A Passage to Shimla

The hill town’s popular but elusive presence in film

When Samuel Bourne first came to Shimla in 1863, he found it less than charming. Samuel Bourne / Alinari Archives / Getty Images
01 May, 2015

SAMUEL BOURNE OF BOURNE & SHEPHERD, among the world’s oldest photography studios, was one of the first commercial photographers to capture the lithe slopes and sparse settlements of Shimla, during the early days of British rule. But when he arrived to set up his studio there, in 1863, a year before the town became the summer capital of India, he was not impressed. “I must confess to disappointment on my first view of Simla,” Bourne wrote in The British Journal of Photography. “A mass of apparently tumble-down native dwellings on the top of a ridge, with bungalows scattered here and there on the sides of a mountain covered partially with fir trees, without a single yard of level cultivated land—such was the appearance of Simla at five miles’ distance, and I naturally began to wonder where I would find the series of views for which I had undertaken this long journey.”

Bourne’s impressions subsequently improved. “A further acquaintance with Simla,” he wrote, “has not altogether banished the disappointment it first gave me, yet it is not to be condemned. It has afforded me a considerable number of pictures of a certain class, while as regards the climate, nothing could be finer.” Yet the tension that Bourne gestured at—between the pretty depictions of Shimla as a pleasant getaway location that one might capture on camera; and its challenging reality as an overgrown settlement clinging to a steep incline—dogged the town’s subsequent history on moving film, and has only increased with time.

As a child growing up in Shimla in the late 1990s, seeing its tilted alleys and streets appear on a screen in a darkened theatre was always a moment of joyful recognition. In 2001, when the Bollywood partition drama Gadar was released across India, in Shimla we watched it as much for iconic scenes like Sunny Deol’s uprooting of a Pakistani hand-pump as for the fact that our own town—in my case, my own school—provided part of the film’s backdrop. The shooting occurred over our winter break, and when Deol appeared in the film singing ‘Udja kale kawan’ to Amisha Patel, the attention of every student of Bishop Cotton School was proudly attuned to our games courts and our War Memorial behind him.

Shimla has long been a picture-perfect Bollywood backdrop, a sort of visual shorthand signalling fresh air, free time and the relaxation of social rules. And Shimla-wallahs take personal responsibility for these brief eulogies of our hometown, from the tear-jerking song sequence of ‘Aaoge jab tum’ in Imtiaz Ali’s Jab We Met, to the gothic, snowy setting for Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Black (the snow was fake, as the weather didn’t oblige the crew). The Shimla-based critic Usha Bande notes, in an essay in the anthology Whispering Deodars: Writings from Shimla Hills, that “so prominent and profound is the presence of Shimla in the celluloid world that when the town flits past on the screen, it’s always ‘Look Shimla... Shimla!’ from all who stay here and also from those who have visited it maybe only once.”

Yet in Bollywood’s imagination, the town has always been limited to landmarks such as the Town Hall, Christ Church, Mall Road and the Woodville Palace; a ride on a toy train; a quick romp in the snow, or under the deodars of the surrounding hills. For those who live here, this postcard version of Shimla is gratifying, but we’ve also been waiting for someone to write the long, clear-eyed, love letter. Shimla is yet to bag a starring role that celebrates it while acknowledging its flaws, or that mines its particular history.

In February, the United Kingdom’s Channel 4 promised to put the town front-and-centre in its historical drama series Indian Summers, set in Shimla in the 1930s, during the twilight years of the Raj. The series recently concluded its pilot season, and has been renewed for a second, ten-episode run next year. It aspires to follow, until Indian independence, the story of Ralph Whelan, personal secretary to the Viceroy, and his sister; the Parsi Dalal family, whose son is a clerk in the colonial bureaucracy; the Raworths, a British couple with a looming marital crisis; the bustling proprietor of the “British Club,” played by Julie Walters; and the naive idealist Ian McLeod. Yet while the show promised to illuminate, through hour-long episodes, something of the town’s history as it unravelled a fictional murder mystery, it was shot not in Shimla, but in Penang, Malaysia.

The series’ producers wanted to shoot in Shimla, but after visiting to scout for locations they gave up on the idea. Paul Rutman, the show’s creator, consulted Raaja Bhasin, Shimla’s unofficial historian-in-residence, who became a historical consultant for the project alongside the Downton Abbey consultant Alistair Bruce (a descendant of two viceroys of India). I interviewed Bhasin at his home, where he told me that the reasons for shooting in Malaysia were manifold. “The rabid over-construction and overloading of the slopes of the town with concrete buildings has left little room for the heritage to bask in its full glory,” he said. “In Penang, the heritage has remained untouched. Secondly, it was deemed nearly impossible for such a long shoot to have been carried out in a town rampant with tourist influx.” Bhasin also pointed to “the myriad problems with acquiring permissions to shoot in various heritage buildings—most of which are utilised as government offices” since Shimla is the state capital of Himachal Pradesh. For Bhasin, and perhaps many of us living here, this was a missed opportunity.

The lives of Shimla’s residents have always been lived off camera, eclipsed in outsiders’ imaginations by ideas of the Raj. Krishna Santhanam / moment / getty images

THE IMAGE OF SHIMLA on film has evolved alongside film-making itself. The town’s journey across swatches of celluloid began as early as the first decade of the twentieth century, when films, chiefly propagandist in nature, began to be shot in India under the Raj. In 1912, the Edison Company, founded by the entrepreneur and inventor Thomas Edison, released a short documentary on the hill town for Edison’s Kinetoscope—the first in a line of home-projection devices where one could view films through a small peep-hole. In a company catalogue, the film is described as depicting “a Hindoo dwarf,” the railroad, Christ Church on Sunday, and other sights.

Though many more such films likely exist, many are lost, or in archives that have not been digitised or released online. Despite the blind alleys of online research, there are occasional finds, such as a 14-minute film shot by Sir Conrad Corfield, officer and private secretary to several viceroys, that includes footage from in and around Shimla in the 1930s. Though the film takes in other parts of India too, with typical scenes of native royalty and peasantry, elephants, acrobats and wrestlers, for the Shimla segments there are title cards introducing sites such as “The Mall” and the already iconic “Viceregal Lodge” with its liveried staff. Even before Independence, the idea of Shimla was inextricable from the place’s associations with the Raj.

With the departure of the British, the town’s potential as a symbol of a crumbling empire went unexploited, and it remained relatively absent from the screen for several years. In 1965, Merchant Ivory Productions—a collaborative setup between the American director James Ivory, the Indian producer Ismail Merchant, and the German-born writer Ruth Prawer Jhabvala—rolled into town for the making of its second film, Shakespeare Wallah. The film cemented Merchant Ivory’s reputation not only as an international production house, but almost as a synonym for Raj-related films. Shakespeare Wallah followed the Buckinghams, a fictionalised version of the Kendals, a British family of actors who toured India with their “Shakespeareana Company” after 1947. Shot in black-and-white due to budget restrictions, the film included Shakespeare sketches performed in Shimla’s clubby Gaiety Theatre.

Shashi Kapoor, who had toured with the Kendals, played the male lead opposite Felicity Kendal. The two “flirt and make love amid the clutter of the little company putting on its plays in the scenic area of Simla, which holds such memories of the British colonial past,” a New York Times review summarised. In Shakespeare Wallah, the decline of the town became a metaphor for the decline of the empire itself, seen through a nostalgic lens: “In the beautiful scenes around Simla,” the Times noted, “there are touching, ironic intimations of an empire’s inevitable demise, revealed in the déclassé rest-houses from which the old civil servants have long gone, and where only a handful of persistent old India hands remain.”

While in real life Kapoor went on to marry Kendal’s elder sister Jennifer, in Shakespeare Wallah the end of the gentle love affair between his character and that of Kendal, and symbolically of their two cultures, is signalled by the arrival of Madhur Jaffrey’s character—a glamourous Bollywood heroine. But Bollywood, like other Indian film industries, was quick to embrace Shimla as a playground for fun and romance. In 1960, RK Nayyar’s romantic fairytale Love in Simla came out, followed by the Dev Anand-starrer Manzil, both of which predated Shakespeare Wallah by five years. While Manzil fared miserably at the box office, Nayyar’s film was a success; it also spawned a romance between Nayyar and its lead actress, the debutant Sadhana. With its song sequences, such as the one for ‘Haseenon ki sawari hai,’ with Joy Mukherjee pulling Sadhana up and down Mall Road in a rickshaw, Love in Simla set the long flirtation between Bollywood and the queen of the hills rolling.

A year after Shakespeare Wallah was released, Shimla appeared dappled in colour for the first time, in the 1966 Tamil film Anbe Vaa. The film reincarnated its lead, MG Ramachandran, as a romantic hero, but included only scattered images of the town, as the majority of the shooting took place in Ooty. Over the following decade, while Shimla and its environs appeared in films occasionally, the town was largely overlooked by Indian filmmakers in favour of the Kashmir Valley, particularly Gulmarg—a location that became popular in the mid 1960s, through productions such as Kashmir Ki Kali and Himalay Ki God Mein. With the exception of the treatment of the town as a matte pin-board for song and dance sequences, Shimla remained largely uncharted—a situation compounded by the town’s new responsibilities as a state capital once Himachal Pradesh was formed in 1971.

Over the years, the town’s position in films has shifted from the peripheries of the narrative to closer to the backbone of the story. In 1982, when Kamal Haasan won his first National Film Award, this rising star of Tamil cinema featured in the hit film Simla Special, in which Shimla appears again through the eyes of a tourist. But though films such as Ajay Devgan’s 2000 Raju Chacha and the 2005 release Black meted out heavier doses of the hill station, compared to its stock appearances in the 2009 hit Three Idiots and the Shimla girl Preity Zinta’s 2000 debut Kya Kehna, most never delved into the history behind the visual gloss of its colonial relics .

WHILE INDIAN FILM-MAKERS tended to look at Shimla’s architecture and heritage as having just the right hint of foreignness to qualify it as a vacation destination, it was a series of English productions that began to use the town as a historical set-piece that reflected the imperial past. In January 1979, a small crew from Granada Television—now ITV Granada—arrived in Shimla to shoot an adaptation of Paul Scott’s novel Staying On for British television. The novel, a sort of coda to Scott’s famous Raj Quartet, centred on a British couple, played by Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard, living out their final years in the fictional hill-town of Pankot—in an adopted homeland still somehow foreign to them in the early 1970s. Irene Shubik, the film’s producer, described her first impressions of Shimla in her book Play for Today:

When I walked around Shimla … I began to appreciate the accuracy with which Scott’s book had portrayed a place half caught in a time warp and half in the process of being swallowed up by modern India. There was evidence of the departed Raj everywhere. Most of the houses looked like those in the English counties.

Staying On was largely shot in the nearby village of Mashobra, including in a cottage called Sundarban that belonged to the writer Khushwant Singh’s brother Gurbax. The production was a sort of laboratory test for Granada Television’s next big project, the adaptation of the Raj Quartet itself into the 14-hour serial epic TheJewel in the Crown, in which Sundarban reprised its role as “Rose Cottage.”

The Jewel in the Crown and Staying On were two of several productions during the first half of the 1980s that drew attention to India’s colonial history. These included Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi, the miniseries The Far Pavilions, and the Merchant-Ivory films Heat and Dust and A Passage to India. Both Gandhi and A Passage to India identified Shimla as one of the Raj’s proudest creations: a relatively remote hill station from where nearly a fifth of humanity was ruled by a handful of foreigners. While still relatively orientalist in their underlying perspective, these films and the serial attempted to add nuance to the straightforwardly propagandistic view of the colony from the former seat of the empire, tempering nostalgia with more complicated questions of belonging that clearly held marketable appeal. TheJewel in the Crown was made on a budget of $7 million—unthinkable for a British television series at the time—and became a revered international hit, though it could not be shown in India due to the political turmoil of 1984.

These productions were, over a decade later, supplemented by academic documentaries seeking to unpack Shimla’s colonial history. In 2003, the historian Niall Ferguson visited Shimla while filming for Channel 4’s television adaptation of his controversial book Empire: How Britain Made the Modern World. For “Heaven’s Breed,” the fourth episode of the series, Ferguson used a visit to Shimla to launch into a discussion of the difficulties faced by British officers, and characterised it as a place where they could blow off steam, far from the sweltering plains. In his book, Ferguson called Shimla “a strange little hybrid world—part Highlands, part Himalayas; part powerhouse, part playground.” He put his finger on the fact that for the British ruling force who escaped there every summer—“the government working from the 500th floor,” as Mohandas Gandhi is supposed to have called it—Shimla was as much of a getaway (where a lot more could be gotten away with) as it was in any Bollywood song-and-dance sequence.

In 2004, the comedian and travel writer Michael Palin roamed the same streets as part of the BBC production Himalyas with Michael Palin, a travelogue that gently touched upon the history of the town. Yet neither Ferguson nor Palin engaged as deeply with Shimla as the third part of the BBC’s award-winning 2010 series, Indian Hill Railways. While the narrow gauge rail from Kalka to Shimla was at the centre of the documentary, the town was also panned over from many angles.

But while TheJewel in the Crown imagined a specific period of India’s history, and the later documentaries referenced significant historical facts-of-the-age, in terms of amplitude and aspiration no project has yet attempted anything approaching the colouring of accurate fact with fiction as Indian Summers does. The hope was that the show, by resuscitating Shimla’s past on television, could breathe new life into the protection of its heritage in the future.

As the choice of filming location for Indian Summers illustrated, however, Shimla’s present often obstructs the image of its past. Writing about the production of Staying On, Shubik wrote, “We were not able to find an old hotel next to a new hotel, so that we could pan from the Shiraz to Smith’s, showing, as described in the book, how the encroachment of modern India on the last relics of the old India was eventually going to finish off the Smalleys”—the British couple. To her mind, in 1979, “there was no really modern hotel in Simla, nor, according to everyone we spoke to, were there any in other hill stations.”

Shubik would find the opposite problem today. There is no shortage of hotels touting “modern amenities,” the encroachment upon historic buildings and forested hills is far advanced, and Shimla can no longer play its past colonial self on screen, nor even a thinly fictionalised version of it.

INDIAN SUMMERS is primarily cast as a drama of manners and human passions—it has been described and marketed as a cross between TheJewel in the Crown and Downton Abbey—and the scale of its cinematography mirrors this, with tight frames around the characters, more portrait shots than long shots, and lingering attention on costumes and props rather than landscape and architecture. The sense of place that does come through, is far removed from the atmosphere of the film Sir Conrad Corfield shot during the same time period that Indian Summers is set. While Corfield’s reel opens with shots of Shimla’s slopes, with mist curling up between the pine trees and the houses that nestle among them, the overarching feeling conveyed in Indian Summers is one of tropical heat—a powerful signifier of India in foreign eyes, that trumps the specific reality of Shimla as a hill station.

The detailing in Indian Summers does largely qualify as historically accurate. In the first episode, a worker polishes a plaque that reads “Dogs and Indians not allowed” outside one of the show’s central settings, “The Royal Shimla Club.” Raaja Bhasin told me that, as far as he knows, such a plaque never existed in Shimla, but “the United Services club and other public venues were Whites-only under the Raj.” There are other stock elements in the series, such as an orphanage, the fictional Carmartheon, based on various actual orphanages. The show also mentions in passing the historically accurate fact that only three vehicles were permitted to drive through town. Making the chief Indian protagonists of the show a Parsi family may seem surprising, but Bhasin said that “Shimla was the land of opportunity ... People flocked in: Burmese, Armenians, Jews and even Parsis. When the Raj left, so did the window of opportunity, and that is why it may come across as an oddity. But as a reflection of those times it is fairly accurate.”

The show’s broader themes are generally consistent with history as well. The secretary to the Viceroy, Ralph Whelan, is depicted as an uncompromising agent of the empire, steeped in its ethos. A man with ambitions to the viceroy’s chair, he is characteristically similar to Lord Curzon, who declared himself the future viceroy while still in college and achieved that goal in 1899. One of Indian Summers’ writers also worked on a proposed film adaptation of The Fishing Fleet, a book about English women who, like the character Madeleine Mathers, travelled to India to find husbands. And in its scenes showing screenings for cholera, the show touches upon the actual concerns over epidemic diseases that sent the British scurrying for the hills.

So while Indian Summers fares reasonably well in terms of sketching out historical context, its recreation of a certain geography and the history specific to it still leaves something to be desired. Moving the shooting to Penang meant replacing the narrow-gauge railway with a main-line one, substituting tropical overgrowth for towering forests of Himalayan cedar, and pasting the two most iconic symbols of Shimla—the Viceregal Lodge and Christ Church—into the single panoramic shot of the town using digital carpentry.

INDIAN SUMMERS may further glorify Shimla’s reputation abroad as one of the Raj’s prized possessions, but whatever is left of that colonial town is steadily deteriorating. Bhasin, drawing a distinction between taking pride in a history of occupation and taking pride in Shimla’s heritage, said he didn’t think the town’s material reminders of the past had been adequately preserved. “It could have been different if Shimla had not been made the state capital,” he pointed out. “We have the responsibility of functioning as the state capital and a tourist town. For how long can the two co-exist, I do not know. While the state has definitely moved forward, Shimla has declined.”

A number of heritage buildings have been irrevocably damaged or completely lost. Last January, the Gorton Castle, used as the office of the state’s accountant general, was gutted in a fire. Nine months later, Minto Court, which housed a defence ministry project and was one of the few remaining Tudor-style buildings in town, was similarly destroyed. The state and central governments directly inherited many of the buildings they use—for example, Ellerslie House, Barnes Court, and Town Hall—from the British administration, yet they have done little to safeguard them. And the threats to Shimla’s historical grandeur are surpassed by those to its natural beauty. In just one illustrative incident, last November, almost 500 trees were illegally felled overnight in the Tara Devi jungle, opposite the main Jakhoo hill, with the assistance of five Forest Department officials. A bald spot now mars what was once lush, green forest.

What does remain, though the specifics of colonial class structures have changed, are the gaping economic and social divides depicted in Indian Summers, which takes place at a time when no Indian was allowed on Mall Road before sundown. Tourism remains the most important source of income in Shimla, but the ability to capitalise on it rests with the few families that have inherited the bulk of business and property close to the heart of town, Mall Road. The more recent, suburban settlements of New Shimla, Panthaghati, Sanjauli and Dhalli are inhabited by a floating population of migrant, public-sector and other working–class people—none of whom have access to many permanent opportunities. The middle class was relatively non-existent during the Raj, according to Bhasin, and Shimla still struggles to accommodate this stabilising population.

The real lives of Shimla’s residents have always been lived off camera, eclipsed in outsiders’ imaginations by ideas of the Raj or of a touristic dreamland. Yet they shape Shimla more dramatically today than ever before, increasingly dwarfing both those ideas. While every Bollywood film shows the Shimla resident to belong to an uncommon elite, living within strolling distance of Mall Road or Woodville Palace, and travel companies offer package tours to the town’s famous filming locations, every new government initiative to protect Shimla’s heritage is countered by another meant to bolster urban development. Just this January, the environment ministry approved a new four-lane highway from Parwanoo to Shimla, and, if the forest department gives it the go-ahead, the planned 28-kilometre approach to Shimla will spell more tourists, fewer trees, and greater encroachment. The very things that once lured pleasure-seekers and film-makers to Shimla, and the lightness of spirit that looms largest in its identity—these have become too big a burden for the town to bear, as it slowly becomes just another sprawling Indian city.