‘Bridgerton’ and South Asian Representation

I’ll be honest – the only reason that I watched the second season of Netflix’s ‘Bridgerton’ was to see the story of the Sharma’s. I was not as mesmerised by the first season as other people were and found it to be a bit too romanticised. I described it as period drama that lacked the darkness of Brontë and the sarcastic bite of Austen. However, the announcement that the cast of the second season would feature South Asian characters compelled me to watch. There was not much South Asian presence in the first season of ‘Bridgerton’ and I would allege that there is hardly any on television right now. The Sharma’s, particularly sisters Edwina (Charitha Chandran) and Kathani, or Kate (Simone Ashley) are at the heart of the second season, and with much of the discussion that has come with it.

Something that critics have noted is the historical inaccuracy of the very presence of the Sharma family. Namely, the fact that South Asian people would not have had the chance to rise so highly, and that the show does a disservice to our heritage and culture by not acknowledging Britain’s colonial past. Similar debates erupted around the presence of Lady Danbury and Duke Simon Hastings in the first season. Can we really expect a show like Bridgerton to be historically accurate? It is regency romance after all, which is not a criticism of the genre but just a reminder that it is not designed to be the historical fiction akin to Hilary Mantel’s ‘Wolf Hall.’ And if Kate or Edwina were to chastise the Caucasian characters for the atrocities that Britain committed against India… what would be the point in a show like this? If Kate were to raise this point, we would then see her marry Anthony at the end. Would people then argue that her character was somewhat hypocritical? It is a tricky debate to handle, but ultimately the show is here to entertain, and provide some light-hearted, soapy romance drama in period dress. Should Britain’s colonial past be discussed in this format? It would probably fit better, and strike harder, in a properly researched documentary.

However, this kind of thing does rear its head at an uncomfortable dinner. Kate’s white grandfather threatens to disinherit her because of, what we are told to believe, is sexism. When watching though, it seems like it is there in black and white, or rather brown and white. It then becomes more confusing as we then see an Asian mother chastise her Asian daughter, Lady Mary, for ‘polluting’ the family with her illicit love affair. This is a reference to the fact that Lady Mary’s lover, who she ran away to India with, was not of aristocratic standing. I found the whole thing to be a bit confusing, and I thought, is this a caste thing? The man that Lady Mary ran away with, Kate’s father, was of lower social standing. Could this have been the moment to explore Britain’s colonial conquests and prejudices? But then, would this have worked if the debate erupted between two Asian women?

Rightly or wrongly, what first stood out to me about the Sharma sisters was their skin colour. It is typical of Bollywood films to cast fairer actors and actresses in lead roles, as lighter skin is favoured in India. This is a reflection on the caste system, as labourers would work in the fields, and become more tanned, but also a leftover thought of colonialism in which white people saw themselves as intellectually and physically superior to the people of South Asia. Either way, I, along with family and friends have found it disheartening that our own skin tone is not favoured by our own home country. The fact that a Netflix show with a dark-skinned Indian woman at its heart was, for a time, the most watched show on the streaming service is something that should be praised. Chandran highlighted this when talking to Teen Vogue, noting that no one let her ‘forget’ that she was dark skinned growing up.

However, people have picked up on, and criticised other details about the Sharma family. One big question which has been raised is where the family actually come from. Edwina refers to Kate as ‘didi,’ which is Hindi for sister, yet the latter refers to the former as ‘bon,’ which is Bengali for sister. The Tamil word ‘appa’ is used when the girls refer to their father. Asian surnames also provide information as to where a family may hail from, and their caste, with critics pointing out that those having the northern caste name of ‘Sharma’ would not speak Marathi, a language that comes from Maharashtra, a state in western India. Obviously, India is a mix of hundreds, if not thousands of cultures and languages… but it is probably unlikely that one family interchanges between four different languages every day… or maybe the fictional Sharma’s do? Maybe this was done on purpose to show that the two sisters are accomplished? Or maybe this is just lazy. Maybe the name ‘Sharma’ was chosen just because it shares a prefix with ‘Sheffield.’ The show has said that extensive research was carried out to ensure the Sharma women were authentic… but who carried out this research? I do not really want to go naming and shaming, but, for example, if these researchers were Caucasian, would that just mean that, again, white people are telling Asian stories? It is Asian people that have pointed out these details – they know them without having to research. Surely Asian people are the font of all knowledge when discussing Asian culture and issues… just save time and ask them!

Although their surname could be confusing, upon viewing I was more bugged by the characters’ forenames. I have never been hugely passionate about the diversity debate as I perhaps should be, but one thing that has continually annoyed me is seeing South Asian actors on screen appearing as characters with Anglican or Christian names. A ‘Doctor Who’ special a few years back had an Asian actor appearing as ‘Mitch,’ and I just thought… what is the point? Anyone could have been cast in that role. And would you really meet an Asian man called Mitch? I highly doubt it. It does nothing for Asian representation. American sitcom ‘Parks and Recreations’ blew this out of the water by having Tom Haverford call himself Tom to avoid people getting confused about his real name. This happens in real life, I ‘anglicise’ my own name, so people find it less hard to say. I do not like the way it sounds, but I felt I had to do it. Actress Simone Ashley has done the same thing, her real name being Simone Ashwini Pillai. So, when it was revealed that Kate was in fact ‘Kathani,’ I was pleasantly surprised, and actually appreciative. ‘Kathani’ is also not one of the common Asian names that you see on television, immediately setting Miss Sharma aside from other Asian television characters. It was nice that the show made this extra bit of effort. As for the name ‘Edwina’ however… I will just have to let that one go. In the shows’ defence, I cannot think of how they would have been able to ‘Asian up’ Edwina’s name, without changing it completely.

However, it was nice to see Asian practices on screen, and for me these were the scenes that stuck out. One of the highlights was the Maiyan, or Haldi ceremony, as this is something I have taken part in at family weddings. The string cover of the theme of ‘Kabhi Kushi Kabi Gam’ was also a nice touch. Many people commented on Kathani’s oiling of Edwina’s hair as something that they related to too. This scene spoke to the bonds of South Asian sisterhood, and the closeness of Edwina and Kate in the show.

One Asian practice that did draw criticism though was Kate’s brewing of masala chai. Although it was nice that chai got a mention, and it was funny to see Kate chastise English tea, I agree with her, some criticised Kate’s brewing technique. Other people criticised its inclusion altogether, stating that something built off the back of colonialism should not be included. I am not sure how far I agree with the latter statement, as chai is a huge part of Asian culture. The Sharma’s are not just Indian for the sake of being Indian, the Asian actresses are not there to tick a box, their culture affects and informs their characters. That is the mark of good representation.

Thanks for reading!

Published by harpalkhambay

I am an English Literature and History graduate, and wanted a space to explore topics within those fields that interest me.

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