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Sir Denis Forman on the painful progress of India

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''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.''


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