South Asian representation in Hollywood has alway been limited to one-dimensional token characters (read, caricatures) in the form of stereotypical software geeks, gas station managers and taxi drivers. These roles barely contributed anything to the storyline or plot of the movies and TV shows we all watched growing up, and were basically used as a vessel for mockery. How the desi community perceives itself in the world has been widely represented in how the media has been portraying it in pop culture.
Today, meaningful South Asian representation in mainstream films and media is found more easily, and we’ve come a long way from the Bend It Like Beckham days, when desi characters were sparse. With notable TV shows and movies including Never Have I Ever, Bridgerton, The Sex Lives of College Girls, The Wilds, and Marvel’s limited series Ms. Marvel featuring brown protagonists being made, it seems like the decades of efforts put in by desi creatives are finally paying off.
All the South Asian on-screen lead characters in these stories have been allowed to be complex, unapologetically messy, and honest, which is refreshing to watch. This surge of brown talent being recognised in cinema will hopefully make way for more opportunities for South Asian actors to be able to pick and choose nuanced roles as per their artistic preferences, rather than filling in for ‘diversity points.’
Let’s take a look at recent films and TV shows with South Asian actors in lead roles.
Never Have I Ever
Starring Maitreyi Ramakrishnan, Richa Moorjani, Poorna Jagannathan and Megan Suri, this series by Mindy Kaling follows the life of a first-generation Indian-American teenager, Devi, as she navigates the ups and downs of her family life, high school and confusing romantic relationships (read, love triangles). In the latest season of the popular series, the viewers will get to see if Devi’s newfound connection with the coveted jock Paxton (Darren Barnet) survives—or will she rekindle the sparks with her ex-squeeze Ben?
Starring Simone Ashley, Charithra Chandran, Shelley Conn and Jonathan Bailey, the second season of Shonda Rhimes’ period drama follows the love story between the eldest son of the Bridgerton family, Anthony, and Kate Sharma. Audiences have been singing the show’s praises ever since it came out, thanks to its brilliant and diverse casting that period dramas often lack. The series also has heartwarming scenes featuring age-old cultural traditions from India, including a hair oil massage or champi given by Kate to her sister Edwina. For young immigrant Indian girls who were always made fun of while growing up for their “smelly” curries and “oily” hair during school in the US, this tribute to South Asian traditions in a mainstream TV show is truly a cultural reset.
Starring Rahul Kohli and Rahul Abburi, Mike Flanagan’s horror series focuses on the supernatural events taking place in a fictional town called Crockett Island, following the arrival of a young priest whose past is shrouded in mystery. The South Asian/Muslim representative in the mini series is Hassan (Rahul Kohli), who is the only person of colour in the town’s small community. Hassan, with his son in tow, stays rooted to his core values and belief systems while he fights against the evil looming over their town. As a bonus, the final prayer scene in the show is pure cinematic excellence.
Starring Iman Vellani, Yasmeen Fletcher, Fawad Khan, Rish Shah and Saagar Shaikh, the Disney+ series explores the journey of Marvel’s very first American-Pakistani Muslim superhero, Kamala Khan. The lead actress challenges stereotypes rampantly found on celluloid, as she discovers her newfound identity and path. The show is written by Pakistani writers, who have nailed the portrayal of a desi household and its unique dynamics and eccentricities.
A Suitable Boy
Starring Tabu, Tanya Maniktala, Ishaan Khattar and Shahana Goswami, this BBC series is inspired by celebrated Indian novelist Vikram Seth’s 1993 namesake novel set in a 1951 post-independence, post-partition India. The story follows the life of Lata Mehra, who is conflicted between abiding by her family duty and pursuing a boy she loves, with the pressure of three different marriage proposals weighing her down.
Starring Avantika Vandanapu, Abhay Deol, Meera Syal and Aryan Simhadri, the story focuses on an Indian American teenage girl’s struggles with breaking away from the mould she’s taught to adhere to while she goes after her dream of becoming a DJ and sound mixer.
Starring our very own ‘Desi Girl’ in the lead role, Quantico follows the story of an Indian-American woman, Alex Parrish, who is enlisted by the Federal Bureau of Investigation after graduating from the FBI Academy in New York. Things go south when Parrish becomes a prime suspect in a terrorist attack on Grand Central Terminal.
Starring Kumail Nanjiani and Issa Rae, this rom-com explores the theme of interracial dating featuring a Pakistani man and a black woman. The movie’s lead lovebirds find themselves entangled in a strange murder mystery as their romantic relationship unfolds and deepens.