In one brief scene in "Staying On," which airs tonight on Channel 26 at 8, the aged English couple of the show are attending church in the mountain hill station to which they have retired. The small church, a duplicate of any in an English village, is filled with Indians -- the products of missionaries' successful efforts at a conversion -- and the new clergyman is also Indian. They are singing "All Things Bright and Beautiful," when suddenly the verse changes and the words are being sung in Hindi. The English couple are momentarily taken aback. They do not know the words in Hindi.
This brief moment rather neatly sums up the strange position of British expatriates living in India: a world in which they were once the ruling class, no matter how humble their own position within that class. Indians now run things; British priests have been replaced by natives, and British hymns are being sung in Hindi. Being British is no longer enough to assume a special position.
Based on Paul Scott's novel of the same name, this award-winning British export reunites Trevor Howard and Celia Johnson after 35 years in what may be the best performances of their respective careers. The couple they play, "Tusker" Smalley and his wife Lucy, are typical of the leftover colonials who stayed on after India became independent of Britain in 1947. Duplicates of the Smalleys are not uncommon on the subcontinent -- particularly in the hill stations where cool weather is more reminiscent of England. You can see them walking about, pale and usually wearing hats. They fill out their days with trips to the English-language library stocked with musty books and out-of-date English newspapers; have tea before moving on to "The Club" for dinner and many drinks and perhaps a spot of billiards; and, on feasted occasions, dance to vintage pop music played on slightly out-of-tune instruments.
In England their pensions would force them into mere penury. India allows them their two servants and their mountain retreat. The Smalleys, having spent their entire careers in India, are foreigners everywhere. "Home" is distant and unfamiliar and yet they have never really become part of India.
"When they ruled the roost, they didn't care about our concerns," says their grasping, overfed Indian landlady, whose efforts to evict them provide the backbone of the plot. The landlady (Pearl Padamsee) represents the New India gone wrong, westernized by greed and real estate, excusing her own monstrous behavior as "tit for tat."
The plot in this film is less important than the situation. Mrs. Smalley complains that she has no friends, that if her husband were to die -- as he shows signs of doing -- she would be left along among strangers and without any knowledge of her financial condition. She knits, goes to the movies once a week, and putters. They go out to Sunday dinner the day their servant is out and often drink too much.
He, an irascible old crock, spends his days reading, insulting his servant, and complaining. He communicates his concern for his wife in a letter, writing that he "can't talk about these things face to face . . . not brought up that way." She clutches the letter to her bosom in a swoon of happiness and dances, as is her wont, by herself; a slightly dotty old lady sweetly jigging and swaying about the empty room.
The only flaw in this 1 1/2-hour film is a common one of Western movies made in India. The creators have been so entranced by that entrancing country that they tend to let the story action falter while the camera lingers on the scenery, the Quaint Native Customs, and the people. The inevitable tabla and sitar music is too predictable for a sound track, and the Indian actors, while excellent, show a bit too much of the melodramtic common to Indian films, making too startling a contrast to the dry, understated performances of Howard and Johnson.
For the most part, however, "Staying On" is evocative without being oversentimental.Racism among Indians is shown as well as the racism of the English toward their former subjects. Howard and Johnson are superb, revealing the two old codgers as people of gentleness as well as irascibility caught in a world that is beyond their power and ability to shape.