Panjabi Representation in ‘Eastenders’: The Panesars

When EastEnders announced that they were introducing a Sikh Panjabi family in 2019 I will admit that I was surprised. Usually, Asian characters and/or families on screen were either Hindu or Muslim. When I was younger, if I did not fit into the category of Hindu or Muslim then people would be at a loss, prompting them to ask ‘well… what are you then?’ So, the prospect of having my religion and culture represented on a mainstream soap opera was exciting but also concerning.

Before the representation debate became a thing, I would probably say that I was bothered by it but unconsciously. Say if my family and I spotted a Sikh person on television, we would all stop, fall silent and rewind. The most we got was probably an extra on the market in EastEnders, but rest assured, that cameo would come up in conversation when chatting to other family members the next day.

Upon their announcement, what struck me most about the family were their authentic Panjabi names. I can name countless examples of Asian actors/actresses appearing on screen as westernised characters with Caucasian names. This of course happens in real life, but in my opinion, disproportionately. And, if an Asian name is used it may not always be correct. As in, it may not correctly communicate the characters’ cultural heritage. In Asian culture, names can tell us as much as where the family is from, their religion and their caste. The Panesar family comprises of parents Sukhwinder and Nishandeep, and their children Kheerat, Ashneet, Parvinder and Jagvir (plus Ravi and Davinder later down the line). It was obvious to me that the team at EastEnders did their research, as these are quite obviously Sikh Panjabi names, much like my own.

The family also are not listed as Sikh Panjabi for the hell of it – their speech and actions confirm that they are. While I don’t have a turban, like the Panesar’s, I will drop the occasional Panjabi phrase and attend Sikh ceremonies. This is not shied away from in the show, as highlighted by Jagvir’s funeral. The presence of the Gyani, sheets on the floor and the families’ white attire all mirrors the everyday practices of a Sikh funeral. Recently, Suki and Nish had an Ardas for their, which is essentially a blessing. Up until this point, I had never heard or seen any form of Sikh prayers on television before, apart from in the odd documentary or news bulletin.

When introducing any character there is danger of falling into social and cultural stereotypes. Of course, these stereotypes are there for a reason, but EastEnders has worked to ensure that the Panesar’s recognise these, but also add to them. Yes, they own the Minute Mart, and yet, Ashneet is a doctor, like many South Asians out there, but the family also have a property empire and a pest control business. The stereotypes that exist are listened too, but the characters are not totally restricted by them.

The interesting relationship between culture and religion has also been touched upon. While Panjabi’s have a reputation for drinking, for example Kheerat was frequently seen with a whiskey, in the Sikh faith it is frowned upon. Nishandeep and Kheerat have this conversation when the former is released from prison. Whilst Kheerat criticises Nishandeep for cutting off his hair in prison, Nishandeep criticises Kheerat for drinking. Both arguments are valid and recognise the clash between culture and faith. This clash is something that we all navigate in our everyday lives.

Speaking of turbans, the inclusion of Kheerat’s was essential to the character and was used to highlight his faith. When facing a racist shoplifter, as most people of colour in soap opera do, Kheerat informs him that his turban is not a ‘hat’ but a ‘crown.’ As a child, I heard people referring to turbans as hats. While highlighting his pride in his faith, and the power that he draws from it, he lets audience members know the importance and significance of his turban, which may deter ignorance in the future. This is an important thing to remember at soap opera – they do have the ability to educate and influence.

During a scuffle in later scenes, Ravi accidentally tears Kheerat’s turban off. The shock on the Panesar’s’ faces communicates the enormity of what has just happened, a feeling that would have been felt by Sikh viewers. Suki later tells Ravi that he got off ‘lightly,’ informing Ravi and the audience that a Sikh man or woman’s turban should not be disrespected.

While Kheerat made headlines for this, the other Panesar children haven’t had much of the limelight. Vinny has ventured into DJ’ing and has a mobile phone business in the launderette, but other than that he has struggled to venture out of his older brothers’ shadow. I always saw Vinny as a character that spoke to the younger siblings, those that do not quite know what they want to do and might seem a bit different for being more creative and sensitive. Being caught between a businessman and a doctor cannot have been easy. Vinny’s future seems uncertain, and time will only tell if he will be able to, or whether he will even be allowed, to rise to the challenge of filing Kheerat’s shoes.

Conflicting desires and sexualities also seem to be at the heart of the Panesar family, which is refreshing but also risks being repetitive. EastEnders’ Muslim family, the Masood’s struggled to cope with their son, Syed’s, homosexuality; a story which the character is most associated with. Having bisexual characters in the family normalises the idea of South Asians belonging to a sexuality other than heterosexual, and this can only be a good thing. Also, unlike the Masood’s, Ashneet’s bisexuality is accepted by majority of her family, bar her mother… let’s talk about her.

I really did not see Suki’s romance with Eve coming for the simple reason that I never considered it. It has been cooking for a long time now, and while it may not have been intended, I see that storyline as a love letter to South Asian female oppression. Now that Nish has arrived on the Square it is not difficult to see that Suki has been controlled in all aspects of her life – he has already started slicing her out of various business dealings. His return has only catalysed her desire to be with Eve, which will no doubt have disastrous consequences when Nishandeep finds out.

All in all, I can only the praise the team at EastEnders for the work that they have put into the Panesar’s. Whilst ensuring that their culture and faith remains relevant to their characters, they have also embedded them into the fabric of the Square by allowing them to contribute to other people’s storylines as well as hold their own.

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.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: