The producers of the beloved and occasionally infuriating British television series “Downton Abbey” are moving forward with a feature-length film about the Crawley family.
While we’re excited that our favorite fictional aristocrats are returning to their on-screen lives, we can’t help but wonder how the script of the upcoming film will turn out. Will “Downton Abbey” creator Julian Fellowes follow through on statements he’s made over the years about the need to introduce an Indian character into the show’s universe?
“You have to work it in in a way that is historically believable, but I am sure we could do that,” said Fellowes way back in 2012. “The show certainly ought to have an Indian character from that period.”
Fellowes statement makes clear that the need for diversity was on his mind more than half a decade ago. While he also threw in a comment for the need for any Indian character to be “historically believable,” he should know by now that doing so would not be difficult at all.
In recent years, both historians and audiences have been making a greater push to publicly recognize the contributions of Black and South Asian Britons to the history of the United Kingdom.
A good example of this are the commemorations that have been happening in 2018 honoring the centennial of the end of World War I. The Great War played a crucial role in “Downton Abbey,” with several characters going off to battle and the house itself being transformed for a time into a hospital for recovering soldiers.
But none of those soldiers looked like the Sikh World War I personnel recently honored with a statue in the English town of Smethwick. As the British Council notes on its site, almost 1.5 million South Asian men served in the Indian Expeditionary Force between 1914 and 1918, while a substantial number of Indian women served as nurses during the war.
Similar criticisms of the whitewashing of World War I were lobbied at the 2017 film “Dunkirk,” with Sunny Singh noting in The Guardian that the historical drama erased the contributions of African and South Asian soldiers in the war. (Novelist Michael Ondaatje would later wonderfully tell the story of one Sikh soldier in his Booker Prize-winning novel “The English Patient.”)
Aside from the World War I veterans, working class shopkeepers, and restaurateurs the Crawleys were more than likely to encounter, there are also the generations of Indian royalty that had mixed with the British upper class for generations. Someone as cosmopolitan and popular as Mary Crawley would surely have heard of the Maharaja and Maharani of Indore, who were everywhere in English society in the 1920s. The Maharani in particular looked like someone Mary would hang out with.
While Hollywood has been notoriously slow in portraying historical eras accurately with regards to the diversity of the past, there have been tiny signs recently that there that some producers are taking notice. Fans recently got their first look at Dev Patel in Victorian costume as the lead role in the upcoming film “David Copperfield,” which is set in 1850. Dramas like the CBC’s “Murdoch Mysteries” and the 2013 BBC One show “The Indian Doctor” have easily incorporated diversity into their premises in a way that seemed both natural and accurate.
It’s time for “Downton Abbey” to follow suit in its upcoming film.