'Far Pavilions': the British Raj, soap-opera style
This seems to be ''The Year of the Raj'' on television. Since Indian independence, the Raj, a generic label for the British occupation of India, has been quietly receding into history. But the memories, good and bad - in some cases filled with romance and nostalgia, and in others bitterness and discrimination - still linger in the hearts and minds of millions of Englishmen and Indians.
So television is resurrecting the Raj, as part of renewed interest in that period of colonial history. In process, or already completed for British and American television this year, are productions based on Kipling's ''Kim,'' E. M. Forster's ''A Passage to India,'' and Paul Scott's ''The Raj Quartet.'' The last production, titled ''A Jewel in the Crown,'' was already shown to triumphant reviews in Britain (see article in the April 17 Arts & Leisure section). The film ''Gandhi'' will be coming to television this year, and there's been talk of redoing ''Lives of a Bengal Lancer.'' In addition, in the works for the 1985-86 season is ''Mountbatten; the Last Viceroy,'' which brings the Raj to its conclusion.
Now, Home Box Office is preparing to release on pay cable its $12 million, six-hour version of the international best seller The Far Pavilions, by M.M. Kaye (HBO, Sunday, April 22, 8-10 p.m.; Monday, April 23, 8-10 p.m., and Tuesday , April 24, 8-10 p.m. The series will be repeated on HBO April 30-May 2). It is a ravishingly photographed sandalwood soap opera, rather ambivalently overflowing with nostalgia for the Raj from the British military point of view, while taking every opportunity it can to berate the British for their insensitivity to the Indian population.
''Pavilions'' is marvelously corny in the tradition of the worst Raj literature, with a passionate love affair between Ashton Pelham-Martyn, an English officer (saved as a boy from a massacre and raised by his Indian nanny), and Princess Anjuli, a half-caste of royal blood who was his childhood sweetheart. The six hours are chock-full of massacres, caste-system indignities (British as well as Indian), calamities, mountain crossings, rebellions, and uprisings, in northern India as well as in Afghanistan. The ancient - now outlawed - Indian custom of suttee (whereby widows are cremated live along with their dead husbands) is given a going-over and serves as a rather gory climax. But you can rest assured that the young lovers will be last seen headed on horseback into their sacred mountains.
Ben Cross is properly dashing, idealistic, loving, and vulnerable as the young officer. The ultimate compliment: He is believable in a basically incredible story. Amy Irving, in dark pancake makeup and enough charcoal outlining her eyes to broil a steak, seems to believe that speaking in a monotone will make her believable as an Indian princess. It doesn't.
The first two hours are filled with exposition, since there's a lot of background in the book which had to be stuffed into the six-hour TV version to make the action comparatively logical. It isn't until the third hour that the love affair gets going and the smoochy makeup-smearing scenes liven up the proceedings.
Peter Duffell directed and Julian Bond did the adaptation, both acceptably well, considering that nobody really takes the colorful charade seriously. But accolades should go to Jack Cardiff, director of photography, who knew what this picture was all about and thus managed to include gorgeous sunsets, breathtaking mountain views, and a feeling for the lush, sticky succulence of the land.
''The Far Pavilions'' is a good read translated into a long watch. If you're game for exotic backgrounds, Raj nostalgia mixed with anti-British attitudes, and a classic, incredibly romantic love affair which transcends time and local custom, the miniseries will provide you with six hours of old-fashioned adventurous distraction. If you demand more than that from a tale of the Raj, I have a feeling you had better wait for Granada Television's ''The Jewel in the Crown,'' which has already won acclaim in Britain and which airs here around the end of the year as a PBS ''Masterpiece Theatre.''
A chat with Ben Cross
America knows Ben Cross best as Harold Abrahams in the Oscar-winning ''Chariots of Fire.'' Or perhaps as the lead in the television miniseries ''The Flame Trees of Thika'' and ''The Citadel.'' And now, as Ashton in ''Far Pavilions,'' he is once again a good guy, pure and moral.
Ben Cross, the actor, realizes that he has become a symbol of virtue - and worries about it a bit.
In an interview conducted in his suite at New York's chic Sherry Netherland Hotel, he is defiantly dressed in what seems to be Army surplus clothing - khaki trousers and combat boots. It is almost as if he's trying to dispel that good-guy image.
''I must admit,'' he smiles as he speaks in what has become known as a clipped upper-class British accent, ''that kind of worries me. It's a balloon, and I've got to pop it before it gets too big. I'm human and I don't want to become trapped into behaving in a way that's really not true.''
London born and raised, Mr. Cross possesses all the proper credits - he studied at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts and appeared with the Royal Shakespeare Company. He is amused that ''Chariots of Fire'' was re-imported into England after it won the Academy Award here and did much better business the second time around ''because it had the blessing of the rest of the world. The English are very reluctant to congratulate themselves. Once they get praise from an outside source, then they'll acknowledge that perhaps they did a good job.'' He believes ''Chariots'' expressed a yearning for morality on everyone's part, especially Americans.
Cross was aware of the Raj and its controversies long before this current production: ''I was born in 1947, the year Gandhi managed to claim independence, so India was part and parcel of my perception.
None of the romantic nostalgia concerning the Raj is part of his background, however. ''I tend to look upon India as the sin of our fathers. We generally tended to think of India as ours . . . until the mutiny.''
Aside from the fact that Cross thinks ''The Far Pavilions'' will establish him in the role of a swashbuckling romantic hero who can ride, fight, and romance women, he says he believes the miniseries is good for television.
''I feel that if cable companies make profits, they should spend some of that money on original productions. 'The Far Pavilions' is not a soap opera, it's an unfolding story, a higher level of drama, three 2-hour films. It will give people an understanding of that period of time in the Raj.''
Whether one calls it soap opera or a higher level of entertainment, ''The Far Pavilions'' is six hours of flamboyantly photographed human turbulence in which Ben Cross somehow manages to emerge with his good-guy image intact.