How Bridgerton season 2 makes a case for representation of South Asian women

The record-breaking second season of the hugely popular Netflix show draws from every part of India, which is deemed confusing, is ultimately upto some good

By Malavika Varadan

Published: Wed 4 May 2022, 10:43 PM

It’s a weekend and I have finally sat myself down to watch the much awaited second season of Bridgerton on Netflix.

This show excites me. The click of the horses’ hooves, the words and the structure of their sentences, their postures and the way their shoulder blades arch back and the grace of their bodies, the rolling hills of green, the elaborately decorated living rooms take me back to the days of discovering Pride and Prejudice or Little Women for the first time as a teenager. I have spent many an afternoon daydreaming about wearing the gowns and being invited to balls, where I would have smart repartees and never miss a step. Sure, I was a brown-skinned Indian teenager, but in my imagination, in the version of the story playing out in my mind, this would be possible.

Cut to 2022. Bridgerton, a wildly successful Netflix show, is one of the most watched programmes of the year. A sum total of 251 million hours of it were consumed in just the first week. The show is created by Shonda Rhimes, the name behind Grey’s Anatomy, Inventing Anna and the empire of Shondaland. The show’s creators made an interesting decision this year — to have two of the main leads in this series be South Asian women, played by South Asian women.

It isn’t more than a few minutes into the first episode when Kate and Edwina Sharma make their grand entry. Sharma pronounced ‘Shhhaaama’. Women with skin like mine, dark hair, almond eyes. Kate is played by Simone Ashley Pillai and Edwina Sharma played by Charithra Chandran — both these young women are children of immigrant parents who moved from Tamil Nadu to the United Kingdom a few decades ago.

I am immediately impressed. It takes a few minutes for this image to sink in. How seamlessly these Indian women have been woven into the fabric of this very British show.

This is promising. I speak to young, South Asian women every day and representation like this tells me, tells them that this is a future we can imagine too. To be cast, not as some caricature, but a real lead. Was this the emotion that Netflix hoped to inspire in me by making this choice?

Kate is the sharp, intelligent, wise older sister protecting her younger sibling from making the wrong choice. Edwina is the naive, beautiful younger one who idolises her sister and is mostly happy to accept her advice on all things. Having an older sister who is very Kate Sharma-like in her personality, I immediately relate.

Halfway into the first show, I start to notice a few things. Kate says casually that she speaks Marathi and ‘Hindustani’ , and I raise my eyebrows, and my ears perk up. So, she is Maharashtrian then? From Bombay?

Edwina calls her sister ‘Didi’, what most of my North Indian friends call their sisters, but refers to her father as ‘Appa’ — a particularly South Indian term for fathers. Occasionally, we hear them say Bon, a Bengali term for sister. In a spectacularly drawn out Haldi ceremony, marigold flowers line the room. In one scene, Kate applies coconut oil to Edwina’s thick Indian hair and in another a rendition of Karan Johar’s Bollywood classic Kabhi Khushi Kabhi Gham starts to play out. The character’s Indian back story has been woven into the show — from the choice of fabrics to the writing of the scenes and yet, to anyone who is Indian, it isn’t clear exactly where the character is from.

A quick Google search will tell you that Bengali and Marathi come from two ends of the country, so how come the Sharma sisters use words from both cultures? Was the effort then to have elements of as many different cultures within the country as possible so that everyone felt included? A pan-India thali? That way the nearly two billion people-strong market can feel represented, can have a moment while watching the show where they say “Hey! We say/do that in my home!”? Simone Ashley said in an interview that she felt that the show was about some things that were deeper than race, than the colour of our skin. Sure, but if the effort is to appeal to this market then would it have been a better choice to have more well-researched characters?

All in all, the show leaves me feeling a little torn. For a few moments, I wish they had been a little more accurate but very soon I realise that this is a first. That for a girl who grew up watching Grey’s Anatomy dreaming of one way being on a show by Shonda Rhimes on primetime television, this is huge. I have never seen a haldi ceremony included in a scene on a mainstream American Netflix show!

I distinctly remember a time in the ’90s when the only time you saw South Asian representation on English programming was either Appu in The Simpsons or Kabir Bedi in The Bold and the Beautiful (who was playing a Middle Eastern prince, by the way). In the more recent past, actors of South Asian origin had begun to make a presence in Hollywood, but these were too few and far between.

It’s not perfect, the show is full of overdone expressions and predictable plot twists and like a Bollywood film, you know exactly what will happen next. Kate and Edwina’s characters could be far more accurate in their representation of Indian women, but Bridgerton never claimed to be historically accurate — it’s a show. A fictional story set in the Regency era that is a little fantastical. It allows you to imagine a London where the Queen is a person of colour and people fall in and out of love and friendship as if race does not exist for them. And for allowing me this flight of fancy, I think I like it. It’s a great start and I like where this is going!

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