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Review: PBS’ ‘Indian Summers’ takes on British colonialism with ‘Downton’ notes

Los Angeles Times Television Critic

“Downton Abbey” meets “The Jewel in the Crown” in another lush and lovely artisanal soap from PBS’ Masterpiece, this one with top notes of jasmine and waning British colonialism.

Set in India 1932, “Indian Summers,” which premieres Sunday, follows the increasingly popular Brits-on-the-cusp-of-change narrative, but with even greater ambitions, as its lyrical opening makes clear.

In the subcontinent’s green and sultry heat, a ragged young boy, an untouchable, is pursued by other boys, who jeer and throw rocks. Unaided by the adults he passes, the boy looks up to see a wooden rocking horse that seems to glide above the tree line. As the lowest in the land, he might as well be gazing at the steed of a god.

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The British are coming.

As summer rises, the few who run a country of millions flee to the cool reaches of the Himalayan foothills, into the welcoming embrace and steely maneuverings of Cynthia Coffin (Julie Walters), proprietor of the Simla Country Club.

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With a clever and admirably economic shot of the club’s sign being cleaned, writer Paul Rutman and director Anand Tucker set up both time frame and theme. Mahatma Gandhi is gaining support for independent rule, but for Cynthia, the members of her club and certain portions of the native population, white British supremacy remains the natural order.

But there are two cultural caste systems at work in “Indian Summers.” At the center of the British story is Ralph Whelan (Henry Lloyd-Hughes), a pukka sahib of the first order and private secretary to the British viceroy. His lovely sister Alice (Jemima West) has just returned to India with her young son after many years in England. Their relationship roils with many things, including Alice’s inability to fall in with the old ways.

She cannot understand, for example, the hateful racism of Sarah (Fiona Glascott), wife of the local missionary. But Sarah’s anger is as personal as it is political; she is trapped by her marriage and lowly status within the club. But even Ralph must toe the line; an American heiress (Olivia Grant) is being thrown at him because, according to Cynthia, it is time he married if he has any hopes of becoming the next viceroy and preserving the old ways.

Which are beginning to fray, and it isn’t only the oppressors who feel less secure. Outside the club, the notion of Indian independence also divides native families. Like Ralph Whelan, Aafrin Dalal (Nikesh Patel) is the pride and hope of his parents. He is secretly courting a woman of a different caste until a surprising event puts him under Ralph’s wing and Alice’s spell, much to the disgust of his own sister Sooni (Aysha Kala) who is a devoted follower of “Gandhiji.”

Like “Downton Abbey,” “Indian Summers” is both more and less ambitious than its historical setting indicates. To a certain extent, the tension between characters symbolizes larger historical issues. But though the circumstances demand a higher degree of brutality than in “Downton,” the coming revolution is often used simply as a backdrop for romance, and this becomes, at times, a bit silly.

Fortunately, Cynthia can be found around most every corner, and it’s a star turn for Walters, best known as Mrs. Weasley in the “Harry Potter” films. Even amid a constellation of strong performances, she shines brightly, taking on the Hail Britannia culture that has found new purchase in the States. By turns delightful and diabolical, Cynthia reveals the racist and classist roots of nationalism, the icy political calculation that fuels “tradition.”

Maggie Smith’s “Downton” dowager may be the tarter-tongued, but Walter’s doyenne feels dangerously more like the real thing.

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‘Masterpiece Classic: Indian Summers’

Where: KOCE

When: 9 p.m. Sunday

Rating: TV-14-D (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 14, with an advisory for suggestive dialogue)

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