Netflix sensation Bridgerton is back for another season, and this time around, the Sharma sisters are making their grand entrance in Regency society. Here, four women reflect on the significance of South Asian representation in season two.
It was just over a year ago when an intriguing piece of casting news about the second season of Netflix sensation Bridgerton sent the internet abuzz. Based on the second book in author Julia Quinn’s popular series of romance novels, The Viscount Who Loved Me, fans were thrilled when the official Bridgerton Twitter account shared a “juicy but of gossip” about the new series: Simone Ashley – who previously portrayed Olivia Hanan in Netflix’s Sex Education – would be playing Kate Sharma, the love interest of Lord Anthony Bridgerton.
The inclusion of an Indian romantic lead in Bridgerton represents a big step forward in diversifying historical dramas. Accompanied by her younger sister Edwina, played by Charithra Chandran, and Anglo-Indian actor Shelley Conn as Lady Sharma, Ashley’s character is a “smart, headstrong young woman” who quickly draws the attention of the scandalous viscount in his search for the perfect match. Let it be known, though, that Kate “suffers no fools – Anthony Bridgerton very much included”.
Not only is Ashley casting away the tradition of South Asians being sidelined as the nerdy best friend or sidekick, but as a dark-skinned Indian of Tamil heritage, she’s also an advocate for dismantling colourism within the entertainment industry. “Colourism is an ongoing issue,” she said in an interview with Veylex. “As is being typecast, being looked over because of the colour of your skin, losing roles to girls that are more ‘relatable’ to target audiences and markets. But if I surrender to all of that, where would I be going? Nowhere!”
While the onscreen representation is undoubtedly refreshing, Ashley – whose character was originally named Kate Sheffield in Quinn’s novel but renamed Sharma for the series – is cautious about the weight attached to her symbolic move. “I didn’t want to be remembered as, “Oh I’m an Indian girl – I could just be another actress and hopefully be reviewed on my talent and not the colour of my skin”, she told People.
Ahead of the release of Bridgerton, we speak to four South Asian women to hear what the casting means to them.
Leyya Sattar, 31, is the co-founder of The Other Box – an award-winning company based in London that educates companies and individuals on allyship, privilege, unconscious bias and inclusive language. Speaking to Stylist, Leyya says she has “conflicted feelings seeing a dark-skinned South Asian woman as the lead of Bridgerton”.
Explaining why, she says: “This is something that should have happened a long time ago. But with most things when it comes to social justice, it doesn’t happen until a Black woman (in this case, Shonda Rhimes) makes it happen. So, while it’s something to celebrate, it’s also something that marginalised people shouldn’t settle for – this is a beginning, not an end result.”
Leyya, who recognised Ashley from Sex Education, is aware of the difference between the two characters. While Ashley was “a dark-skinned South Asian actor in a relationship with another South Asian actor”, here she’s been “placed in proximity to a white character” as his love interest.
“It’s a subtle but important distinction,” says Leyya of Ashley’s character on Sex Education, “because it shows she’s owning who she is.
“When it comes to Bridgerton, I hope to see her character disrupting the system and the development and exploration of her character treated equally to her white counterparts rather than a tokenistic casting decision”.
“I never realised how much of an impact seeing a Tamil woman on screen would have on me until I saw Simone and Charithra’s casting,” says Reshme Subramaniam, a third-year pharmacy student at the University of Bradford. Reshme, 23, is of Tamil heritage herself.
“Colourism is a huge deal in our society,” says Reshme. “We’re praised for being lighter skinned. It’s seen as a criterion in so many prospective brides. We’re criticised for being darker skinned and sidelined in mainstream media.
“For so long we’ve been the side characters,” she continues, “relegated to geeks, nerds, doctors or increasing the diversity quota. We rarely get to see ourselves portrayed in Hollywood romances where we’re loved and have a love story”.
While optimistic about Ashley’s casting, she says: “One TV show isn’t enough to highlight the richness and diversity of each facet of Indian culture.
“I’m 23 and it’s only now that I’m seeing two dark-skinned Tamil women be the leads and not have it be their entire personality. Kate and Edwina are Indian, but it’s not all that they are.”
Fariyah Safar, 30, is a teaching assistant in a primary school from Sheffield. “Growing up, representation was sparse,” says Fariyah. “Even when soaps started including South Asian characters, it didn’t feel like the representation was good.
“The only things that felt culturally significant to my generation were things like Bend It Like Beckham, Bride And Prejudice – and then Padma and Parvati from Harry Potter,” she continues, “and their horrible Yule ball outfits!” referring to the widely decried brightly coloured orange and pink lehengas.
“I hadn’t heard of Simone before (Bridgerton),” says Fariyah. “I’d read the book and was already in love with the story and the character of Kate – and could relate to her in so many ways. For her to be South Asian on screen adds a new level of relatability.
“When I saw the announcement, I felt a wave of emotion and excitement that I’d never felt before. I always knew representation was important – but this hit differently.
“I hope this opens up more doors for South Asian women (especially in this genre) to have main character roles and not just where the majority of the cast is South Asian or in a way that plays into stereotypes.”
And this season of Bridgerton, with Ashley in the spotlight, is set to resonate with mature audiences too.
Asifa Hafiz, 46, lives with her daughters, aged 21 and 16, in Scotland. Hafiz, who is Indian-Pakistani, works as a family support coordinator for a charity.
“Growing up in the UK during the 90s, programmes like Goodness Gracious Me got me excited to see our community on TV,” says Asifa.
“Meera Syal, Kulvinder Ghir, Nina Wadia and Sanjeev Bhaskar jumped through hoops to get our community represented on British television,” says Asifa. “They built the foundation for future South Asian actors to have a voice in the British film and acting industry – as well as clearing the path for actors like Simone Ashley and Charithra Chandran.”
Asifa has been a fan of Julia Quinn and her books for the past 15 years. “When she told us that Bridgerton would be made into a show, you can imagine our elation with the news,” she says. “We were so excited to see our beloved characters come to life.”
Bridgerton is known for its uses of colourblind or colour-conscious casting. “There was a lot of umming and ahing among the fans about being true to the book and how colourblind casting might ruin the story,” says Asifa. But this had the potential to be refreshing. After the success of season one with Rege-Jean Page as the Duke of Hastings, Asifa feels “people were a lot more open” to colour-blind casting.
“For me, their colour was not the issue – understanding and being true to the character they were playing was of the utmost importance”. And with a Black man playing a Duke and Ashley now playing Kate, “Shonda Rhimes gave ethnic minorities hope that maybe their community could be represented and be part of the much-loved Bridgerton family,” says Asifa. And for these South Asian women, maybe that’s what ultimately matters.
Images: Netflix; Molly Saunders; courtesy of case studies