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.

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.''

Sir Denis remembers a very different India in 1945 from the one he found last year. ''We used to have our own closed world, mixing only with each other - with the military, the top social class, the administrators. It was like a club. Now I see great intellectual excitement and political debate in which women play a leading part. India is trying to find its own way of solving its own problems. There was none of that before.

''However , although I never met those people, I'm sure they were there. I wasn't allowed to meet them, by the social system. My generation thinks of India in terms of the military and civil-service life. Today, if you go back there, you find a very democratic, active, slightly confused, rather ineffective group of people groping their way to the next move as they try to get the country to survive. Survival is what it is all about.''

According to Sir Denis, to shoot ''Jewel'' in India it was necessary to get Indian government cooperation, and that meant script approval. ''But there were only minor adjustments in items of phraseology or references to religion. The number of substantial alterations was absolutely zero.''

Although there were no problems with the weather, Sir Denis says, food was a problem. ''Here we were, a group of up to 100 people mostly from Lancashire, many very provincial, who liked kippers and sausages and black pudding. To make them happy we had to have food frozen and sent out from England by air.''

Outside of commercial success, what would Sir Denis like the series to accomplish?

''Well, first of all, I think the real test is if the finished product is satisfying to the people who strove to make it. I believe most of us feel that it hits the mark.''

Can't I coax him to say something a bit more pompous?

He laughs. ''Well, if you insist. I think that Paul Scott's perception of the relations between European and Asian races is so powerful that it will remind people of their own racial problems, even if they are different . . . in different places. In the same way 'Roots' had its effect in Europe, I believe Scott's view of the racial problems in India has relevance in Bolivia, Chile, many places.

''I believe it is a superbly acute analysis of racial inferiority and superiority and the resulting neuroses and phobias. That sort of psychoanalysis of race done by Paul Scott has universal applications . I think it has lessons for us in Britain in places like Brixton, too.''

Not long ago another British TV executive told me that he was grateful for American TV series because he was able to buy them at reasonable prices, show them in England and get very good ratings, and then use the profits to make high-quality programs he could then sell to America. In a way, he admitted, bad American TV was subsidizing good British TV. Does Sir Denisagree?

He laughs. ''Absolutely true. Without the popularity of programs like 'Dallas' and 'Dynasty,' British TV would have to make something that would attract big audiences quickly and cheaply. So I absolutely endorse what this chap said. American popular TV subsidizes British quality TV. But I don't sneer at popular TV, either. Some of it is very good.''

The interview over, Sir Denis once again escorted me to the elevator, where we said our goodbyes.

Just the other day, however, I called him in London to update his feelings about India after the assassination of Indira Gandhi.

''I think this crisis,'' he says, ''is not proving to be of such magnitude that it will shake their democratic system. India has weathered the first stage and will soon find its stability again. And I have faith that the democratic tradition will continue.''

As an Englishman, is he proud of having brought that tradition to India?

''Well, I wouldn't want to say it that way. Certainly India has adopted the Western democratic idea to serve Indians. But I never forget that most of India's political ideas come from their own culture and social traditions.''

''Jewel in the Crown'' has not yet been shown in India, and Sir Denis explains that he is at work on plans to show it on Indian television soon.

''And when it shows, I will be very tempted to go back,'' he admits. I detect a slight note of nostalgia - for the new India - in his voice.

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