In 1947, India, the subcontinent that the English called "the jewel in the crown" of its empire, became an independent state. It is the world's most populous democracy, yet most Americans do not know its history or understand its people.
On Wednesday, PBS marks the half-century of the nation's independence with "The Dynasty--the Nehru-Gandhi Story," a three-hour recount of India's modern history through the family that has led it during the 20th century.
Begin with Motilal Nehru, a high-caste Brahmin whose family served Muslim emperors even before the British. A westernized Anglophile with a comfortable income, he sent his son Jawaharlal to boarding school in England and ordered his clothing from Poole, tailor to the king.
But after both father and son became followers of spiritual leader Mahatma Gandhi, they spearheaded India's struggle against the British. Jawaharlal Nehru became his country's first prime minister, but he immediately faced bloodshed as the Muslims of the north sought their own independent state, Pakistan. Fourteen million people fled the north.
Then, one year after independence, Gandhi, whom Indians considered the spiritual father of the country, was killed by a Hindu extremist.
Bereft, but needing money to bring his country into modern times, Nehru forged ties with Moscow, whose governmental organization he admired, and Beijing, capital of another crowded nation, and, less successfully, with the United States. A widower, he also built a relationship--some say love affair--with Edwina Mountbatten, wife of the viceroy with whom he had negotiated for India's independence. To some, their friendship was scandalous; those who knew them both were more understanding.
Nehru's daughter Indira married Feroze Gandhi (no relation to Mahatma Gandhi), but she lived with him only four years, returning to her father's house with her sons to become his hostess and political apprentice. In 1966, at 48, she succeeded him as prime minister.
Tragedy continued to haunt the family. Indira Gandhi's son and heir apparent, Sanjay, was killed in an airplane crash. Gandhi herself was killed by a Sikh bodyguard in 1984.
Reluctantly, Rajiv Gandhi, who had not planned to follow the family vocation, accepted the prime minister's post. He too was assassinated, at a rally in 1991. His widow, Sonia, has twice refused nomination as president of the country.
In the view of executive producer Zvi Dor-Ner, the Nehrus helped make India independent but could not keep it united, preached peace but used violence for political gains, championed nonalignment but aligned themselves with communist countries. Rajiv Gandhi's children are still too young to enter politics, but if their mother has her way, India's modern political dynasty may be over.
* "The Dynasty--the Nehru-Gandhi Story" airs at 8 p.m. Wednesday on KCET-TV Channel 28.