What Downton Abbey Teaches Us About Indian Society

“We all have our parts to play in society, and we must all be allowed to play them.” -Lord Grantham

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Ideal, yet troubled families: the Granthams from Downton Abbey and the Raichand’s from Kabhi Khushi Kabhi Gham

There are striking similarities between the formal, high context cultures of the grand homes of early 20th century England and modern Indian society. Many of the quotable moments of the  much beloved English drama are almost exact translations of what you hear in Bollywood films or Indian TV serials (similar to soap operas).

From master/servant dramas to “inter-caste” marriage (Sybil & Tom), to dowry pressure (Mary’s inability to inherit the estate), you will find a wealth of similar problems in the Grantham family as you would a modern Delhi-dwelling family of Sharmas.

Hierarchy within the Family

The hierarchy of respect is still in place in most Indian families. The pressure to accommodate the wishes and traditions of the elderly over personal happiness are still as strong as ever. The matriarch of the family reserves the right to run the rest like puppets. The Dowager Countess of Grantham  is like a manipulative Bollywood Daadiji, going behind unsuspecting youngsters’ backs to arrange a match, managing the family estate without actually lifting a finger, or keeping unwanted guests away with a cold breeze of indirect disdain. If Daddiji/Granny wants something done, it best be done, or there is a fire of manipulation about to consume those in the way.

Servants/Master Dynamic

One of the thriving themes of Downton is the tension between the servants and masters. Jealousies run rampant and loyalties are tested. While there seems to be a much greater distance between servants and masters in Indian society, similar rules apply when it comes to unspoken rules of employment. It is never the servant’s  place to  personally advise ladies and lords, even more so in Indian society. As an employer, servants can never be your friends, and one must keep the professional and impersonal. Downton clearly indicates this distance whenever someone from upstairs enters the servant’s hall and the staff stand immediately. Servants in India still do this today and often greet their employers with a formal “Namaste” or “Pranaam.” Close servants who live with the master sometimes touch the feet of employers and employer’s relatives as a sign of outward respect, and establishment of position.

High Value of Virtue and Reputation

Reputation does not depend on what one says about oneself, but on what the larger community thinks. Especially for women, the values of cleanliness, external beauty, upright behavior, and purity are main criteria of which she is evaluated.  The Grantham family goes to great lengths to hide Mary’s one night stand with the Turkish diplomat. Mary’s line “Pappa will be ruined,” sounds like a line from a desi dulhan juggling the thought of running away with her lover the night before her arranged marriage. Other external factors such as a veering from adventure and danger are highly valued. For example: The modesty of women riding side saddle (horse in Downton, scooter in India) is an indication of femininity, modesty, and an avoidance of perceived speed and danger. High virtues of women are of imminent value.

Marriages of Status

Money is a major factor for marriage in Downton. Mary and Matthew are the ideal match as money, status, and love come in one package. In dramas like Kabhi Khushi Kabhi Gham, the son of the wealthy, high-caste Raichand family (played by Shahrukh Khan) diverts from the norms by marrying simple townsperson (Kajol) and spends the rest of his life trying to resolve his broken relationship with his family. Similar rebels like Sybil and Tom Branson, who wed against all societal norms, have a serious price to pay for their love.  There is an “us VS. them” mentality” which binds the Granthams to the Raichands.  Mary sums it up by telling Sybil “He just isn’t our kind of people.” Arranged marriages in India certainly have flavors of status, money, and position of the family, much like the Granthams.

Bent on Tragedy

In Bollywood and Downton Abbey, there are no shortage of tragic moments. The fatalistic times of post war Europe set the stage for death and financial ruin. An upwardly mobile India still carries the memories of lack of healthcare, ethnic clashes, and financial struggle. Economic difficult times still cloud the majority of the population. In films, tragedy and pain are an expected part of the story and a way of adding extra drama which the masses can relate to.

Formalities of all kinds exist in Indian society, which are represented in parallel in Downton Abbey, set in the pre-departure time of the British Raj. While the West experienced modernity at the turn of the century, India has been experiencing a similar wave of societal change since 1991. The times may be different, the focus on formalities, family structure, and societal pressures are shockingly similar.

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5 thoughts on “What Downton Abbey Teaches Us About Indian Society

  1. Great blog… i have been thinking the same about Indonesian society. I’ve appreciated how Downton shows the wealthy not as complete jerks, per usual, but complex characters who often try to right thing and feel a sense of responsibility for those around them while enjoying the entitlement they were born into… the younger generations struggling with that tension.: the Earl to Mathew who wanted to get rid of his Valet because he thought having one was ridiculous, “…would you deny a man his lively hood?” I met many upper class Indonesians who had an army of household staff, most of which was way more than needed. I asked them about this and most of them has a similar response. “If we don’t hire them, what will they do?” And the growing middle class, some breaking down of class barriers, etc, is also similar to what is happening in Indonesia. Just this morning I was wondering if India may have elements of the same. I could go on… Nice work.- Paul Sherry

  2. I have not yet watched Downton Abbey, but I have always found myself thinking about Indo-Pak culture as sort of Victorian. Not that the culture is anachronistic or in any way “backwards” due to having these features that to us seem like something from our cultural past. More like it is very formal and class divisions are very overt (high context) while in US culture we have many class and color-caste (racial) divisions but they are more subtextual, though right below the surface. Sometimes people say things in front of me that sound right out of an Oscar Wilde novel. My ILs, very Anglicized, have very formal table settings, formal manners, and use expressions like “upstarts,” “old money,” and “good family.” (As in so-and-so comes from a “good family,” meaning they are socially reputable.) They host and attend high-teas, visit clubs (though they are not of a high enough status to have club membership), and much more, basically the same things you describe above. Though the caste and class divisions are of course part of indigenous culture, it’s also definitely heavily due to the influences of colonialism. The British purposely fostered the development of this affluent, very formal and Anglicized class, so-called “brown sahebs,” to aid them in ruling their subjects. And who ended up spearheading the revolt against them…this class that they created in their image. Nevertheless, the British touch remains and is still a mark of prestige. Such is the legacy of colonialism on those subjected to it.

    1. Great examples of a high context culture Fatima. In season 3 of Downton the family experiences heart wrenching tragedies that I feel like came right out of a Yash Chopra script!

  3. Really a great post. Great insights. The point about modernity and 1991 is exceedingly important and almost totally unknown. Great stuff.

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