Beecham House review: Gurinder Chadha's period drama falls prey to a white man's gaze of colonial India
Beecham House, Gurinder Chadha's exalted retelling of the famous Downtown Abbey, falls short of its promise of being a narrative which depicts British India from the point of view of the colonised
Gurinder Chadha has always celebrated Indian narratives with strong women voices, whether it was Jesminder 'Jess' Bhamra's steadfastness in Bend It Like Beckham or Lalita Bakshi's sensible calm in Bride and Prejudice. With Beecham House, the filmmaker attempts to dig deeper into the historical canvas and concoct a compelling period drama consisting elements of mystique and romance. Chadha's exalted retelling of the famous Downtown Abbey however, falls short of its promise.
Chadha introduces all the possible elements for a gripping period drama — magnificent palaces, flamboyant cinematography, ornate costumes, weighty dialogues, and satisfactory acting. But where the filmmaker slips conspicuously (and rather problematically), is her self-othering gaze.
Beecham House is set in 1795 British India, where the sixteenth Mughal Emperor Shah Alam II (Roshan Seth) grapples to hold on to the last shreds of glory. As the royal treasuries dwindle, the blind emperor's bloodline stands at the brink of extinction. To make matters worse, the East India Company's troops, audiences are told, were developing a base in Kannauj, miles away from Shah's throne in Delhi. It is at this juncture that Chadha introduces the protagonist, John Beecham (Tom Bateman). A man of high morals, Beecham was a former soldier at the company, but their rapacious, colonialist instincts force him to disown opportunism and look for an individual business.
Through travails and successes, Beecham finally leaves his old roots to move to Delhi, in order to "begin a new chapter." Heavily veiled secrets lurk in the small corners of the palatial bungalow that's offered to John; the Briton even warns his enthusiastic servant Baadal (Viveik Kalra) - "You will learn that I am a private man." John carries a mixed-race baby into his new quarters, which immediately piques the curiosity of servants. They wonder why its mother never accompanied the brooding-yet-kind man. While they try navigating through the unconventional ways of their new master, they're flummoxed by yet another guest, only this time it's not so harmonious. Beecham's mother Henrietta (Lesley Nicol) sets foot in Hindustan to meet his son after 12 years and plans to get him married off to her personal favourite Violet (Bessie Carter). But the future is hardly what she expects.
Within this mix is Margaret Osborne (Dakota Blue Richards), John's next-door neighbour's lovely governess, who captures his attention quite promptly. Samuel Parker (Marc Warren), a former colleague at the company, joins hands with Beecham as his business partner.
The baby's identity is revealed within days. August/Agastya Beecham is, in fact, a Maharaja in the making, whose security stands at utmost threat. John reveals he married Kamalavati (Saiyami Kher), the eldest daughter to the emperor of Kalyan much before he made his way to Delhi. After her tragic death, her sister Chandrika pays an uninvited visit to the Beecham residence to take care of the child. The final narrative thread is woven in by John's younger brother Daniel (Leo Suter), who is literally pulled away from a life of naach-girls and inebriation in order to pay a visit to the indomitable mothership, Henrietta.
This forms the motley group of oddballs in the Beecham House, a place full of happy chaos (at most times) and surprising revelations.
Having set up the premise this interestingly, Chadha and her writers (Paul Mayeda Berges, Shahrukh Husain, and Victor Levin) soon lose focus. Forced moments of crises are introduced and provided with botched up solutions. Though it's an ensemble piece, much of the importance lies in John and Margaret's growing closeness.
Indian royalty and its consequent takeover by colonial forces have made for iconic premises in filmmaking (Mughal-e-Azam, Jodhaa Akbar, Lagaan, Shatranj Ke Khilari and the like), but the Netflix drama is unable to tap into the pulse of the time. The dialogues seem straight out of a colonial play, which would bode well, had it not been for the incongruity in this setting. Style notwithstanding, the content of what the characters' say is weak and unimpactful — when angry, characters end conversations with an abrupt "I bid you good day."
Chadha's Indian retelling of Downtown Abbey must have had a reason, or at least viewers would think. Chadha glamourises those very elements in the cinematic canvas that innumerable Mira Nairs and Deepa Mehtas have toiled years to do away with. Chadha's depiction consolidates the orientalist reading of Indian stories rather than debunking the age-old trope surrounding the white man's gaze of the land of snake charmers and black magic. Ample shots of gorgeously attired rich dusky women, ornately dressed elephants and horses, violent bandits, and bejeweled kings more than prove the point.
Nothing really happens in the series, except for the final episode ending with an obvious cliffhanger to necessitate a second season. What could have been a cinematic throwback to one of India's most pulsating periods in history, is then reduced to titbits of John's encounters with his French rival, General Castillion (Grégory Fitoussi) and a contrived sub-plot about Samuel's 'betrayal.'
Michael Ralph aces the production design. Beecham House looks warm and inviting despite its opulence. The royal court scenes take place in well-researched sets. Each setting is structured to perfection. Castillion's akhara in the rear end of the Red Fort's sprawling property deserves special mention. Audiences would most enjoy the intricate detailing at every nook and corner of Beecham House, which emulates eighteenth-century Mughal architectural nuances with its proud arches and floral wall carvings.
Cinematographer Niels Reedtz Johansen achieves the impossible with a near-perfect scene of John proposing to Margaret with the mighty Taj Mahal, standing tall in the background amid a spare field. But the music is a weak point in the web series, mostly because Natalie Holt and Craig Pruess insist on introducing Hindi soundtracks with unnecessarily anglicised vocals.
Stuck at the juncture of a major existential crisis, Beecham House's India oscillates between the ruling Mughals and imminent colonial threats. John Beecham's adventures, with a severe Indiana Jones hangover, may have taken him to the corners of a deliciously vibrant nation, but Gurinder Chadha's protagonist chooses to be a mass of roguish good looks and insipid expressions.
(All images from Netflix)
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