Durham, Theology, Jonathan Miles

Indian summers: A Tale of Theft and Betrayal by Jonathan Miles-Watson

Jonathan Miles-Watson, Durham University, Religion, Anthropology

On the 16th of February I sat down excitedly in front of my TV screen. It is rare that I watch live TV, I find the idea of my time schedule being dictated by television executives irritating and so as a matter of principle almost always avoid it. But the 16th was a special night; it was the launch of channel 4s much hyped ‘Indian Summers’.

‘Indian Summers’ with its promise to take us to Simla, the summer capital of British India, sent a wave of electric anticipation through me. I have spent a good deal of time living and working in modern Shimla, as well as thinking about how colonial Simla is reflected in the modern city and because place works upon us at the same time as it is working on it, to see Shimla on the big screen is to joyfully connect (through the screen) with part of myself. My anticipation was deluded however, for I was to be bitterly disappointed.

The last time that I was in India I spent a while on the plains, before travelling to Shimla. As I wound up the mountain road and caught my first glance of Shimla my heart warmed and I felt my body relax. The very sight of Shimla was curative and the aliments that I had been carrying on the plains vanished, but it was that moment of recognition, of greeting again a part of the self that gave me such joy. A similar scene occurs in Indian Summers, episode 1, when Alice Wheelan is traveling up to Simla and joyfully exclaims “It is just like I remember it”. Except it isn’t; it isn’t anything like I remember it. The architecture, the landscape, the climate, are all completely different. Instead of familiarity and recognition, it was like looking in a mirror and seeing an unfamiliar face staring back.

It turns out that Indian summers is not shot in Shimla at all, nor is it shot in the Himalayas, or even in India. It is filmed in Penang Malaysia. The directors seem to think that Penang is a good proxy being much like Shimla, but it is not. Shimla sits nestled in the Himalayan foothills, around 8000 feet above sea level, its air is crisp, its climate dry, its trees deodars that famously whisper in its breeze. It has that light that only the mountains have and sound carries in that peculiar way as the dull murmurs and gentle movements of langurs swirl up and around. George Town Penang, the location of the shoot , is located by the sea, at an altitude of 13 feet, it is hot and humid, with lush green tropical vegetation. The air seems thick and heavy and the background is filled with the buzz of insects.   The architecture of the buildings chosen in Penang is also out of step with Shimla. The Viceregal lodge, for example, is in reality a magnificent work of gothic architecture with views out over the high Himalayas. The building and site of the Viceregal lodge used here look more like a manor house on an American plantation.

Everything about the landscape is wrong and that matters, because, as my research has shown over and over again, to be a Shimlite is to be part of that landscape, to make the series in such an alien landscape is to destroy the authenticity of the work. What is more, to assume that Shimla can be passed off as a tropical island, presumably because it’s all the ‘orient’ , is the worst kind of orientalism. It reduces the identity and authenticity of a place to stock clichés that are made by those with no connection to the location. It is a betrayal of the unique nature of Simla then and Shimla now; it is a form of identity theft.

Not just the landscape but also the people that move over that landscape are hokey. Here was an opportunity to tell a really interesting story about a period and a people who connect to contemporary Britain and India without belonging to either. But instead of creatively working with historical lives all but one of the characters are entirely fictitious. This is particularly frustrating when it comes to the Christian characters in the story and the so called ‘mission school’. This is a period when people would have had living memory of the ministry of Sadhu Sundar Singh. Moreover, the great American Evangelical, who converted to Hinduism in opposition to British policy and renamed himself Satyanada Stokes still wandered these regions. Instead of an insight into the reality of the church dynamics we are given an earnest British missionary, whose central contribution so far seems to be his ability to be torn between a domineering British wife and a seductive Indian assistant. What an opportunity lost to orientalist cliché, what a shame.

There is a fascinating story to tell about Christians in both Colonial Simla and contemporary Shimla, but this is not it. I do not have a 14 million budget, but with what little resources I have I will do my best to continue to play a part in letting the voices of Shimla’s Christians past and present speak through me; but I hope that we are not drowned out by noise of the commercial might that accompanies this latest orientalist vision.

 Jonathan Miles-Watson is a lecturer in the Department of Theology and Religion at Durham University where he teaches courses on the anthropology of religion, South Asian religion, myth analysis, and Structuralism.  More information can be found on the contributors page or the Department website.

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