Raj history ‘through British-Asian eyes’


Pallavi Sharda as Chandrika
Pallavi Sharda as Chandrika

by AMIT ROY

FROM big screen to small, from Viceroy’s House to Beecham House, filmmaker Gurinder Chadha has come a long way.

Her new six-part drama for ITV, due to be aired shortly, is certainly an ambitious undertaking.

Beecham House is set in Delhi in 1795, with a mix of British and Indian characters. Mughal rule has come to an end and the Raj hasn’t quite taken over from the East India Company.

So what was Delhi like “on the cusp of the 19th century”?

Chadha, who is more familiar with Southall in London, where she grew up and where she set the film which established her reputation – Bend It Like Beckham in 2002 – had the author William Dalrymple as her consultant on the history of the period.

In a tweet during filming at the evocative City Palace in Jaipur, Rajasthan, Chadha described the drama as the “British Raj through British Asian eyes”.

Snatches of footage on social media show elephants, camels and horses in the background. Since the City Palace is open to the public during the day, curious crowds had to be held back during the shoot.

But Chadha, who dealt with the transfer of power under Lord Mountbatten in India in 1947 in Viceroy’s House, has plenty of experience of filming in India. She said: “You can’t
beat India on camera. It looks like India, and nowhere else does. I think dramas that do shoot in other countries are always slightly strange.

“One of the things about India that existed long before the British came along and carried on long after they left, and will carry on, is the architecture, the palaces, the forts. We have
used many, many shots of those amazing buildings and that is India, for me.”

Beecham House was commissioned for ITV by its head of drama, Polly Hill, who said: “Gurinder brings a fresh take to period drama, but at its heart are wonderful characters
and a compelling story that will make this a treat in the ITV schedule.”

One critic commented: “Just think of it as Downton Abbey set in India.”

Chadha explained: “I grew up with Raj dramas like The Jewel in the Crown, The Far
Pavilions and A Passage to India. This is my chance to tell those stories from a British-
Asian perspective.”

The script has been written by Chadha, her husband Paul Mayeda Berges, Victor Levin
and Shahrukh Husain. Caroline Levy, who also produced EastEnders, Holby City and The
Bill, is the series producer.

Chadha said: “Beecham House is a passion project that is driven by my commitment to telling diverse, emotionally engaging stories for mainstream international audiences. I am
thrilled to be working with Polly Hill and ITV Drama who share my belief that period drama can be entertaining, ambitious and relevant to key issues of today.”

She added she had assembled “a vibrant cast of British and Indian actors to play characters
that will appeal to global audiences hungry to see stories from a unique point of view”.

According to ITV, “the drama depicts the fortunes of the residents of Beecham House.

“Tom Bateman (Vanity Fair, Jekyll and Hyde) takes the role of enigmatic John Beecham, a former soldier who has purchased the mansion, Beecham House, to begin a new life with his family.

“Wealthy and distinguished, John has witnessed profiteering and exploitation during his
time with the controlling East India Company and has resolved to conduct his business as a
trader in a more equitable manner.

“In spite of John’s good intentions, his life is shrouded in mystery. When he arrives at the house with an ‘olive-skinned’ child named August and two Indian nursemaids, Chanchal
(Shriya Pilgaonkar) and Maya (Trupti Khamkar), it causes speculation that he may be the boy’s father.

“Lesley Nicol (Downton Abbey) is John’s interfering mother Henrietta, who has travelled from England to India to stay with her son. She is accompanied by a young family friend Violet, played by Bessie Carter (Les Miserables), who she is determined to help
form a union with John.

“They are accompanied by an old friend of John’s, Samuel Parker, played by Marc Warren (Safe, Hustle) who has also left the East India Company and returned to India for a fresh start.

“Gregory Fitoussi (Mr Selfridge, Spiral) plays General Castillon, a French mercenary working for the emperor at a time when the French are challenging the East India Company for India.

“Adil Ray (Citizen Khan, Ackley Bridge) is John’s neighbour Murad Beg who dislikes General Castillon intensely. Murad’s daughter, Roshanara, (Medha Shankar) has an English governess Margaret Osborne, played by Dakota Blue Richards (Endeavour)
whose beauty and intelligence catch John’s attention.

“Finally (former Miss Universe) Lara Dutta plays Begum Samru, a real woman who existed in 18th century India and was the head of a professional trained mercenary army.”