Penang Hill Because many of the old British hill stations in India have been built up over time and now serve as modern resorts, Indian Summers' producers searched far and wide to film their Simla, India in a setting unchanged by modern development. At the 11th hour, they finally found their perfect locations in Malaysia, on Penang Hill, a UNESCO World Heritage Site where the march of modernization had been halted in the 1950s and '60s.
PAUL RUTMAN: Here was a place that was once a British hill station, a place where the British went and educated their kids just as they did in India, but in the days of colonial Malaysia, so there was a school there, originally Dowlan's boarding school. ROB HARRIS: The club had been a hotel, then a school, and then it had been abandoned since, I think, the '60s.
Before: The Simla Club
PAUL RUTMAN: [The production crew] literally had to hack their way through what turned out to be a path up to this ruined building which became our club, and which was absolutely beautiful. The only thing that was standing there slightly more intact was some siding and some doorways, which, it turned out, had been left behind by a French film crew that had made the Catherine Deneuve movie Indochine about 15 years before. ROB HARRIS: We had to build a bridge over a little gorge to get there and then we had a lot of local labor from on Penang Hill itself to gradually cut back and take out huge roots. So we went back to the playing fields of the school where they used to play football. Then we had to bring all the turf up the hill in four-wheel drives because it's about five kilometers up the hill, and do all the gardening.
During: The Simla Club ROB HARRIS: We suffered quite a lot from termites. The floor in the club had gone and we had to put some new joists in and put some new ceilings on. We had to put electricity in, put water in. We really started from scratch.
After: The Simla Club
ROB HARRIS: We designed it all and set it all up, but we got a really good team of local people from on top of the hill to do it all for us, which they enjoyed. A lot of them have spent all their life up there and seen these places fall into disrepair, and getting them back to how they used to be was a great excitement for them. It was very exciting to see it gradually come back and sort of be reborn, really. HENRY LLOYD-HUGHES: The club is a breathtaking location. It just looks so proud. It sits on the brow of this hill. To see the sunset from there, with everyone in their period costume, the golden hour is spectacular. Sometimes, I have this conversation with Julie [Walters] when we're on set, about how just the making of the show is as bonkers and almost more unique than the actual end product!
ROB HARRIS: The other main location we had to claw back was Chotipool, which again, had been left since the '50s and was really overgrown, with wild ginger and snakes and all sorts of things. The Chotipool garden was a mission, really, because of lorry-loads of turf going up. A large lorry would drive to the bottom of the hill, it would all be offloaded and loaded onto small lorries, driven up most of the way up the hill, then offloaded and loaded onto even smaller lorries and driven to Chotipool, and then carried all the way down by hand! So the lawns and the gardens of Chotipool took quite a long time just because of that.
During: Chotipool ROB HARRIS: We restored it to a house, 360 degrees, every room restored, toilets, bathrooms, everywhere. So the actors could move around, directors could move around, act as a real space, which they all loved.
HENRY LLOYD-HUGHES: My home, the Chotipool location, is by far my favorite location. That's not just because I do all my personal stuff there, but also because it's so rare to have a location where every single room is interconnected, and almost every single room is exactly the room that it appears to be, so there's no breaking of the fourth wall where you have to pretend that the bedroom is the study or whatever, and reframe it and relight it. You can do a continuous scene where you are on the landing and you walk downstairs and you pick up a drink and then you go out onto the veranda and you go straight into the garden. That is so remarkable for an actor because it completely frees you up and it means that you have this wholehearted authenticity. There's nothing really to break the spell, and that's an amazing luxury.
Creating the Dalal House
ROB HARRIS: With the Dalal house, it's a question of the colors and the feel of it. I've worked in India a couple of times, so I knew India reasonably well. And the Dalals are a Parsi family, so I found a reference to a Parsi house, which had the greens and the reds on it. So we used that. We made a sort of fully functioning kitchen so the Dalals could cook in there, making chapatis and things. It was very much like a real house.
Making The Bazaar
ROB HARRIS: What we tried to do with all of the locations was to connect the exteriors to the interiors, so we built the bazaar around the Dalal house so that through the windows of every sort of opportunity, you could see the bazaar life going on outside.
NIKESH PATEL: The bazaar, which is so full of life and character, unbelievably was actually constructed around the back of a parking lot!
ROB HARRIS: There was quite a large Indian population in Georgetown, which was very useful, but there were no Indian locations, so we had to build the bazaar and the Dalal house and all of those Indian locations on a car park behind the museum in Georgetown. Because Georgetown is a big trading place, we could get lots of herbs and spices and cloth and things. So we got lots of local props to dress it, with chickens, birds, goats, cows, all that kind of thing.
A Haunted Set?
PAUL RUTMAN: There are lots of ghosts in all these houses. So there are numerous stories about that, and you feel it as you wander around them. I have to say, when I first went round the mission school—and I'm not who's minded to believe in ghosts—you felt, kind of, people breathing in other rooms. You felt the presence of all that life and history there. I know that in the location where we film the bazaar, there's a child's swing hanging from a tree, and when the designer first came in, he said "We'll cut that down." And I said oh yes, yes, we'll do that. And every time he came back he found the swing hadn't been cut down and it hadn't even been tied up or touched in any way, and eventually people said that there's a ghost on that swing, and if you touch it, that's very bad luck, there's a curse on it. So as a result, we've kept the swing, and no one cuts it out of the shot, it just sits there randomly.
ROB HARRIS: The other story is that in the mission school. We had security on the mission school overnight, and we'd left the props there ready to dress the next day. One of the props was a clock which chimed in the middle of the night, so they all ran away because they thought that the chiming clock was a ghost.
Continuous Care ROB HARRIS: [The restoration] is an ongoing process. We have people looking after the sets in the downtime, caretakers who live on the hill. Because obviously, with things like soft furnishings left in a locked-up house, it gets damp. The termites eat it. So the house has to be aired every week, to make sure there's no leaks. Because when it rains, it really does rain.