PBS’ hunt for another “Downton Abbey” has perhaps been overblown — how often, honestly, does a phenomenon like that come along? — but if “Indian Summers” is any indication, it’ll be great fun watching the network try. Picturesque, wonderfully soapy and set against a rich historical backdrop of British colonialism in the 1930s, the series builds in intensity over its nine episodes, the main drawback being that it doesn’t end so much as run out of time. Still, that amounts to a quibble given the likelihood of more “Summers,” which, in tone and topic, brings to mind David Lean’s “A Passage to India.”
Writer Paul Rutman starts in a fascinating locale, an Indian retreat in the shadow of the Himalayas, where the British come to frolic and fornicate as if they were college students on spring break. It’s 1932, and while Mahatma Gandhi, discretely off screen, is staging a hunger strike and pressing for independence, that all seems relatively far away, at least initially.
“No Dogs or Indians” reads a sign on the Simla Club, presided over with circus-like gusto by Cynthia Coffin (Julie Walters), a military widow whose disdainful and bigoted attitudes reflect the worst of colonial rule. She has taken a special, almost maternal interest in Ralph Whelan (Henry Lloyd-Hughes), the ambitious young right hand to India’s British Viceroy (Patrick Malahide). Whelan quickly becomes involved with an American heiress (Olivia Grant), although like almost everyone else here, there are secrets in his past he would like to remain hidden.
The same goes for Whelan’s sister, Alice (Jemima West), who returns to India with a baby, but without her husband — a scandal practically waiting to happen. Much of the story, meanwhile, unfolds from the perspective of a young clerk working for Whelan, Aafrin Dalal (Nikesh Patel), who carries the weight of his family on his shoulders due to his ailing father (Roshan Seth, a direct link to “Gandhi”).
Aafrin is sucked further into the British hierarchy after an assassination attempt on Whelan’s life. And he’s forced to contemplate his priorities, especially with his idealistic sister (Aysha Kala) agitating for India to break free of British control. In “Masterpiece” terms, “Indian Summers” features all the customary staples, from the impeccable period trappings to more than a few forbidden romances to stark class divisions — exacerbated here by the caste system.
Indeed, the dangers associated with interracial liaisons are palpable, while a missionary’s wife (Fiona Glascott) perfectly captures the feelings of superiority toward the local population as juxtaposed against the pecking order within British society. Lobbying for a banquet seat closer to the Viceroy, she mutters tartly, “We’re in our place, down with the rubbish.”
Although some of the characters fall squarely into hero and villain categories, the dense, beautifully cast production, directed by Anand Tucker, creates notable subtlety surrounding key players and their evolving relationships — foremost among them Whelan, whose motivations and actions shift throughout. And just in case anyone’s attention starts to lag, later chapters feature a murder mystery and trial, reinforcing just how little Indian lives matter to their overlords.
The cautionary flag, as noted, is that Rutman doesn’t appear terribly concerned about loose ends, seemingly recognizing that he’s playing a long game, one without a clear exit plan. In that respect, the production not only has the makings of a lengthy and addictive run, but proves something of a metaphor for the protracted, sorry tale of British adventures in India.