“In India,” said Miriam Stoppard earlier this year, “we saw people living very simple, pure lives, with not very much, and it did make me think that somewhere in the west, we’ve gone off course.”
The 80-year-old agony aunt was reflecting on her experiences in series two of The Real Marigold Hotel, in which eight veteran celebrities stayed in a Keralan guest house as part of the BBC’s TV experiment to see if they might consider the region a nice place to retire to. The cunningly conceived reality show was inspired by John Madden’s The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel films, which saw the likes of Dame Judi Dench and Dame Maggie Smith get third-age third-world spiritual rejuvenation from Harrow-born Dev Patel’s hotel owner.
What Stoppard was talking about is an India that exists only on British TV. It’s an India seen from the eye of the post-colonial European beholder, a projection of western fantasies and a spiritual corrective to Britons’ presumed materialistic lifestyles. “When we sailed up the backwaters in Kochi,” recalled Stoppard, “we were surrounded by calmness, tranquility and the simplicity of village life, so different from our hectic lives at home.”
“I thought the Marigold Hotel shows were very sweet and charming, but they didn’t really have much to do with modern India,” says Paul Rutman, writer of Channel 4 drama Indian Summers. “India’s exploding and thanks in part to that energy, you feel that the 21st century will be the Asian century.” If you want hectic, suggests Rutman, forget the western way of life and go to Bangalore: “It’s a city experiencing an incredible economic surge. It has a kind of swagger and confidence you don’t get in the UK.”
What Stoppard said recalls what Edward W Said wrote in Orientalism, the Palestinian critic’s nearly 40-year-old study of the west’s patronising representations of the east: “The European, whose sensibility tours the Orient, is a watcher, never involved, always detached.”
Europeans have always gone to India and found what they wanted; now more than ever, if the recent spate of TV dramas and reality shows are anything to go by. What is India really like? British TV doesn’t really care. Instead, the point of India on telly is to serve as an exotic backdrop to western dramas of self-discovery. For instance, when the ITV drama The Good Karma Hospital started earlier this year, broadsheet critic Michael Hogan noted that all the India cliches were duly ticked off: “Bustling marketplace? Check. Dangerous rickshaw drivers? Check. Elephants and cows randomly roaming around? Check. Cute children playing cricket? Check.”
It was a mash-up of medical drama and post-Raj exoticism, in which junior doctor Ruby Walker exchanged cheerless Nottingham for a cottage hospital in sunny, beach-fringed Kerala run by Amanda Redman’s Dr Lydia Fonseca, that staple of exotic fish-out-of-water dramas, namely a Brit expat who’s as tough as old boots but has a heart of gold. Another character, Maggie Smart, was a mum from Stourbridge who came for her daughter’s wedding but couldn’t quite bring herself to back to the West Midlands.
Actor Phyllis Logan told What’s on TV that her character is “blown away by India, and has embraced the culture, the people and the sunshine. She’s desperate to be a part of it all, while her husband just wants to go back to Stourbridge.” You’ll remember Logan as Downton Abbey housekeeper Mrs Hughes; she’s moved from one Sunday night drama to another; from one that helped sustain British viewers’ illusions about what their class-stratified Edwardian past was like, to one that helps us bask in no-less deluded fantasies about what India is.
If The Good Karma Hospital were a holiday, it would be a package one, hermetically sealing visitors from anything challenging. But it was such a ratings success that a second series was commissioned while the first was being screened. By contrast, a British series that dealt with the dark side of the Raj, Channel 4’s big-budget drama Indian Summers – for all its palette of hot pinks, electric blues and saffron yellows, its symphony of saris and titillating cross-race dalliances – was cancelled after two series last year. Opening in 1932 at Shimla, the Raj’s summer capital, the Julie Walters-fronted show was envisaged by its makers as a five series, 50-part retelling of the birth of modern India. Writer Paul Rutman says he was inspired to write it after staying in a hotel in Darjeeling where he saw old Raj photographs.
“There were British people having tea and carrying on like Lord and Lady Muck, and in the background there were Indians. I thought that these stories needed to be told, capturing both sides, but giving the Indian experience a weight that hasn’t been put forward in this country before. Nostalgia for the Raj was never a huge interest to me. We’re so ignorant about the empire. It seemed right for a drama to recreate that lost world.”
However, viewing figures collapsed from 3 million to 1 million between the two series. “We felt very sad [the show was axed] because we were just getting to the interesting material,” says Rutman. “It was going to go on to the war. It’s a story I haven’t been able to finish. We continue to hold out hope that we can come back to it. Who knows?”
One supects that the story Rutman wants to tell, however, is not one that white Britons would paticularly enjoy watching. When we make a collective passage to India, we want the sanitised package holiday version.
Indian novelist and essayist Pankaj Mishra thinks that Britain is airbrushing its shameful past.He worries that what gets lost, in recent British films and in TV depictions of his homeland is what today’s India is really like. He argues there is “a uniform resistance within the British media to any sort of consistent coverage of the dark political realities of contemporary India, and, in particular, its far-right leader, Narendra Modi. Bollywood gets more airtime. “Perhaps,” he says, “it’s more consoling for many in Britain to think of themselves as civilising patrons and of the Indians as simple folk who can still be awed and impressed, rather than deal with the complex and often melancholy realities of these post-imperial and post-colonial peoples.”
Worse, he thinks that British attitudes towards India are mired in delusion and fantasy now more than ever, especially when it comes to depicting colonial rule on screen. “The further we get from the days of the Raj, the more comfortable many people in Britain – or perhaps just television producers – become with colonialism,” Mishra says. “And I am amazed by how many people tend to forget that it was, above all, a grotesquely racist enterprise that has cast a long shadow on race relations in Britain.
“It is hard to imagine Paul Scott’s The Raj Quartet, EM Forster’s A Passage to India, JG Farrell’s The Siege of Krishnapur, or even [Richard Attenborough’s 1982 film] Gandhi, with their unflinching gaze at the cruelty and absurdity of the British empire, being made now or achieving a high degree of success.”
That cultivation of nostalgia for the colonial era is a dangerous thing, argues Rajiv Joseph, a US dramatist of Indian ancestry, who wrote the recent play Guards at the Taj. “To view the Raj nostalgically, from my perspective, relates to Trump’s ‘Let’s make America great again’, which really means: ‘Let’s get back to being led by white males.’ In the US, there’s a certain nostalgia for the white male perspective, and the same it seems to me is true of films and TV about India. There’s always going to be the perspective that those were the good old days. But, of course, they weren’t.”
What is more, Raj nostalgia is a British luxury product that doesn’t appeal to Indians. “Among the Indian middle classes today, particularly those who come from families who lived in abject poverty, there is none of the nostalgia for the Raj that there might have been in previous generations,” says Sanjoy K Roy, one of the organisers of the current UK-India Year of Culture, “The Raj has nothing to do with their lives.”
Rajiv Joseph remembers an uncle showing him the statue of Queen Victoria in Kolkata. “I said to him: ‘Why are you showing me this?’ And he replied: ‘It’s hundreds of years of our history.’ And he was right. He wasn’t proud of it, but he didn’t want to ignore it.”
Can Britain depict its relationship with India without being stuck in delusion and fantasy? It seems a worthwhile thing to do in 2017 which, after all, marks the 70th anniversary of the end of British rule and India’s bloody partition (to be revisited by a special BBC season later in the year). Before that, two new films take up the challenge. Stephen Frears’s Victoria & Abdul traces the hidden relationship between the British queen and her Indian Muslim attendant Abdul Karim, with Judi Dench reprising her role as Victoria from the 1997 film Mrs Brown.
Judging from the trailer, Frears’s film looks a little like Mrs Brown 2, with the charming Abdul (played by Ali Fazal), like Billy Connolly’s Highland ghillie John Brown, cutting through the dreary phalanx of crusty old courtiers to cheer up our poor old queen, in one scene serving her a wobbly jelly for tea, which puts a smile on her otherwise spirit-crushed face. Indian journalist Shrabani Basu, whose 2010 book was adapted for the film, says: “The fact that there was a Muslim at the heart of the British administration at the height of the empire is something that is hugely significant.” Significant, too, is the fact that this relationship was airbrushed; Karim’s letters were destroyed and he was hounded out of Britain.
The Black Prince, written by Indian-born British actor Kavi Raz, deals with another little-known relationship likely to make nostalgists for the Raj feel queasy, this time between Victoria and Maharajah Duleep Singh, the last ruler of a Sikh empire. In 1849, Punjab was annexed to British India and the boy prince removed from his throne, placed under the guardianship of an army surgeon. Singh was cut off from his language, religion and culture, and eventually converted to Christianity.
“What’s striking is that the British government treated him terribly, but throughout his life, there was a relationship of great fondness between him and Queen Victoria,” says The Black Prince producer Jasjeet Singh.
“What we hope is to give proper weight to the terrible things the British did,” says the film’s co-producer Asa Singh Dhaliwal, “but at the same time from a British point of view – and I consider myself British – the film can be enjoyed not as nostalgia but as showing what really happened and yet has never been put on screen before.”
It’s a good point, since seeing what really happened might just help shake Britons out of the cosy sense of nostalgia and wish-fulfilment that dominates too many of our dramas about India.
The BBC’s Partition season will screen in the summer; The Black Prince is in cinemas on 21 July; Victoria & Abdul is out on 22 September; series two of The Good Karma Hospital is due on ITV next year
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