Despite streaming on Netflix India, Beecham House – a British TV show that has been criticised heavily in the UK for its subpar writing and acting – has not ruffled any feathers among reviewers and critics based in India, even though it is set in 18th century Delhi and features prominent Indian actors like Lara Dutta, Arunoday Singh and Tisca Chopra.
When I watched the show, I realised why that was the case.
Beecham House is a show meant primarily for white British viewers who, instead of dealing with their country’s horrific colonial past, want to dissociate and absolve themselves from it.
The show features Tom Bateman as John Beecham, a lieutenant who left the East India Company because of its violent ways, who settled in Delhi after falling in love with India and its people. John Beecham, even has a half-Indian and half-British child, and has “India’s interests at heart”.
His loyalty towards India is hammered into viewers in every single episode.
Unlike those involved with the East India Company who want to exploit India’s riches and ultimately rule the country, Beecham wants to conduct trade fairly in a way that supposedly benefits both locals and himself.
Beecham is upright and virtuous and is ultimately the personification of how a woke white orientalist would imagine themselves to be. Woke because he has severed his ties with the Company and its project of colonialism and orientalist, well, because of his sheer love and fascination for India, to the point where he wants to make it his permanent home.
However, under colonialism, is it ever possible for a white person, let alone a Brit, to be truly woke and exist as an equal among locals?
This contradiction is evident as Beecham is constantly surrounded by hordes of brown servants at his command, clearly unequal to Beecham in their position. Unfortunately however, the show fails to investigate the grey areas in Beecham’s character and his situation and instead portrays him as a flawless hero in a “white saviour-y” light.
In addition, the problem with the show is the very decision to portray an exceptional person like John Beecham as opposed to the reality of colonialism, a system that was necessarily run by cruel and profit-hungry colonisers.
While watching Beecham House, British viewers are not confronted with the trauma British colonialism caused and, hence, do not have to deal with any discomfort and guilt. Instead, what they get is an avenue to fulfil their fantasies in the form of a sanitised and comfortably packaged portrayal of a love story set in the exotic location of colonial India.
The show isn’t all bad, of course.
Directed by Gurinder Chadha, who also directed Bend it Like Beckham, the show has powerful and complex women characters – both white and brown. Baby Beecham’s aunt Chandrika, played by Pallavi Sharda, commands any room she enters, often taking the spotlight and attention away from John Beecham’s British mother. Chanchal, Baby Beecham’s caretaker, goes through a range of emotions from love to sadness and anger and is allowed to have agency and express them on screen, to the point where she is visibly upset even with her master’s brother.
Overall, the show isn’t as egregious and is a bingeable length of six-episodes. However, one can’t help but question who it is meant for and what purpose it is fulfilling – especially given how little the British currently learn about colonialism and its aftereffects.
Scholars have spoken about the “historical amnesia” that the British educational system propagates as it does not adequately teach students about the role of the country in plundering the Global South and ultimately, completely transforming the world.
At a time when the UK and other former colonial powers are becoming increasingly xenophobic and racist towards immigrants and refugees – most of whom are in the position they are partly due to colonialism – do we really need a show like Beecham House that shies away from showing British rule in its true colours?
Or do we need one that adequately portrays the horrors of colonialism and the immense wealth and power that Europe gained because of it – thus enabling us to contextualise the world that we live in today.
Kudrat Wadhwa is a graduate in Anthropology from Brown University who writes about politics, intersectionality and pop culture.