, a lot of important history happens in the background. To that end, I feel like if my high school social studies class where we spent an entire term on India and the fall of the English Empire in the region hadn't happened over 15 years ago and was a little more fresh and in my head, I would have had an easier time getting what was going on in the show. A cursory hit through the highlights of historical events in India during the early 20th century probably would have helped things greatly. So much of the politics is kept to side and only glanced at, but it still can be tough to glean the meaning of said event and the impact it has on some characters.
On the face of performances, 'Indian Summers' brings out the best of its impressively assembled cast. Henry Loyd-Hughes plays an English traditionalist with a fine sense of moral superiority to perfection, especially when we begin to learn that he has more than a few skeletons stacked up in his closet. Then you have Craig Parkinson as Dough Raworth who plays our empathetic audience character. He's the man we're supposed to feel for because he's conflicted. On one hand, he's a member of the English upper crust, but at the same time he's also a sympathizer of the Indian people - especially the children. Then we have Nikesh Patel's Aafrin who is caught between being an "English" Indian man and the rising Nationalist movement who need intelligent men like him in their cause. Jemima West's Alice is also a fine character to follow as a strong-willed woman who has escaped her husband with their infant child to live with her brother in a land she barely remembers. I wish I could speak more of her character turns, but that would lead to more than a few spoilers. At the head of the show is Julie Walters as Cynthia. Considering her prominence in the show's marketing, it's interesting to see that she's the show's important background player who should never be underestimated.
How does 'Indian Summers' rank in the pantheon of BBC produced shows? That's a tough one to gauge. Part of me really likes how 'Indian Summers' works and how it's put together, but at the same time it is absolutely a show that has entirely too many focal point characters who each have their own subplots and side stories going on. Without giving anything away, I will say that these characters get whittled down and a lot of these plot threads get resolved, but I'm worried that next series will bring about even more characters to muddy the waters further. Of the shows to come along in the last couple years that seem to have been created to succeed 'Downton Abbey,' I would say that 'Indian Summers' has the most long-term story potential given the time period and the politics of the era. But will it last? We'll just have to see how Series 2 turns out. This first series, while bumpy at the start, was pretty darn good and a fine source for some thoughtful entertainment while also playing to the best aspects of its soap opera roots. If you're curious, give it a look, but be mindful that you may have to get through the first couple episodes before the central story starts to hook you.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'Indian Summers' arrives on Blu-ray thanks to PBS Masterpiece pressed on three Region A locked BD50 discs. Housed in a standard three disc case, each disc opens directly to their respective main menus. All extra features are found on Disc 3.
For a show with such high production values and beauty, the 1.78:1 1080i presentation is absolutely stunning. From the opening credits of each episode to the closing frames, this is an incredible looking show. Detail levels are immaculate, from every fine facial feature to the incredible landscape to the intricate clothing - every inch is on display. Colors offer a fantastic "wow" factor that can't be ignored and are easily appreciable from the very first frames of every episode. With such a rich color pallet, primaries have plenty of pop - especially reds and greens but rich navy blues also have a lot of presence. Flesh tones appear healthy and accurate. Black levels are deep and inky black leading to a very noticeable three-dimensional effect. Without any compression artifacts to speak of, the entire first season of 'Indian Summers' enjoys a flawless video presentation.
As rich as the video presentation is, each episode of 'Indian Summers' also enjoys a crisp and clean English DTS-HD MA 2.0 audio track. While I feel like a full 5.1 track would have given this show a lot more range and give the series a little extra presence, this stereo track is fantastic. For a dialogue driven show, you never have to struggle to hear what is being said - unless you have trouble with thick accents, of which there are many. The film's score and sound effects give each track a nice feeling of balance as there is plenty of space around each audio element to give them real resonance. The track keeps to the midranges well enough and the volume balance is pitch perfect, again this is a largely dialogue heavy show so there aren't any real spikes in the tracks to speak of and when some action kicks in, the track handles the jumps just fine. Imaging is strong and effective with some nice channel movement, but again, for how sumptuous this show is, I wish a 5.1 option had been included. That is really the only gripe I have with the audio for this show.
Behind The Scenes of Indian Summers: (HD 1:07:38) The cast and crew discuss the conception of the show, why there are so few India-focused dramas on British television, as well as what it was like shooting in Malaysia and the immense amount of work that went into the production design, in particular, the period accurate costuming.
It's nice to see a solid drama come out that takes on an important era of history that often doesn't get a lot of exposure. 'Indian Summers' offers an interesting drama that unfolds against the backdrop of a unique political climate. While the show takes some time to get rolling, it is an engrossing and emotional ride that should please those willing to put in the time and effort. PBS Masterpiece has brought this complete first series to Blu-ray in grand fashion with an impeccable A/V presentation as well as a worthwhile behind the scenes documentary. Easily recommended.