Watershed moment for S Asian representation?
The quest for representation is forever in progress, as is the march for rights. Here’s hoping for more diverse, rooted and just portrayals of people who cannot even imagine such a future today
Kathani Sharma in Netflix’s Bridgerton. Kamala Khan in Ms Marvel. Arooj Aftab winning big at the Grammys. Pakistani-film Joyland lifting the jury prize at the recently concluded Cannes Film Festival. By most accounts, 2022 has been a watershed year for South Asian representation in western pop culture. As a subcontinent that houses nearly a fourth of the world’s population, this burst in seeing brown bodies on screen has been a long time coming.
Representation is important, especially one that is affirming, authentic and nuanced – not only because it helps improve the self-esteem and confidence of communities that may be marginalised and battle prejudices and bias in everyday life, but also in its impact to change the mindset of more dominant groups in removing rigidly held stereotypes.
The demand for representation comes from a position of deprivation – communities that are historically overrepresented on television, movies and popular culture are also usually the ones with the most social power (white people, men, caste-elites, for instance) Hence, any honest movement towards representation must be tied to an affirmation of civil rights – more women on screen leading to equal pay for actors of all genders in one case. The casting of Canadian-Pakistani actor Iman Vellani as Ms Marvel, for example, gives birth to a portrayal not only light and funny, but also rooted and honest.
Unfortunately, in some cases, demands of representation are also used to blunt demands of parity in walks of life other than entertainment or gloss over discrimination and violation in other aspects (for example, queer rights movements demanding better access to anti-discrimination laws and not only token characters in movies and shows). This also means that substantively what is celebrated as representation might have little to do with the wellbeing of the populations being represented.
Think of the poorly researched character of Sharma that haphazardly amalgamates multiple Indian cultures — a north Indian woman calls her father Appa and her sister Bon (bengali for sister) and invokes Mirza Ghalib in an era he certainly couldn’t have written. Clearly, the character only responds to an urgent need on the maker’s part to translate an Indian character for a western audience without pondering on the need for the characters, and how they add to the story, even transform it.
Simone Ashley’s casting as a dark-skinned actress of South Asian descent as Sharma is path-breaking against the backdrop of systemic racism and colonialism in America, but in the South Asian context, must also be tied to the parallel and, in some ways much more potent, rigid and older institution of caste and the biases of colour. In the Indian entertainment industry, such biases keep people with darker colour and those from marginalised caste backgrounds – and often, the two are seen as the same by many sections of people who believe higher caste births are connected to fairer skin – out of leading roles and influential positions. Hence, representation is tied to structural realities in society and only superficial movement on the former will not be helpful to improve the latter.
Sharma, Khan, Aftab are all landmark moments. There is much to celebrate in the achievements of the people behind and in front of the screen who have made it possible for a generation of South Asian people to see stories that resemble theirs on the big and small screens. But the quest for representation is forever in progress, as is the march for rights. Here’s hoping for more diverse, rooted and just portrayals of people who cannot even imagine such a future today.
Aroh Akunth is an artist and writer currently in Germany.
The views expressed are personal.