Friday, October 2, 2015

Dreaming of an Indian Summer

False store fronts hid the 5-foot-way of Armenian Street when it was transformed into the town of Simla, India.

Dreams are a weird thing. They can be familiar but with details thrown in that keep them from seeming completely real. Friends rub elbows with characters from movies. Scenes plucked from your memory are altered until they no longer seem like something belonging to you. And when you wake up, you find yourself grasping at the remnants as it drifts away and trying to decipher what in the world it means. As strange as it may sound, I fell into a kind of dream state watching television last night even though I was wide awake.

Indian Summers recently premiered in America on PBS Masterpiece. Originally broadcast on BBC Channel 4, it's been deemed the heir to the "period costume drama" crown currently held by Downton Abbey. Set in Simla, an Indian town in the foothills of the Himalayas, in 1932 as the British Raj is beginning to unwillingly loosen its hold there, the on-location filming is visually rich and enticing. Except, it was not filmed in India. Indian Summer was filmed in Penang, Malaysia. Simla had an overabundance of modern structures and a monsoon season that would wreak havoc with the production. So, the producers cast their sights further afield and decided on Penang instead. Sharing the same British colonial history, both cities have similar architectural influences. There's also a sizeable Indian population in Malaysia and plenty of white expats to serve as extras.


Flower garlands in Georgetown's Little India

I left Penang last year as the first season of filming was wrapping up. During my last few months there, the costume drama kept intersecting with my life even though I wasn't involved in it. Trips to Georgetown were delayed when I heard they were filming on the streets. I permanently set aside my plan to go up Penang Hill to photograph the decrepit ruins of the old Crag Hotel when I heard it was now refurbished and serving as the Royal Simla Club, the social headquarters of the British expat set in the TV series.

Notices asking for Caucasian or Indian extras showed up in my email and Facebook feed, and some of my friends decided that would be a lark. I thought getting dressed in the authentic 1930s clothing and having my hair done up in pin curls would be so much fun, but alas, the producers didn't need any Chinese people in this series. Besides, my friends tell me that dressy leather gloves for ladies and three-piece, white tie suits for the gentlemen felt oppressively hot in the humid tropics. Another set of friends bumped into the young British actresses while they were out at the local marina mall, and from their chat, it seems that even starlets are not immune to the culture shock that comes from moving abroad. One acquaintance answered the summons for an on-screen riding instructor and ended up being hired as the production's Still Photographer.

Principal Writer Paul Rutman says the original inspiration for the story were the decades old photo albums a Darjeeling hotel manager showed him during a visit to India. In it, he saw pictures of ordinary British men, women and children "living the lives of dukes and duchesses" out in India. In so many ways, I related to that.

Living like the 1% on a sunset catamaran cruise with friends

Living as an expat in Penang afforded me the opportunity to lead an extraordinary, soap opera kind of life. My daily surroundings beguiled me, and the destinations we traveled to were gloriously exotic. As a trailing spouse, I was a lady of leisure who filled my days exploring heritage sites, lingering over lunch with friends, and hanging out by the Hard Rock Hotel pool. (On the flip side, hubby worked really, really hard as do many of the expats who are transferred overseas by their companies.) I got offers to be in magazines, on internet radio, on a reality TV show, and to appear as a speaker at a roundtable discussion. On the other hand, I was a peripheral character to tragedies whose stories are not mine to tell, and watching the people next door lead an overworked, underpaid slum life was an eye opener. There is definitely a wide gap in the class divide. Repatriating back to America has evened life out. The highs aren't as high, but the lows aren't as low.


Where my next door neighbors lived next to my 25th floor, ocean view, 6000 square foot condo.


So, I excitedly set my DVR and watched Indian Summer to see if I could spot friends and identify locations. My finger was poised above the Pause button so that I could freeze the image whenever I needed a longer look. I didn't have to wait long for my first glimpse of Penang. In one of the early shots establishing the setting, the camera pans down Armenian Street, one of my favorite streets to stroll along in Georgetown (see photo at top), but there's been a little CGI magic done on it. Instead of the modern, 12-sided KOMTAR Tower rising up 65-stories high in the background, the road ends in a square with a fine church and bell tower. More CGI work is done on the wide shots of the bungalows filmed on Penang Hill that superimpose the Himalayas into the background. I think I catch a glimpse of the rectangular pond and formal garden at the Penang Botanical Garden, and I'm sure the Old Protestant Cemetary is where the girl waits for her boyfriend late at night. When I watched the scenes in the Indian bazaar, I could almost smell the spices and feel the people buzzing around me. It was so strange, to see these places that I'm familiar with but filled with people in period costumes and antique cars instead of mopeds.

Old Protestant Cemetary

There's always been one house up on Penang Hill that I particularly like. It's a quintessentially British cottage with a rooster topped windvane and a leafy hedge separating it from the road. I can catch a glimpse of the garden through the arched gateway, but most of the property is left to whatever I imagine. Of all the houses up there, it's the one I would most like to live in because it seems cozy instead of grand. Hence, I was delighted to discover that my dream house serves as Ivy Cottage, the home of Douglas the missionary and his uptight wife, Sarah. Finally, I got to see behind the hedge when it appeared on screen. It was as charming as I had envisioned and has a glorious, sweeping view.

My dream home on Penang Hill became Ivy Cottage.

The scenes at the Carmarthen Mission School run by Douglas were filmed at the Nature Lodge, one of my sons' favorite campsites in Penang. As Douglas walked down the steps towards the building, I felt like what I saw on screen was a translucent layer over my own memories of walking down those very same steps and seeing my own kids running around on the lawn.

It was at that moment that I started tearing up and a wave of homesickness washed over me. I was surprised by how much seeing these places again affected me.

The Nature Lodge was transformed into the Carmarthen Mission School

The big party scene at the Royal Simla Club had so many friends and acquaintances. One woman I know clinked her champagne glass and laughed merrily in the background as grand dame Cynthia Coffin played by Julie Walters (Mrs. Weasley in the Harry Potter movies) addressed the room. I may have spotted my son's teacher smiling in the corner. My daughter's young friend and other children played Blindman's Bluff with an eligible bachelor newly arrived in the city. It was the first glimpse I'd had of these people in a long time, and seeing them made me long for the good times and great friends I'd made in Malaysia.

My son turned 16 years old last week, and I had a difficult time waking him on the day before his birthday. I nudged and nudged to no avail. Finally, he awoke, rolled over, and wistfully told me he had been dreaming he was having a birthday party and all his friends from Penang were there. I'm not the only one feeling a little homesick even though we are technically back at home.

Indian Summers has already started filming Season 2 in Penang. I expect that it will be a great boon to Penang tourism and its economy. The Chief Minister (state governor equivalent) was initially skeptical about the project but seeing the carefully renovated properties on Penang Hill sparked nostalgic memories of visiting them as a child and moved him to throw his support fully behind the television production. As for me, I'll keep watching with a mixture of excitement and homesickness. It's just like the Penang that I remember... except that it isn't.



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11 comments:

  1. I can only imagine how it would feel watching the place you loved (pretending to be another place and time) on television. It would be fun if you were back in Penang and could watch it with your friends who knew all the places too. I feel for your son dreaming all of his Penang friends were at his party. I feel I know at least a little of Penang from your posts and would love to visit there myself - all due to you!

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  2. I understand so much about your post. Im British by birth, moved to Texas in 1999 and became an American citizen then moved to Mumbai in 2013. Being an expat has many highs, but there are certainly a few lows along the way that sound so trivial if you haven't experienced that lifestyle. Interesting post.

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  3. Such an interesting post! I saw part of an episode of Indian Summer last week and while tempted to watch, I knew we'd soon be in Greece where we have no television and even if we did may not get the series. I was feeling bad that I wouldn't get to see scenes of India - guess I can quit that! We've had a number of movies and television series shot in the Pacific Northwest and it is always fun to see how they customize a city or locale.

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  4. What an interesting story. Weird and wonderful all at the same time. I think Penang touched your hearts. My entire life is a soap opera, on a side note.

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  5. Very nice blog post!! Happy travels :-D

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  6. It is interesting to see in movies or TV shows places that you know like the palm of your hand. Not long ago, I saw a movie featuring Downtown LA, Hollywood and Malibu. It felt exciting to know you have been on those places. Now, I do not know how it would feel if a place you know is converted to a totally different place. That would be interesting.

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  7. How cool! London often gets movie locations and I've seen them passing. When I see them later in film, it really does look very different. the magic of the movies I suppose.

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  8. Very interesting read - there is a lot here that I didn't know before. Great pictures, too - love the contrasts and colours.

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  9. This is definitely a favorite for me of your blog posts! I had heard alot of hype about Indian Summer but I wasn't sure what the premise was - or where it had been filmed. I hope your homesickness gets better with time. I have a friend who moved 3 hours away and her heart is breaking at leaving her home and community for another. It is the plight of an immigrant - whether from one country to another, or state or city. It's just not easy.

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  10. This series keeps popping up on my Facebook feed and I'm dying to watch it! How fascinating that it was filmed in Penang.

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