The Version Interview.... Nikesh Patel on Indian Summers series 2.
Indian Summers is back on Channel 4 and series Two moves the story forward three years to the summer of 1935… and we rejoin our characters at boiling point!
Nikesh Patel tells us more...
Where is Aafrin at the start of season 2? What has happened to him?
Three years have passed between the end of season one and the start of season two. Aafrin’s been away. He’s passed his Indian Civil Service exams and he’s served as a district officer out in Bengal. It’s a very different life from being Ralph Whelan’s head clerk. It gave him the chance to get out and see India, away from the rarefied atmosphere of Simla, where the British machine is in its full glory. In Bengal, he really encountered poverty, and he started to question the idea of empire serving the country, and the British doing their bit to govern India. He’s in a strange role, as an Indian man with all the trappings of British government on him, going out to these rural parts of India and trying to help as best he can. And I think it makes him question what he’s doing, and the value of empire.
He’s also met some people who have a big impact on his life.
Yes, he meets two very important people, Kaira and Naresh. He becomes romantically involved with Kaira. They’re fighting for independence, and Aafrin has sort of become their man on the inside. But Aafrin has by no means made up his mind, and he certainly doesn’t like Nuresh’s eagerness to pursue a campaign of violence. Aafrin’s not a violent man.
He’s a very different figure from the start of season 1. Is it fun to play a character who goes through such change?
It’s fantastic. It’s such a gift, as an actor, to get a part where you’re given different things to do. So many times you go up for stuff and you’ve almost sussed out the character completely as soon as you get the script. There’s a lot of depth to these characters. Aafrin’s loyalties are constantly tested and changing. He’s definitely gone from being a boy, at the start of season one, to being a man, and he’s grappling a man’s decisions. He’s just better put together now. It’s quite nice, for a change, that I wasn’t drowning in my suit any more, but cutting a dash. He’s doing well for himself. It’s a strong visual symbol, this guy who says he wants his country to be free of imperial rule, but he’s wearing suits. It’s great grappling with all of those contradictions.
Was it good to be reunited with the cast on set again?
Yeah, it was. We became very close. Six months away from home – and very far away from home – it’s sort of do or die. We were either going to end up hating each other or becoming really close, and I’m happy to say it was the latter. There’s a lovely sense of familiarity there. On TV, you have to work at a certain pace, and it’s nice when you’ve got that shorthand with people, and you can quickly get to the heart of something, and not have to tiptoe around each other.
You’re away for six months at a time. What do you miss about home?
This is going to sound quite bizarre, but by the end of the job I was missing bad weather. Don’t get me wrong, you get rain in Penang – my God you do – but it’s hot and humid the whole time. It sounds like a very posh problem to moan about, but it’s one being away somewhere for a break, and it’s another thing living there for six months and working in that kind of heat and humidity. I was missing the British weather, and being able to wear coats and boots and that kind of thing. Although predictably enough now I’ve been back for a few months I’m going “You know, the Penang climate isn’t so bad after all.” Apart from that, it’s just the obvious stuff, friends and family. You can’t just nip back in the same way that you could if the job was a bit closer. But there’s a lot to be said for working on a job that’s fantastically rewarding, with really good people, and constantly having access to such good food! You can eat very well there, and there’s a lot of cuisine represented.
If you were out there for a few years, we’d be looking at an actor of a rather different shape, then?
Yeah, it’s a bit dangerous on the old waistline when you’re filming out there. And it’s amazing how quickly you slide back into that pattern of having breakfast and planning lunch, having lunch and planning dinner, and then going “Right, I think maybe I need to go for a run now!”
Did it feel easier and more natural, slipping into the role of Aarfin for the second series?
Yeah, I think so. I’ve never sustained a character for ten hours, in series one, and now 20 hours. There are certain things that you start to feel do and don’t feel inherently right. And within that sometimes in discussion with the writer and director you also do feel that there has to be space for surprises for yourself and for the audience. It’s like slipping into a second skin, albeit a skin that, three years further on in the story, there’s lots of juicy detail to flesh out, in terms of how he’s changed. He walks a bit more surely,
You’re basically playing the largest part in a vast production with a fabulous cast. Did you feel a sense of pressure doing that, particularly in the first series?
I think there was some of that before we started shooting, just in terms of the responsibility involved. I felt some responsibility to get it right, and to do the character and the writing justice, but most of it was just relish. It was an opportunity that had to be grabbed with both hands. And you’re working so fast, and the sheer physical ordeal of a TV filming schedule means I didn’t have enough brain space for panicking. It’s filled with either lines or food or rest. So it wasn’t crippling nerves.
Did you have training for the accent?
Yeah, we had a little bit of coaching. Zabarjad Salam, or Budgie as she’s affectionately known, coached us for a little bit before we went out to Penang. I’ve played a couple of roles before this where I’ve done an Indian accent, and one of them was a period Indian accent, so I was familiar with it. So it was a case of deciding with someone like Aafrin how to approach it. He’s not one of the elite, but he’s educated, he’s Parsee, and they prided themselves on embracing a healthy relationship with the West as well keeping up with their own culture. So there was all that in the mix. And also, as we all do, in certain situations Aafrin modulates his accent to fit his audience.
Have you researched that period of Indian history much?
Yeah. I did a period play before this called Drawing the Line, set just before independence. I’d immersed myself in the history at that end. And at the start of this job, Henry and I went to the British library a couple of times – they’ve got an amazing Indian archive of old letters and diaries. We tried to soak up as much first-hand material as we could, just to get a sense of what it was like. But it’s harder to find first-hand accounts of Indians. I had to do a bit more detective work to find someone to model my character’s life on. And we went to the library again before this series. But this time we also went to the BFI, who have this incredible collection of black-and-white footage from the period. They’re basically people’s home videos from the 1930s. And specifically for season two, which sees Aarfin’s political awakening, I read Nehru’s autobiography. That was a steer from Paul Rutman. And I read up on Subhas Chandra Bose, whose ideology was slightly different to Nehru’s, in that he was more military-minded.
How much has the role of Aarfin changed your life?
For two series, I’ve been able to immerse myself in this character and this world, and meet these fantastic people. It’s been a real gift in that respect. I’ve forgotten what summer in the UK looks like. I suppose summer should be in inverted commas.
Do you get recognised much?
It happened a handful of times while season one was airing. The finale of the series aired, and the next day we were on a plane to Penang to film series two. The odd thing is, I‘ve been more recognised at airports while filming series two. When I had some time off I’d got travelling – you get a few days off and try and go somewhere else – so I was in a lounge at an airport and this group of Aussie tourists just came over and said they’d seen the show and really liked it. And you forget that this gets seen in other parts of the world. That’s really exciting, that people in other parts of the world get to see it. I really hope the local audience in Malaysia will get to see it before we stop filming the damn thing!
Has it been shown in India?
I think the best way to put it is that it hasn’t been shown, but people have seen it. Some of the cast members have said their friends and relatives back in India are big fans of the show, which is good to hear.
Is it true that Paul Rutman has 50 hours of scripts in his head, going right up to partition?
Yeah, I think that’s the grand plan. That’s what we’d all like to do. That’s what a few of us are signed up for. I think it’s a rich enough story that you can tell it with that sweep. That all depends on the appetite for the story, and if people respond to this series the way we responded to it. I think and I hope we’ll get to make more.
Indian Summers returns 9pm Sunday, on Channel 4.