With a second season of Bridgerton Back on Netflix, the belle of the streaming TV prom is back – and the introduction of two romantic South Asian leads has sparked discussions about cultural representation on TV.
Kate and Edwina Sharma, a pair of half-sisters who arrived in London after living in Bombay, reunite with Anthony, the eldest of the Bridgerton siblings. While Edwina is seduced by her beauty and charm, Kate discovers early on that Anthony’s intentions are not what they seem.
Proma Khosla, senior entertainment reporter for US media site Mashable, said she had some reservations about the casting announcement, having been disappointed with portrayals of South Asian characters in the past.
“It’s very clear to me when a show…or a movie wrote a character with no ethnicity or destined to be white, and then they cast a South Asian actor, and they don’t change that,” said Khosla said.
“I was afraid that they would only have the surname Sharma and then nothing else would be Indian and they would just be part of society.”
Bridgerton, like many shows created by television titan Shonda Rhimes, used a colorblind cast to bring together a multiracial cast of characters; the show is set during the Regency period in London’s high society and imagines Queen Charlotte as a black woman.
In the case of the Sharma sisters, the show’s efforts to incorporate character culture seem well-intentioned, even if they don’t always hit the mark.
Cultural references should be deliberate, specific
Randy Boyagoda, a novelist and professor of English at the University of Toronto, said he took issue with the casting announcement, believing that intentionally casting two characters based on their ethnicity would be inconsistent with the philosophy of the series.
“One of the defining features of Season 1 of Bridgerton was the decision not to make such conventional connections between the actors, the demographics, and the background or origins associated with the characters they play,” Boyagoda said.
“The creators of the series are in no way trying to exoticize the South Asian experience or India. I think that’s very clear.
“But instead, it’s almost like this ambivalent nod to authenticity that’s admittedly quite difficult to understand. There’s this moment where there’s a reference to a maharaja and you wonder… how solid is the logic of this particular reference? »
WATCH | The trailer for season 2 of the Netflix series Bridgerton:
Similarly, Khosla says that Bridgerton could have been more deliberate in referencing the South Asian culture of its characters when considering the different regions, languages and religions of India.
For example, she noted that the characters call their father app, a South Indian term commonly used by Tamils. Yet the sisters are from Bombay (now known as Mumbai), which is located on the west coast of India and where Tamil speakers make up only a fraction of the population.
“You can’t just say, ‘Okay, what’s an Indian word for father or a word for sister? What’s a city in India?’ and then throw it all together because all of these things have specific meanings and come from different regions.
The series presents fashion, music with Indian influences
However, this season wins praise for specific cultural touches in the costumes, language, music – and tea preferences – of its Indian characters. Early on, Kate expressed a distaste for English teabags, preferring instead the blend of spices, loose leaf tea and chai milk.
“I love how it incorporates a lot of South Asian elements,” Khosla said. “I love what they’ve done with the costumes and the jewelry, adding those little Indian touches…I love the details of the hair oiling and the way Kate drinks her tea.”
The Sharma sisters’ dresses were designed with Indian influence, Sophie Canale, Bridgerton’s main costume designer, Recount Art & Object Magazine.
“You’ll see elements of some cuts of Indian clothing that I’ve taken with sleeves,” Canale said, adding that she chose Indian silks and jewel-colored pashminas.
Indian fabrics were highly sought after in England at the time, said Avalon Fotheringham, an Indian textile specialist and curator at the Victoria and Albert Museum, in a maintenance with the Financial Times. “There was a huge influence coming from trade via East Indian companies across Europe,” according to Fotheringham.
5:51Members of the South Asian community proud to be represented in Bridgerton’s new season
In a memorable scene, the sisters take part in Edwina’s pre-wedding Haldi ceremony, during which a paste of turmeric is applied to the bride and groom as a blessing (in Bridgertonthe Haldi scene only shows the bride). The scene is set to an orchestral rendition of Kahbi Khushi Kahbie Ghaman iconic song from the hit Bollywood film of the same name.
Actress Simone Ashley, who plays Kate, told a global press conference she was delighted with the Haldi ceremony and the inclusion of a song from “K3G”, as the film is known.
“What the show did, I think, just brought a sense of joy to representing many different cultures and, to this one in particular, South Asian cultures,” Ashley said.
“I just want to bring fun… and bring that through the music in such an amazing scene, that we had so much fun filming? Yeah, that makes me smile.”
A debated approach
Boyagoda was teaching a class this week when he asked his fourth graders a simple question: “Bridgerton. What do you think?”
It led to a pretty good debate, he said, noting that the “highly literate, media-savvy” class of female students is likely Bridgertonis the ideal demographic. (The show’s second season is one of Netflix’s most successful, airing during a record 193 million hours in its first weekend.)
“On the one hand, you had a student who was like, ‘I just like a fun romance. Yeah, it’s colorful. It’s nice. Leave me alone. And then on the other side, you had another student who was basically saying, ‘This is a show that legitimizes a monarchy responsible for centuries of colonial violence’, and just to say, ‘Oh, because this is a person of color, look how progressive we are. The structure is still the same.”
As for Boyagoda’s feelings about Bridgerton? Don’t think about it too much. It’s a “steamy, Netflix, steamy period drama,” he said.
“Let’s not pretend it’s a major cultural document and then burden it with a meaning it can’t maintain.”