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Indian Summers: An Indian Downton Abbey?

Indian Summers, the latest UK telly import, will be hitting US screens via PBS this September. The show appears tipped to be a Downton Abbey successor, building on what made the smash hit such a runaway success, but along the way, it’s loaded with many of the same heavy social implications that made Downton a more complicated text than met the eye. Handled well, those issues could be intriguing, but handled poorly, they could snowball into a mess — and no matter how they’re treated by producers, viewers may miss the point.

Summers is set in Simla, a Indian town seething with members of the British raj who retreat to the region every summer to scheme and maneuver in an era when politics relied heavily on personal connections and the ability to work a crowd. The time is the 1930s, the tipping point for Britain as it struggled to hold on to India and the nation fought for self-determination and independence — the production is slated to last until 1947 and independence, though that will depend on viewer reception.

This being an attempt to replace Downton, of course, it’s soap opera as much as it is historical drama, as evidenced by the episodes that aired in the UK and select other markets already. The programme is as much about the people and their varied squabbles with each other as it is about the actual history, right down to sordid questions of who fathered whom, who’s sleeping with whom, and, of course, who murdered whom. Certainly the creators are putting the ‘drama’ in ‘historical drama,’ milking the attention of audiences to keep them riveted.

There’s something more darkly sinister about Indian Summers, however, and it lies in the setting: The sunset years of the British raj marked a gradual fall of the British empire, but that didn’t make them any less brutal. The British ruled over India for nearly a century under the raj, and India was one among many British colonies worldwide won by blood, sweat, and toil — at great cost to indigenous people and native communities. The fight for freedom in India was a significant struggle, one complicated by patronising approaches from colonial powers as well as partition and the rupture of Muslim and Hindu communities.

English-language texts tend to glorify the British raj, presenting it as a sparkling era full of dramatic and exotic backdrops, Indian princesses, glorious parties, legendary gems, and all the amenities life had to offer for colonists. The British gained immense wealth in India while enjoying luxurious accommodations, catered to by Indians who were treated even worse than the belowstairs servants on Downton, and most families could afford at least a houseboy or an ayah to manage their children. The assurance that servants in both cases were ‘members of the family’ is inevitably soured by the fact that family members do not operate at an inherently unequal power dynamic.

Think The Secret Garden, where the spoilt Mary Lennox grows up with a fleet of servants at her beck and call in a rarefied world where the realities of life outside the family compound don’t actually penetrate her existence — for her, there are only the glamorous parties her parents attend and the devoted attentions of her nanny. Or the Raj Quartet, the epic Paul Scott series that enshrined the raj as a glittering past era even as it explored the racial and cultural issues that accompanied the shattering of Britain’s colonial stranglehold on India. Scores of works — fiction, nonfiction, television, film — create a rosy-fingered look at one of India’s more difficult and fraught historical eras, turning India into a playground and Britons into the indulged children frolicking there.

This is the background against which Indian Summers appears. As with Downton, the programme will inevitably depict a bygone era with a certain amount of nostalgia, something that must perforce be accompanied by a longing to return to those days.

Downton sets itself apart as a programme where people upstairs and belowstairs are depicted in their own right, with their own dramas, nuanced characterisations, and histories. Yet, the viewer is constantly reminded of the separation between the two, and, notably, as the series winds down to a close, there’s a sense of sadness for the slow decline of Downton. That decline — the inability to afford upkeep on the estate, the shifting social norms that change the role of women, and more — inevitably involves more liberation for the household staff and the development of a new era for those who historically worked in positions of subjugation.

In earlier seasons, viewers saw a glorification and pride of workers who had been ‘in service’ their whole lives, and who came from a line of people who shared a history of being ‘in service.’ As the programme wraps up, however, the notion of working as a servant forever, and being happy with that life, is disintegrating, and it’s directly responsible for the downfall of the upper class life that appears so glitzy during the course of Downton Abbey. Even as the show takes a critical look at class, it speaks almost wistfully of the decline of class stratification.

Such is likely to be the case with Indian Summers as well, as the programme is also told from the perspectives of those in power and the subjugated alike, while being fundamentally about the fall of those in power and the rise of those who are not. With that again comes a sense of wistfulness about what once was, the glamour not just of the 1930s but of a time when everyone knew their place and servants were always available to wait on people hand and foot — a longing, in other words, for the social and cultural divides that made the British raj what it was.

Today, of course, powerful British families continue to play a prominent role in Indian politics, and some Indian families have risen to roles of power since 1947. Within the context of these families, some of the same stratifications continue to exist — sprawling estates, servants, decadent parties — the raj hasn’t truly died, though it has changed form.

For a casual viewer, the programme will be about sweeping, beautiful views of India and handsome homes and pretty parties, with cheerful native servants there to prop up the artificial world of British expats, no matter how careful and deliberate the creators choose to be. That’s a disservice to history and the sacrifices made by those who fought for freedom.