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Representation matters, but content matters more

South Asians aren't a monolith; why are they portrayed so?

‘Representation matters’, I’ve heard the phrase countless times, but we often don’t hear that not representation but accurate and authentic representation matters. A surge of shows with ostensible South Asian representation has hit our doorsteps in the past few years. From Never Have I Ever to the Sharma Sisters in Bridgerton Season 2, there’s a lot of talk about how South Asians are finally being represented in American or British popular culture. 

However, I may point out: Which Indian is catered to through the Sharma Sisters in Bridgerton? The one living in the West, or the one back home, in India? I am likely to choose the former. 

Intermixing various cultures and linguistic nuances like speaking Hindi but referring to a sister in Bengali, appearing to be of a Marathi descent but addressing parents as Amma and Appa in Tamil feels like a farrago of tradition and language. It reminds us of how our culture and heritage aren’t respected enough to be well researched, let alone represented. Moreover, whether shows in the West represent the Indian diaspora or Indian living in India is a valid question that we don’t ask.

Unfortunately, there is a distance between the two in terms of geographical and linguistic disconnect. With Netflix seeking to boost content in the Indian market and diaspora, a task it is presumably finding difficult, a new stream of shows and movies has been emerging to grab the attention of Indian Americans. For a community that is the second-largest immigrant group in the US, it has been grossly underrepresented in American popular culture. 

I spoke with Zoha Rahman, a British actor of Pakistani descent, recently featured in Spiderman: No Way Home and the Indian sports magnum opus, 83. “Tokenism allows certain characteristics under the guise of being inclusive, but all it does is reinforce harmful stereotypes,” she points out.


Zoha Rahman

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Elaborating on how the industry looks at South Asians, Rahman says, “Most of my auditions and offers are for ‘oppressed’ Muslim characters, or for characters who constantly feel the need to break away from their culture and faith to be liberated. I rarely see casting calls for a character not specifically ethnic or Muslim; that puts me in a box because I’m seen as brown and Muslim before I am seen as an actor. It’s almost like I won’t be believable as a love interest or best friend because how can someone who looks like me represent something so normal! This is why my role in Spider-Man: Far From Home was so refreshing, I was just a student having fun with her friends on a school trip, and I happened to be Muslim too!” 

Films and shows with South Asian characters make the diaspora feel seen; however, the same sentiment might not be replicated for folks living in South Asia. For instance, Desi characters played by South Asian-American actors are made to put on an “accent”. For folks living in South Asia, this is again a reminder of the many stereotypes we’re seen through. Eventually, it makes little difference if white characters are putting on an accent or the South Asian diaspora — who is being mocked, remains constant. South Asians in many stand-up comedy shows are still referred to as FOBs - Fresh Off The Boat - again a reminder of the classism that is inherent among many migrants but seldom makes it to any form of storytelling. 

While popular culture may have taken a step forward in representing the diaspora, an organic and layered cultural representation of South Asia and South Asians is long due.