Sir Denis Forman on the painful progress of India
''I believe that the tradition of democracy which the British left behind in India is helping to see Indians through the present crisis,'' says Sir Denis Forman, chairman of Granada Television, who initiated one of the most widely acclaimed series ever shown on British television, The Jewel in the Crown.Skip to next paragraph
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This 14-episode dramatization of Paul Scott's four-novel epic, ''The Raj Quartet,'' starts airing in the United States next month on ''Masterpiece Theatre'' (PBS, Sundays, starting Dec. 16, 9-11 p.m., continuing for one-hour segments on 13 consecutive Sundays). This epic tale is set in India during the five years preceding the country's independence. Some consider the tale to be a metaphor - the story of the actual rape of a British woman as well as the story of the figurative rape of the country.
Sir Denis, who was posted to India during World War II, was in New York recently to help promote the series on American television. We arranged to have tea at his hotel, the Carlyle. Upon arrival, I found a tall, distinguished-looking man, graying slightly at the temples. He emerged from the elevator and walked erectly toward me, with no evidence in his gait that he had lost a leg in a World War II Italian campaign. A perfect host, Sir Denis had come down to the lobby to welcome me.
Back in his suite, I noted that we seem to be in the midst of a media Raj revival. In addition to ''The Jewel in the Crown,'' we have had the films ''Gandhi'' and ''Heat and Dust,'' the novel and HBO miniseries ''The Far Pavilions,'' and soon the film version of ''A Passage to India.''
''Might it be that present-day England is in such difficult straits that there is a need to look back at what might be regarded as more glorious days?'' I asked, raising what might seem an impertinent question.
Sir Denis shook his head. ''Well, it's a thesis. But not one that would convince me. If we wanted to find a glorious period, we'd go back much farther - perhaps to the 18th century when Britain was winning the world. What we are looking at in most of these films is the disintegration of the empire, not its zenith. All those shows have in them the seeds of decay.''
But isn't there in England today a group that yearns for ''the good old days'' of the British Empire, just as there are those in the American South who yearn for the Confederacy?
''Those people just barely exist in England today,'' Sir Denis responded. ''In 10 years they'll all be gone. That older generation who actually served in India look back at the life of the Raj with nostalgia, perhaps, but their children and grandchildren do not share their views. Even in the most conservative areas of British thought you don't find much love for the old-time empire ideal. They defend it and respect it, but you won't find much longing for a return to it.''
Sir Denis served in India just before the British left, and he returned while ''Jewel in the Crown'' was being made last year. What major changes did he observe?
''Well, India has become a person in her own right. India is now an identifiable country. When the British were there it wasn't. It was two countries - the British Raj and the Indian subservient race. It has now become one country, and it has among the biggest problems of any country in the world.
''Nevertheless, when you're in India now, you get a feeling that whatever happens, it's going to come through as a unit. When the British were there, many of us felt it would fragment, not just Pakistan and India, but the princely states. It hasn't happened. The biggest surprise is that India has come through as a unit. I would hardly have believed that in 1945.''
How about the physical things - the railroads, the roads, and the mails? Have they survived? Have they retained the efficiency the British brought?
''The brutal answer is 'no.' The railways run but the roads are poor. Technological progress has been slow. India staggers on from one difficult famine to another economic or political crisis, but nevertheless it's got identity. It's got a will to live.''