It’s not often that you get to watch a mainstream TV series with brown girls as the leads, where they are not reduced to caricatures or tokenised. Instead, the characters are feisty, elegant and proud of their Indian heritage. One of the most-watched shows on Netflix, Regency-era drama Bridgerton has created ripples with its second season by attempting a near-authentic representation of South Asians in the Sharma sisters.
Kate (her actual name is Kathani) and Edwina Sharma are half-sisters, played by two actresses of Tamil descent, Simone Ashley and Charithra Chandran. In the show, the girls' father was a tradesman, who fell in love with an earl’s daughter, Lady Mary (Shelley Conn), after his first wife died. Kate is his daughter from his first marriage, and Edwina is his daughter from Lady Mary.
As season two begins, the sisters arrive in London to find a suitor for Edwina, because of a trust fund promised to Kate if her sister marries into English high society.
The show has received both bouquets and brickbats from Indians, Pakistanis and the South Asian diaspora, many of whom have appreciated the show’s deviation from stereotypical Indian beauty standards of fair-skinned women. Many have also appreciated the inclusion of Indian-inspired jewel-toned fabrics, paisley shawls and authentic jewellery — from the traditional jhumkis (earrings), to necklaces and bangles.
The scenes featuring Kate tenderly oiling her sister’s thick, black hair, the depiction of the haldi (turmeric) ceremony — a pre-wedding ritual for brides in North Indian weddings — and background music from 2001 Bollywood hit film Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham, all went down well with Indian audiences. Kate disliking English tea, and adding cardamom and spices to give it flavour, also struck a chord with most Indians, for whom drinking chai is akin to a sacred ritual.
Delhi journalist Reem Khokhar says: “I think it was great to see brown faces on a hugely popular international show. And for me, it was particularly refreshing to see sultry, darker-skinned women because even Indian cinema, mainly Bollywood, has lighter-skinned actresses. Both Bridgerton actresses are Tamil and it was wonderful to see more diverse representation.”
Marriage for Indian women is still a pressure for many, much like the scenario portrayed in the series, something that is still considered essential to raise a woman’s status, and is a societal obligation. Many dark-skinned Indian girls have been taught to be ashamed of the colour of their skin growing up, which is seen through the sales of whitening creams and bleaches in the country.
“Kate’s independence is refreshing and represents what many Indian girls are doing today, pulling away from patriarchal norms and pressures,” says Arti Khanna, a teacher in Bangalore.
However, South Asia is home to a medley of more than two billion people across countries including India, Sri Lanka and Pakistan. It is a heterogeneous potpourri of cultures, languages, traditions and histories, with so many little nuances. India itself has more than 30 states and more than 22 languages and even more dialects. So, for a show to get representation absolutely right, is not easy. Unless it delves deeper into personal histories, racial backgrounds or history, it can only be superficial and not transformative.
Pallavi Sethi, who works in the field of news and misrepresentation in London, says: “When I saw the trailer for Bridgerton season two, I was deeply excited to see the makers cast a South Asian lead and introduce the Sharmas, an Indian family, into the historical Regency period drama.
“Alas, I was a bit disappointed once I started watching the show. The bungled mix of different cultures remained painful to watch. For a show that heavily relies on its historical vocabulary, it mixed up many Indian words and, therefore, inaccurately depicted my beautiful country.
“For instance, Sharma is an upper-caste North Indian last name, but the girls refer to their father as ‘appa’, the Tamil version,” says Sethi. “Then Kate calls her sister bon, which is sister in Bengali. It's hard to believe the makers with enormous budgets couldn't do their research, so some of this seems intentional. Still, I'd love to know the reason behind this decision, or error, as I see it. If there's one thing I would tell the makers for their next season it’s that misrepresentation can be as bad as non-representation.”
Khokhar doesn't necessarily agree. “I know there has been a lot of nit-picking about their names, the use of the words ‘bon’ and ‘appa’. Yes, it would have been nice to have more accuracy, but to be honest, the show has such diverse casting for the Regency period, which managed to help me suspend my disbelief enough to look past colour and just enjoy them as characters.”
“What is the correct representation of an Indian person?" asks Indian journalist Veenu Banga, who lives in Florida. "Look at the diversity in our country, from Assam to Kerala. Besides, despite the ‘inaccuracies’ if we may call them that, who’s to say that there was not an Indian girl who was an ace horse rider and excellent all-rounder in the sport of the day? After all, we did have Rani of Jhansi.”
Something the show ignores is political complexity and colonial tensions. Priya Satia, a history professor at Stanford University, said she was conflicted by the show's depictions.
“Inclusive casting ‘worked’ in Hamilton because it was a retelling of a national myth of founding fathers who, we know, were white and almost all slave-owners. The casting of black and brown actors was a kind of radical reclaiming of that myth by those excluded from its lofty principles at the time,” says Satia.
“We know that the aristocratic class at the heart of Bridgerton drew its wealth from slave ownership and other colonial activities. But the show never becomes a fully fictional world in which we can accept free casting as a kind of reclamation, inversion or radical act of inclusion ... The Sharmas are not British people who happen to be brown; unlike the other non-white characters in the show, they are brown because their father was Indian. By giving skin colour meaning here and also playing on the colonial stereotype of brown women as objects of exotic-erotic desire, while at once denying the reality of racial feeling at the time, the show whitewashes Britain's bonds with other parts of the world as devoid of racial or colonial dynamics of any kind.”
Criticism aside, many South Asians do resonate with the feelings of Angie Tiwari, a yoga and meditation teacher from London, who says, “Growing up, I only ever saw South Asian women on Goodness Gracious Me. As amazing as that show was, it was problematic that South Asian women never appeared across mainstream media.
“When they did, they were mostly fairer-skinned, a nod to colourism, a direct result of colonialism and a display of favouritism towards Eurocentric beauty standards. Watching two darker-skinned South Asian women take the lead in Bridgerton signals a new era of inclusion, and while it's certainly overdue, it's never too late to make all generations with South Asian heritage feel seen."
Satia disagrees, however. “To be sure, it is a wonderful and revolutionary thing, for UK audiences and South Asian audiences still conditioned by colonial racism to favour fair skin tones, to be presented with a romantic lead of luminous dark-skinned beauty.
“But making her Indian rather than British disrupts the fictional world in which such free casting might have been a purely liberating move, so that the show's portrayal of British-Indian bonds winds up aligning worryingly with the way imperial apologists persistently misrepresent that past.”