Shades of Grey: Interview with Indian Summers' Nikesh Patel

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Channel 4/PBS

Nikesh Patel as Aafrin Dalal in Indian Summers

You do not have to be an Anglophile or even a history buff to know that the British Empire’s influence once extended around the globe and to far more countries than it currently does, including India. Following its recent encore of the classic 1980s British TV drama Jewel in the Crown, PBS’ Masterpiece is giving its audiences a look at the British Raj’s (Hindu for “rule”) earlier days in that country with the U.S. premiere this month of Indian Summers.

Set in 1932, the series opens with the crème de la crème of British society along with its military officials escaping the summer heat and travelling by train to the cooler colonial retreat of Simia in the Himalayan foothills. Unbeknownst to them, their partying and relaxation is to be interrupted by the growing tensions between the British rulers and the Indian community. Among those caught up in this unrest is Aafrin Dalal, a young man whose life changes in ways that he never imagined. Embarking on this new journey with him is actor Nikesh Patel, who was no stranger to this period in British/Indian history prior to taking on this role.

“Funnily enough, when I first found out about my audition for Indian Summers, I’d already been cast in a play that involved the British Empire and was set at the other end of the timeline,” recalls Patel. “It was the story of India when it was carved up, if you will, for independence. So I was already immersed in that period when I went in to do my first reading for Aafrin, which was back in, I think, October [2013]. I returned in December for a second audition, and then for my final one in January [2014]. By that time our director, Anand Tucker, had been attached to the project, so he was there for that meeting.

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“Over the course of the [audition] process it was just a matter of looking over and over again at the key moments in the series and the struggles that my character experiences throughout the first season. It was quite a rigorous process, and as an actor you always try not to get too attached to any material you’re sent, for the usual reasons of rejection and all of that. In this case, though, once I received the script and began reading it, I was hooked. The first scene alone painted such a vivid picture. Just from that, I knew this was going to be a very special project, so I was very fortunate insofar as how everything transpired and eventually worked out for me.”

A clerk in the Indian Civil Service, Aafrin makes the trek to Simia with the rest of his coworkers and their higher-ups including Ralph Whelan (Henry Lloyd-Hughes), the private secretary to the British Viceroy of India, Lord Willingdon (Patrick Malahide). Outside the office, Aafrin has a life that includes his parents as well as two sisters and a romantic interest. The latter made for a wonderful jumping off point for Patel along with some fond memories from his early days of filming season one of Indian Summers.

“We started off shooting scenes involving the Dalal family,” says the actor,” so it was me along with Aysha Kala, who plays Aafrin’s sister Sooni, Roshan Seth and Lillete Dubey, who play his parents [Darius and Roshana] and Ashna Rabheru, who plays my character’s little sister [Shamshad]. It was the five of us on the first day of filming in Penang, Malaysia, and I have quite vivid memories of stepping onto the Dalal house set for the first time. It’s a small room, but beautifully decorated, and seeing this ‘lived-in’ house, it kind of hit me that, yes, we were actually doing this. I’ll admit had a bit of a moment there. I’m proud to say that I didn’t burst into tears, but there was definitely some emotion.

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“From there, it was a matter of very quickly building up the Dalal family dynamic in that first week of filming. Certainly Aysha and I were in awe of the fact that we had these two veteran Indian actors playing our parents, and we were a bit worried the weekend before we started filming what they would be like. We’re actually in the middle of filming season two at the moment [late July] and the dynamic between the five of us actors is quite similar to that of the Dalals. There’s some playful bickering from time to time, and a great deal of love as well.

“When it comes to my character, Aafrin is very much someone who tries to keep himself out of the politics of the situation,” continues Patel. “Essentially a pencil pusher, Aafrin has a position in the civil service where he can provide for his family. If he had his way, he’d really rather not be drawn into questions such as whether or not the Indians should be pushing for their independence or is it right what the British are doing. All that changes, though, because of events in the first episode. Aafrin’s story then becomes about his sort of personal as well as political awakening. He has to ask himself, what do I stand for? What do I believe in? What’s really important to me and how much am I willing to stick my neck out for those beliefs?

“As far as acting challenges, one of the big joys about playing Aafrin is that [writer] Paul Rutman has created such a well-rounded character. As such, I didn’t have to worry about having to make Aafrin more three-dimensional and trying to show more than one facet of his personality, since it’s all there in the writing. So I’d say the challenges are more practical. Penang is very hot and humid, and the irony of using it as a stand-in for Simia is that Simia is cool. The Brits selected it as their summer capital because it reminded them of summers back home, but the one thing you can’t do in a scene is fan yourself, even though you’re sweating profusely. That’s just the reality of filming in 33 degree [centigrade] heat with humidity, and in my case, wearing a range of suits that aren’t quite as hot as they look, but don’t help. So again, the challenges were practical as opposed to having to grapple with finding the character. I’m happy to say that the latter came very easily.”

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Indian Summers opens with the queen bee of the social scene Cynthia Coffin (Julie Walters) preparing the whites-only Royal Simia Club for the Brits’ arrival. Among those attending the opening night’s festivities are Ralph Whelan and his beautiful younger sister Alice (Jemima West), who has arrived unexpectedly from England with her son, but without her husband. Later that evening, Aafrin comes to the club with information requested by Whelan, but his timing could not be worse. He becomes caught up a situation that temporarily sidelines him and puts his future on an altogether different path.

“As I said earlier, Aafrin goes on real kind of journey and experiences an awakening, I guess is the best way to describe it without giving too much away, from where he starts to where he ends up at the end of the season,” notes Patel. “In many ways, my character starts out as a boy and then matures into an adult insofar as his relationships with his family and the forces around him. The British were so integral to Indian life at that time, and Aafrin’s views on that change, as does his friendships and relationships that he forms, especially when he’s kind of pulled into the orbit of Ralph Whelan and his family.

“Of course, the events at the end of episode one alter his life, and what I especially enjoyed about playing that is, again, all had to do with Paul’s writing. It would be terribly easy to do a version of this show where it’s quite simply British bad, Indians good, and make a very bold statement where there are no shades of grey. Things are far more complicated than that, though, and I think what’s so great about the writing, is the fact that over 10 episodes you watch Aafrin go through that realization as well.

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“He’s taken under Ralph’s wing at the start of the series. From there it’s a constant process of trying to figure out who Ralph is, what his intentions are, and is there a genuine friendship there or is he using my character as a political tool. Then there’s also the friendship that Aafrin begins with Alice. That’s another real turning point in his life and a very new thing for him. He’s already in a relationship with someone, and then suddenly he meets this other woman. So Aafrin is constantly reevaluating his relationships with both of them, and it’s the same with the overall relationship between the British and the Indians. It would be far less complicated to either say that the British were our friends, or that they were there to exploit the Indians. However, as I’ve pointed out, Paul wasn’t interested in that sort of easy reduction because it doesn’t paint the whole picture.”

Can the actor hint at what audiences can look forward to with his character in season two of Indian Summers? “Well, he’s definitely a man now and having to deal with the responsibilities of very grown-up decisions, which are the consequences of events that happen over the course of season one,” he reveals. “So I’m playing quite a different type of dynamic with Aafrin in season two, and it’s very exciting.”

If Patel’s face looks familiar, you may remember him as Dan in season two of the British supernatural TV drama Bedlam, or perhaps from his guest roles in Law & Order: UK or the Midsomer Murders holiday special "The Christmas Haunting."

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Midsomer Murders is a big TV institution, and I came to the great realization that it’s a big institution not just at home in the UK, but all over the world,” says the actor. “So to take part in something like that, especially a Christmas special where you’ve got a blend of a murder mystery and some gentle humor, was a great deal of fun. Oddly enough, I’ve just talked about the challenges of shooting in hot weather for Indian Summers, and when we filmed this Christmas special it was during one of the hottest weeks in the UK. That might not sound like much because our weather is typically quite miserable, but there was something rather amusing about that. I’ll never forget Les Dennis dressed in a Santa suit and trying his best not to sweat buckets, while I was wearing jeans, a hoodie and fingerless gloves.”

Patel was majoring in English literature at university when he got his first whiff of the proverbial greasepaint and decided to give acting a try. Since then, he has forged ahead and never looked back. “I did my first student play and suddenly got the [acting] bug,” he says. “By the time I graduated with my degree, it was quite clear that I was spending more time learning lines to plays than hitting the school books. It was actually my friends, though, who suggested that I apply for drama school and pursue formal training. So I did, but that was a world that I really knew nothing about. None of my family is in the profession. My parents are both pharmacists, and the one bit of career advice they gave me was, ‘Son, don’t become a pharmacist.’ I like to think that I took their advice and ran with it,” jokes Patel. “So I got into this profession relatively late and it was a late blooming interest, but it’s definitely become my passion.”

Indian Summers premieres Sunday, September 27th @ 9:00 p.m. EST on PBS' Masterpiece. Please note, all Indian Summers photos copyright of Channel 4/PBS, and Midsomer Murders photo copyright of ITV.

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A native of Massachusetts, Steve Eramo has been a Sci-Fi fan since childhood, having been brought up on such TV shows as Star Trek and Space: 1999. He is also an Anglophile and lover of British TV. A writer for 35 years – 17 of those as a fulltime freelancer – Steve has had over 2,500 feature-length…

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