Last night, Masterpiece Theatre unveiled a super-sized episode of Indian Summers. We are plunged immediately into the action in the Himalayan hill station of Simla in 1932. Alice Whelan, fleeing a faithless husband in England and passing herself off as a widow, arrives with her baby, where her brother Ralph is private secretary to the Viceroy. On the train she meets a rather nice missionary named Dougie Raworth who is traveling with Sarah, his harridan of a wife, and their young son. While Dougie is full of compassion, Sarah is definitely not a good person, a racist, and not to be trusted. The train unexpectedly stops in the middle of nowhere. Dougie and his assistant Leena leave the train to find out what the problem is. It turns out that a small boy has been left on the railway track, poisoned for being a half caste. Dougie and his assistant Leena save him, calling him Adam. Sarah is not happy at being left behind on the train without a word from her husband. It’s clear that something is going on between Leena and Dougie. I would suggest that Dougie work on his poker face when it comes to his wife.
Aafrin Delal works as a clerk for the British, to the disgust of his sister Sooni, a budding revolutionary who supports Gandhi and daubs anti-British slogans on the walls. When a portrait of Queen Victoria is daubed with revolutionary Home Rule graffiti, the police ransack the town to find whodunit. Of course Aafrin’s sister was involved, but she manages to get away with it. Aafrin also has a Romeo and Juliet thing going on with young woman named Sita who is Hindu. Aafrin’s parents are against the relationship because they are Parsi. They share some smooches between some saris in the marketplace before she bites his hand and draws blood — marking her territory perhaps? If they are trying to keep their relationship a secret, they might want to try meeting someplace other than a crowded market.
Ralph has bought an amazing house in Simla which Sarah questions. Why buy a house when you can rent? But Ralph has his sights on staying in India for the foreseeable future. He also introduces Alice to his houseguests, two Americans named Eugene and Madeleine Mathers. When Alice attends the first evening of the season at the Empire club, quick thinking Madeline hands over a ring to help with her cover story of a grieving widow. Missionary wife Sarah smarms her way over to Alice. Spying the ring on Alice’s finger that wasn’t there before, she coos that she’s sure they’re going to be good friends. Ralph is lured into a side room and locked in with Madeleine in a side room who takes the opportunity to practically suck his face off. There’s also some underskirt action going on. Ralph is pissed when he figures out it was Cynthia’s idea to lock him and Madeleine in the room. This leads to Julie Walters smelling his fingers. “Lucky girl,” she wisecracks, “But wash your hands before dinner.” She wants Ralph to marry soon, to increase his chances of becoming the next viceroy and Madeleine has the big bucks to help Ralph in his career. Seems Daddy pulled out of the market before the 1929 crash. When Aafrin shows up later at the club with a document that Ralph had insisted he find, (Ralph’s a bit of a jerk), he steps in and takes the assassin’s bullet that was meant for Ralph. Alice insists on breaking protocol by not only taking care of him but also accompanying him to the hospital.
Julie Walters is just sublime as Cynthia. She spends most of the episode cleaning, and lighting cigarettes off of shrine incense. There is an amazing scene where she steps out of the boiler suit she is wearing to reveal a stunning evening gown underneath! Cynthia is clearly not posh, but someone who has seized any opportunity available to make something of herself. She is a matriarch, the center of Simla society, welcoming them to the Royal Simla Club, with this cheery opening, “Cheats! Adulterers! Slaves of Empire, here to rule this glorious nation for another six months, I want no moaning about my milk punch.” This is not a woman that you want to cross, you get the sense that she will stab you in the back, before you’ve realized it. She has a somewhat maternal/inappropriate relationship with Ralph. Why has she hitched her wagon to his star?
Indian Summers was much better than I expected, it was certainly a nice place to spend an hour. No expense has been spared to recreate the period, from the hairstyles to the clothing. It’s a virtual feast for the eyes. You can almost smell the scent of the flowers in the air, hear the birds in the trees. The men are handsome and the women are stunning with a surprising amount of nookie going on even in the first episode. There’s also more than enough shenanigans and intrigue to justify watching further episodes. While it’s not a cozy family drama like Downton Abbey, I want to know more about these people and this period.