Created & Directed by: Gurinder Chadha
Cast: Tom Bateman, Lesley Nicol, Lara Dutta, Leo Suter, Dakota Blue Richards, Grégory Fitoussi, Pallavi Sharda, Bessie Carter, Adil Ray, Viveik Kalra, Shriya Pilgaonkar, Roshan Seth, Marc Warren
Streaming on: Netflix
The one thing a historical costume drama needs to do, and this is of course disregarding the historians’ craving for fact, and the conservative’s craving for fiction, is induce awe. This means intrigue, humour, a beating heart with plot points that pulsate, with characters that elicit both awe and disgust, fabrics that both distract and tether, spectacle that both dazzles and informs. Nuance, of course, is irrelevant.
Beecham House is that, sort-of.
It is the 1800s, the Mughal rule is tapering into an existential crisis. The East India Company, a violently unregulated enterprise with only about 40 permanent employees in a small office in London, had assumed control over much of the Indian subcontinent and was leaking into Delhi like a broken poisonous tap. The act of corporate control over the political imagination has a prescient moral for today, but this is a mere context for the story to unfold.
It charts the story of a mysterious, albeit virtuous British man, John Beecham (played by Tom Bateman, strappingly handsome, and deeply introspective). Having severed ties with the East India Company due to their bottomless appetite for greed and violence, he travels the country (think bearded hippies in the 60s without the nirvana, drugs, or Kerouac), acquires wealth, stories, and a child, till he finds himself in the crosscurrents of dynasty politics and colonial arbitrage in Delhi.
John Beecham is the white-saviour complex personified. His mother (played with maternal pathos and hilarious timing by Lesley Nicol) is a woman who initially sees India as an extractive resource. His brother (Leo Suter nailing the part of the lusting, charming man) is a man who initially sees Indian women as an extractive resource. Both mother and brother reconcile to their worldview in odd, unconvincing ways, but the point of the story was never their arc. It was about John Beecham’s unwavering love for India in the midst of his familial and circumstantial resistance.
Beecham House produces caricatures instead of characters. But the problem with caricatures is that they are predictable. You almost know what is going to happen next.
Herein lies the philosophical problem with the series. It tries to insert nuance into the larger narrative of India in the cross currents of dynastic continuity, corporate greed, and colonial ambitions. One where the coy, silent Indian is seen in contrast with the brute, rapacious British. So, you create a British character whose moral compass is steady, and pointed towards the wronged Indians. You have feisty Indian characters (the lusting and passionate Shriya Pilgaonkar and the incredibly assertive Pallavi Sharda) who are just that- feisty. But in doing that, Beecham House produces caricatures instead of characters. But the problem with caricatures is that they are predictable. You almost know what is going to happen next.
The director, Gurinder Chadha called this series ‘a flipping radical thing’ because of the amount of exposure it gives brown characters who are allowed to express themselves as characters. That, it does. But I was under the impression that we have moved beyond visibility as a marker of radical television. What about nuance? It made me wonder if in the hierarchy of empowered characters, you first have the demure, then the feisty, then the messy. Why can’t you have it all?
Beecham House is a thing of beauty. With patchwork and porcelain, angrakhas and archways, courtyards and carvings, silk and sandstone, marble and mirrors, it is an excessive feast for the eyes. It is also immensely watchable. Like entangled earphones, sometimes you see the story straightening up, getting further complicated, or just being stuck. For some reason, in the end when all the strands are laid out and distengangled, it feels too neat, too unbelievable, and simultaneously unresolved. I was unable to emotionally invest in any of the characters. The flashback that was supposed to have you root for John is hastily edited, like a montage. The accents too are jarring. Seeing Lara Dutta play an Indian princess with a British accent making love to a French man is …odd. The last three episodes have a sprawling unedited quality. The last episode is lacking in the theatrical finale it needed, indeed none of the drama here soars, it merely jolts. That probably sums up what the series is, an unsophisticated, immensely watchable jolt.