It’s March 1932, and the British civil servants are heading to the summer capital, Simla, at the foot of the Himalayas because every other city turned into a horrible steaming pool that they just couldn’t handle.
A young Indian boy walks along the road, being pelted with things by other kids. Adults stand and stare at him as he passes. Nobody helps him. He walks and walks, stopping only when he sees the bizarre sight of a rocking horse being carried up high, over the leaves the of the plants along the road to Simla. The camera pulls back and we see that the rocking horse is part of a massive caravan of Indians walking to Simla.
Meanwhile, on a train going in the same direction, a guy we’ll come to know as Ian, sings Happy Days are Here Again while the English people melt. A blonde lady, Alice, fans herself and glances down at her infant son, in a basket on the seat beside her. She sees the Indians walking along the road and wonders how they can stand it. ‘Well, different for them,’ says the woman, Sarah, sitting across from her. Yes, I guess it is different for them, because they have to stand it, whereas you, from your seat of privilege, do not.
In Simla, a man polishes a sign for the Royal Simla Club, which helpfully specifies no dogs or Indians. Just in case you weren’t sure, there’s gonna be a fair bit of racism here.
The club’s owner, Cynthia, played by Julie Walters who owns this programme, arrives and reviews the damage a winter and some monkeys have wrought. She reminds her right-hand man that they have seven hours to get the place back into shape.
A servant rouses his master by pouring a bucket of water over his head. Another servant stands by with a pot of tea. The good life.
The rocking horse is carried through the streets, which look oddly like an English town, complete with a very English-looking church. Simla was a very strange place indeed.
At the viceregal lodge, luggage arrives, along with one of our stars, Aafrin, who’s knocked to the ground by a rickshaw in which another star, Ralph, is riding.
[cryout-pullquote align=”left” textalign=”left” width=”33%”]S[/cryout-pullquote]Back on the tracks, the train suddenly jerks to a stop. Alice’s son starts wailing, and Sarah looks annoyed. The train manages to stop just before running right over that boy we saw at the top of the hour. Sarah whines that they’ll now miss their connection. Her husband (presumably), Douglas, who’s sitting across the aisle, says they’ll hold the train, but she sneers that they won’t, because that would require logic and forethought, something Indian people have clearly never had. Sarah starts talking to Alice about how all the best people come back to town for the season and it makes her feel like she’s come back from the dead, like Persephone (which she pronounces Perse-phone, because she’s racist and ignorant). The woman sitting across from Doug, Leena, corrects her, which puts Sarah’s nose right out of joint, probably at least in part because Leena’s Indian. Sarah asks Alice why she’s coming to Simla and Alice says she’s just visiting. Sarah muses about the identity of Alice’s husband, guessing he’s some dashing young subaltern. Alice gets up and hurries off the stopped train to get some air and is immediately faced with a small crowd of Indian men staring at her. Doug comes and sends her back aboard while he goes to check out what the problem is. He finds a large crowd gathered around the boy, which makes me wonder what the hell is wrong with all these people. It didn’t occur to them to move the collapsed child off the tracks and seek help? Leena appears out of nowhere and determines the boy needs a doctor. Yeah, clearly. Doug picks him up and starts walking with him down the road. The train starts moving again and Sarah calls to her husband, who totally ignores her.
In the Indian carriage, a guy in uniform asks for papers of some sort from one passenger. The guy hands them over, then gets up and hops off the train. Ok.
Viceregal lodge. Someone paints graffiti over a picture of Queen Victoria. Some sort of nationalistic message, presumably. The culprit escapes when a gardener notices them. Ralph is summoned to see what’s been done and orders the Indian civil servants who have gathered to stare to get back inside. He then has the picture and its graffiti burned while some other white guy wonders how Ralph can be so calm about this. Ralph points out that there’s little harm done, so no use making a big deal out of it. Plus, the picture was ugly. They’ll catch whoever did this, though, they’ll just do it quietly. The superintendent of police shows up and Ralph starts to ask him to do something, but he’s distracted by the presence of Aafrin, who’s hovering nearby with paperwork that needs signing. Ralph sends him away and moves off with the superintendent. Later, he announces to the staff that there have been reports of cholera in the area, so the police will be conducting searches of the Indian quarters. The guy sitting next to Aafrin says this is just an excuse to search houses to look for the graffiti artist.
Aafrin heads home at the end of the day. He lives with his parents and sisters, none of whom seem to be in any rush to get unpacked. His mother worries about the supposed arrival of cholera. One of the sisters—the bookish one—wonders why they have to drag themselves up to Simla every year and their father exposits that her brother is a clerk and therefore has to follow the work. She should really know that. Aafrin says he’s there to work and his sister complains that the English are only there to party. Aafrin notices that his other sister has red paint all over the palm of one hand.
Later, he pulls her aside and asks what the heck she was thinking. Instead of answering she shows him an article about Ghandi being jailed. He warns her to be careful and tells her the cholera scare is an excuse, and that when she’s caught she’ll be in heaps of trouble. She finally looks a bit worried. He tells her to wash that paint off, whatever she has to do.
Indian people line up to enter the city and are fumigated while they wait. One man is really annoyed by this. I would be too, who wants to be blasted in the face by some strange powder? Of course, the white people waltz right in without any problems. White people never carry disease. We see that the guy who jumped off the train is hiding in a basket waiting to go into the city.
Sarah, Alice, and Ian are in a cart heading into the city. Ian explains that he’s there to join his uncle’s tea business. Sarah knows the man’s uncle, who is presumably fairly well known in Simla. Ian’s never met him before. The cart is stopped by a very, very fancy car—the Viceroy’s Rolls Royce, one of the few cars permitted in Simla—which has been sent for Alice. Sarah stares at her in shock, and perhaps quite a bit of jealousy. She and the other passengers wave Alice off.
The Train Jumper gets out of his basket and eyes the cart of white people going up the road.
The driver of the car is an old friend of Alice’s—that’s right, it’s not her first time in Simla. They were playmates as children. She and her baby are taken to an absolutely gorgeous mansion draped in wisteria. A servant immediately approaches and takes the baby so Alice can continue into the house unencumbered and greet her brother, Ralph. He hugs her tightly and they have a nice, warm reunion before going for a walk. She asks him why he bought the house instead of renting like everyone else does, but he says he wants it to be their home for as long as they like. Also, it’s a bit of a status symbol. He named it after her childhood nickname. And the rocking horse is theirs, from their childhood days. He’s brought it up so little baby Percy can play with it. Alice sighs that she’s made a mess of everything and Ralph tells her that, if he ever meets with her jerk of a husband he’ll kick his ass. She reassures him he won’t meet him. He plays with a bit of her hair. These two seem very, very close, even for siblings.
The Trian Jumper prays at a shrine.
Cynthia lights a cigarette from a shrine at her place and wanders around a tack room, rehanging a fallen picture of her husband, a cavalry officer. She smiles fondly and sadly at him for a moment.
Sarah sends a silk dress off with a door-to-door drycleaner, obnoxiously telling him ‘no scrubby-scrubby’ (she’s RACIST, you know). He promises she has nothing to worry about. Sarah wonders where her husband is and calls her son (who looks to be around 10 years old) inside.
Douglas and Leena are now travelling back to the city with the boy, who was poisoned, according to a doctor. Leena says it’s because he’s a half-caste kid and there’s some talk about how racism is really crap. Doug tries to get the boy’s name out of him, but the boy can’t or won’t give it. He tells Leena he has no name. They stop in front of Doug’s house, but he hears his wife calling their son and suggests they go get the poisoned child settled first. As they go past, his son, Matthew, watches them go.
They take the boy to a mission school that Doug seems to run. A bunch of other kids come to greet them.
Aafrin kisses his mother and gets ready to head back to the office. Sorry, I guess he went home for lunch, not the end of the day. His mother offers up some gossip that a friend of Aafrin’s sister is getting married. The woman’s name is Sita. Aafrin gets upset, because he’s in love with this girl. His mother shuts that down, reminding him that she’s Hindi, while Aafrin is Parsi. So, no good there.
Aafrin leaves and goes to the market, where he finds Sita and catches her eye. She meets with him in an out-of-the-way spot nearby and, after making out with him a bit, tells him she’s not getting married, because nobody will have her, her romance with Aafrin having compromised her. She’s not bothered by that and tells Aafrin that she’s his now. She bites his hand, which he seems to find kind of hot, then kisses the wound and says he’s hers. They agree to meet up at eight o’clock that night.
Police go through people’s homes, trashing the places just because. Sooni desperately scrubs at her hand. Her father finds her just as the police rap on their door.
Meanwhile, in a calmer part of town, Alice’s son is put to bed by his nanny, who lies on the rug next to his bassinette. Alice writes a letter to her husband, Charlie, telling him they’re in India and begging him not to come ofter them. Ok, Alice is kind of an idiot. Unless this guy is completely uninterested in tracking down his wife and, far more likely, regaining custody of his son, it’s not going to be difficult for him to figure out exactly where they are. Her brother is a highly placed member of the viceroy’s staff. If Charlie knows his wife’s in India, it wouldn’t take too much imagination to figure out who she went to stay with. If she really didn’t want him coming after them, she should have picked a better hiding place.
She goes out to the garden, where she finds an American man, Eugene, relaxing in a hammock. He introduces himself and says he’s a houseguest who can’t take a hint. A lovely young woman materializes from the house and Eugene mocks her clothes. She gives as good as she gets, saying she found it in his closet. He tells Alice that this is his sister, Madeline. He tells Alice that the club is opening that night and everyone’s going.
The superintendent comes to the viceregal lodge to tell Ralph that they’ve found their vandal. Aafrin panics and stands, sending some papers flying. One of them is a caricature of Ralph strutting in the viceroy’s robes while some pornography goes on in the background. Ok, Aafrin’s an idiot too. Why would he keep that at work? Ralph asks him what this means and Aafrin says it was nothing. Ralph asks who he’s been talking to and Aafrin, confused, says nobody. Ralph takes him into his office and tells him he needs to track down a memorandum that’s been buried in the immense stacks of paperwork all over the place. He tells Aafrin to find it and bring it to the club for him to sign by eight o’clock. The magic hour, Aafrin.
The ‘vandal’, a man, is led through the streets, bloodied. Sooni calls down to him, but her father pulls her in for a hug, kissing her still-red hand.
Cynthia energetically polishes a saddle. Her head man comes and tells her that everything’s ready and her husband would have been very proud. She leaves the saddle and goes to check everything out. The place has been completely cleaned up. As she moves through, she sloughs off the jumpsuit she was wearing, revealing an evening dress underneath, and goes to check out the stream of people coming her way. She spots Alice and wonders who she is.
On their way in, Madeline says she heard from Ralph that Alice’s husband cheated. She gathers that Alice is going to play the widow card. Seriously? How does she think she’s going to pull that off? Simla was not some backwater, it was full of well-connected people. It’s already been established that Alice’s parents were fairly high up in the Indian civil service and now her brother is as well, so this is a well-known family. It’s unlikely she married some nobody. Someone is going to either know offhand about her marriage and the fact that she’s not a widow at all, or someone’s going to hear about it from a friend or relative back in England. She really is an idiot.
Anyway, Madeline provides her with a ring to ‘keep the wolves away’.
Inside, Cynthia welcomes everyone back and gets the party started, jokingly calling them all cheats, adulterers and slaves of empire. We’ve clearly got the grande dame of Simla here.
It’s just past seven and Aafrin is still frantically searching for that paperwork.
Ian finally makes it to his uncle’s place. What’s he been doing all day? The head servant shows him into what I guess are the living quarters, though it looks like a barn. Ian’s uncle is fast asleep, drunk. Head Servant says he’s a great guy between the hours of 9 and 11 a.m. Ian looks a little horrified.
Cynthia leads the guests in a song while they all get drunk. Two women approach Ralph at the bar and ask where this Ralph Whelan guy is. Alice approaches and sends them out to the verandah. A servant approaches Ralph and whispers something in his ear. He excuses himself and goes into an adjoining room, where Madeline’s waiting for him. She says she got his note and was beginning to think he’d never ask. He gathers that she got the message from Cynthia’s guy, Kaiser. Speaking of Kaiser, he locks them both into the room, so Ralph takes the opportunity to treat Madeline to a little digital delight. Kaiser remains on guard outside the room, pretending he totally doesn’t hear two people fingerbanging inside.
Doug and Leena tend the boy and discuss naming him. He suggests Lazarus, but they both think that’s too on the nose. She proposes Adam. She wonders how he came to collapse in front of their train and says it’s almost as if they were meant to find him. Or it was just blind luck that it was you and not people who would have just pitched him off to the side and continued on their way. He asks her if she, too, was attacked for being half-caste, as he reaches out and takes her hand. They lean in for a kiss, but at the last second she slaps him hard and jumps away. ‘He is watching,’ she reminds him, I don’t think she’s talking about Adam.
Aafrin finally screws up his courage and goes into Ralph’s office to look for the missing paperwork. There’s a picture of Alice as a child on the desk and Aafrin wastes some time looking at it.
Grown-up Alice smokes on the verandah of the club. She’s joined by Sarah, who fangirls a bit about Ralph, who’s private secretary to the viceroy. Sarah starts asking all sorts of personal questions, like how old Alice was when she left India (8) and how old Ralph was (13). It seems weird to ask how old Ralph was. Alice never saw her parents again after she was sent back to England. Sarah asks after Alice’s husband and Alice tries out her widow lie. Sarah looks at her a bit hard and then says she thinks the two of them are going to be best friends. Sarah’s kind of creepy.
Ian tries to wake his uncle, then gives up and helps himself to a pull from the man’s flask. I’m surprised there’s still anything left in there.
Sarah gets distracted by the sight of a woman wearing her silk dress, the same one she gave to the laundry guy earlier. She goes over to try and yank it right off the woman. Madeline explains that the cleaners tend to sublet the best outfits for the weekend.
Everyone starts heading into dinner. Ralph lies in wait for Cynthia and yells at her for arranging his meeting with Madeline. He prefers to arrange his own affairs, you see. She explains to him that a little birdie told her that his name is on a very short list for viceroy, but since there’s no such thing as a bachelor viceroy, he needs to couple up, and soon. Madeline’s young, pretty, and super loaded. She straightens his tie, then gets a whiff of his hands. ‘Oh, lucky girl. Wash your hands before dinner,’ she tells him. Ew.
Sita waits for Aafrin in a graveyard, next to the grave of the wife of Captain Codrington and their three children. What a charming spot for a tryst!
Just after eight, Aafrin finally finds the paperwork he was looking for. It was on Ralph’s desk all along. And the jerkass probably knew it too. He goes to take it to the club.
The guests gather for dinner and stand for God Save the King. Madeline smirks at Ralph. Once the song ends, everyone toasts to the King Emperor and sit for the pudding. Kaiser tells Ralph there’s a message for him and Alice offers to accompany him. Good thing she didn’t go along for the last one.
On their way to meet Aafrin, who’s been detained at the door, Ralph asks Alice to stay the summer, at least. She wonders what she’ll do. What do any of them do? Ralph signs the paperwork for Aafrin. As Ralph finishes up, Train Jumper arrives, approaches, yelling Ralph’s name, and fires a gun at him. The bullet hits Aafrin instead, while Ralph, stunned, reels back, sprayed with blood and half deafened by the sound.
Alice screams for help while Ralph hauls ass after the would-be assassin. When he catches up with the man, he gasps, ‘you!’ Alice’s screams, meanwhile, bring out the whole club. Cynthia takes charge and the viceroy’s car is brought out to take Aafrin to the hospital. Alice decides to go with him and Cynthia jumps in, ordering the chauffeur to take them to the army hospital, where he’ll get better care. Ian shows up at the tail end of this and meets the woman wearing Sarah’s dress. He asks he what’s going on and she responds with a come hither look.
On the way to the hospital, Cynthia and Alice catch up. They lived on the same base back in the day and Alice kicked up a fuss because her father shot a panther that was on the compound. Aafrin gasps. He’s not looking good. They arrive at the hospital and Cynthia muscles past the guys at the front and call for Monty, the guy there she knows. It occurs to Alice that someone should notify Aafrin’s family what’s happened.
Back home, Ralph, still in shock, has a bath and then gets a call from the viceroy. He explains that the man was just a terrorist and that he’s perfectly fine.
Aafrin’s mother and sister get to the hospital and Alice meets them and brings them inside. His mother’s upset because they argued the last time they spoke. Isn’t that always the way of it? His sister Sooni looks down at her hand, still red.
Sita’s still waiting in that graveyard. Doug, on his way home, notices her but says nothing.
Ralph is sitting on the porch of his house, having a snack. Madeline joins him with a pair of brandies and asks if he wants company or wants to be alone. He tells her she can stay, and then asks how she likes Alice. She says she seems lost. She gently strokes his face and offers to take care of him. They kiss, and a servant crosses in the background. She pulls away and wonders why they’re always watching.
Ian’s got his hookup in a rickshaw, off to wherever to get it on. She pulls her rented dress off as they pass Sarah’s house and tosses it onto the hedge. Doug finds it as he goes in and apologises to his wife for missing the club opening. He tells her about the boy, which she doesn’t care about. She’s more upset because people were asking after him and she didn’t know what to say. He hands her the dress and she childishly throws it into the fire. How did these two ever end up together? It seems like someone as socially obsessed as she is would be unlikely to marry a missionary, or whatever Doug is.
Ralph and Alice stand in the garden of the house and he notices she’s shivering. She asks if he knew the man who tried to shoot him and he lies that he didn’t. She remembered that he said Rakshas, which means demon or devil in Hindustani. Ralph says she just misheard.
Aafrin’s mother and Sooni sit at his bedside.
The shooter sits in jail.