Airing on Masterpiece on PBS, the sweeping drama series Indian Summers (already in its second season in the UK) is set in 1932, when the height of privilege was to be British in India and the high point was the summer season at the hard-partying colonial retreat of Simla in the Himalayan foothills. One focal point of the story Aafrin Dalal (Nikesh Patel), an idealistic clerk in the elite Indian Civil Service, who wins the trust of politically ambitious bachelor Ralph Whelan (Henry Lloyd-Hughes) by saving his life.
During a recent panel interview and an exclusive sit-down with Collider, actor Nikesh Patel talked about what made him want to be a part of this project, getting to know these characters through their sibling relationships, all of the research he does, the biggest challenges of shooting on location, that Season 2 will show the direct consequences of the actions and mistakes the characters make in Season 1, and how tight the cast has become in such an immersive environment.
Question: What was it about this that made you want to be a part of this project?
NIKESH PATEL: I knew that it was a big drama. I got sent the first three scripts and just from the opening descriptions of the train coming in, I thought, “Okay, this is on a scale that we’re certainly not that used to, back in the U.K.,” with the ambition of it and the scope of it. I was really attracted to it because Paul [Rutman] is writing a story about the British in India that’s as much about the Indians as it is the Brits. The story has been told before, but it’s been preoccupied with the ruling classes and the Indians are very much on the periphery, looking in. That’s not what Paul is interested in with this. The story is richer for the fact that both Brits and Indians are fully-fledged, three-dimensional characters. It’s not a case of one side against the other. That’s not how history worked. There were people with their own vested interests. Aafrin, for example, is aspiring to join the civil service and keep his hands clean of dealing with politics. A character like Ralph has lived in India and spent more time there and is more comfortable than he is back in England. Those shades of grey make it really exciting to be a part of. It was all of that that drew me to it.
You really get to know everyone through their sibling relationships, which is something we haven’t really gotten to see before.
PATEL: Yeah, the siblings are really key, for the Whelans and the Dalals. And they’re strong relationships, as well. I’ve worked with Aysha Kala, who plays Sooni, a couple of times before. You can’t help, on screen and off, leaning into that dynamic, in the way that family can be as cruel as they can be kind to each other. What I like about playing all of that stuff is that you can be really mean, but then it’s all forgotten the next day because it’s all love. I think that brings a really human side to the story, as well. All of the politics of the period comes out of the personal dynamics, whether it’s familial or romantic. We’re not making a docu-drama, we’re making a drama, but it’s one about a really interesting bit of history that’s ripe to visit.
When you’re a part of something so epic, do you ever worry about getting swept away in it, or did every feel like they had their place?
PATEL: I wasn’t worried, per se, about getting lost in it. There comes a point where you look at your bookshelf and think, “I need a break from the 1930s.” I’m being a bit facetious. There’s a wealth of stuff to immerse yourself in for research. Henry [Lloyd-Hughes] took some time, before we started filming the first series, to go to the British Library in London. They’ve got a huge archive with an Indian collection. It’s a treasure trove with these brilliant first-hand accounts and photo albums. It’s interesting because a lot of the first-hand stuff that’s been kept – records, diaries and photos – have been kept by Brits. You’ve gotta dig a little deeper. It’s much harder to find Indian accounts from the period. I don’t know if that’s because people didn’t keep them, at the time, or because they haven’t been kept, over time. But that said, it was still possible to get a sense for what life was like. The eye-opening thing was that it’s at once a period that’s quite removed from where we are now, but at the same time, you’ll read a turn of phrase and think, “Oh, wow, that’s a word that we use all the time now.” I think it’s a fascinating period, especially knowing that Paul has conceived 50 hours of drama to take us up to Partition, and that’s a heck of a journey to be a part of. Hopefully, we’re lucky enough to see that out.
What have been the biggest challenges in shooting on location in Malaysia?
PATEL: Just the challenges of battling against nature and the rewards that ensue in that. There were snakes. We’ve had flying monkeys. We’ve had lots of scorpions. We were filming in the Whelans’ house and we were so high up that a cloud blew through the building, and we had to stop filming for that.
The 10 hours of Season 1 seems like such a huge journey, and you’re already exploring it again for Season 2.
PATEL: Yeah, it’s kind of crazy. We’re three years on. It’s 1935 for Series 2. I read the first episode like a fan going, “What’s happened to all these people that I’ve fallen in love with?” You want to know what happens next, and Paul is really good at going, “This is what I think the audience wants, so this is what I’m going to do instead.” And I think it’s better for it.
Does he tell you where things are headed, or do you just get to learn about what’s in each script?
PATEL: Paul had spoken to each of us individually about our arc for Series 2, but you want to know where things are going next. Obviously, I can’t really give away anything because I want you to know as little as possible going in, but it’s exciting, in the best way. It’s a combination of the slate being wiped clean, but there are also direct consequences of all of the actions that have taken place, story wise, three years ago. The mistakes or the decisions that the characters have made have consequences.
Is it challenging to immerse yourself so deeply in this world, and then finish the season and go do something else while you’re waiting for the next season?
PATEL: Yeah. Also, it’s six months away from home. It’s a 14-hour journey, so you can’t really pop back for the weekend. We’re really tight as a cast, as well, which isn’t always the case on a job like this. Sometimes you can’t stand the sight of each other, once you’ve finished filming, but I’m happy to say that that’s not the case.
Indian Summers airs on Sunday nights on Masterpiece on PBS.