Sunday, Dec. 14, 2008

The Jewel of India

By David Luhrssen
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It may have been Alistair Cooke’s finest hour, the cream of PBS’ “Masterpiece Theatre” in the golden years of high-tone British imports. “The Jewel in the Crown,” among the greatest TV mini series ever produced, is out now as a four-DVD set.

The 1984 Granada Television program was condensed and adapted from Paul Scott’s The Raj Quartet, the literary classic of the UK’s endgame in India from a British perspective. As the series begins in 1942, the Indian Empire braces for a Japanese attack; the English-led army and police must also contend with an independence movement under the nonviolent Mahatma Gandhi and the rise of more radical Hindu nationalists and their Muslim foes, who eventually carved Pakistan out of India as the Brits pulled out. The roots of still unresolved conflicts, which flared up dramatically during the recent terrorist outrage in Mumbai, are depicted in “The Jewel in the Crown.”

The story pivots around Daphne Manners, a naive and well-intentioned young English aristocrat, and her dangerous attraction to Hari Kumar, an Anglophile Indian journalist kept down by race-conscious British colonists. The jealousy of a sadly twisted British police commander sends painful repercussions across India.

Even the secondary characters are fascinating and well acted by the sterling cast: among the rich array is Sister Ludmilla, a Russian precursor to Mother Theresa who gathers the dead and the dying from the impoverished streets; Pandit Baba, the impassive Hindu radical working to overthrow the British regime; and Lady Chatterjee, the cosmopolitan Indian friendly with all sides. The historical detailing and lustrous cinematography rise to Merchant Ivory levels.

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