With a second season of Bridgerton back on Netflix, the belle of the streamed TV ball has returned — and the introduction of two South Asian romantic leads has prompted discussion of cultural representation on television.
Kate and Edwina Sharma, a pair of half-sisters who’ve moved back to London after years in Bombay, become entangled with Anthony, the eldest of the Bridgerton siblings. While Edwina is taken by his good looks and charm, Kate discovers early on that Anthony’s intentions aren’t what they seem.
Proma Khosla, a senior entertainment reporter for US media site Mashable, said that she had some reservations about the casting announcement, having been disappointed by depictions of South Asian characters in the past.
“It’s very clear to me when a show … or a movie has written a character with no ethnicity or intended to be white, and then they cast a South Asian actor, and they don’t change anything about it,” Khosla said.
“I was afraid that they were just going to have the last name Sharma and then nothing else about them would be Indian and they would just be, like, part of the society.”
Bridgerton, like many shows created by TV titan Shonda Rhimes, used colour-blind casting to gather a multiracial ensemble 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 the characters’ culture seem well-intended — 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 was conflicted by the casting announcement, feeling that intentionally casting two characters by their ethnicity would be inconsistent with the show’s ethos.
“One of the defining features of Season 1 of Bridgerton was the decision to not make such conventional linkages between actors, demographics and the background or the origins associated with the characters they are playing,” Boyagoda said.
“By no means are the show’s creators trying to exoticize South Asian experience or India. I think that’s very clear.
“But instead, it’s almost like this ambivalent nod towards authenticity that is admittedly kind of hard to figure out. There’s that moment where there’s a reference to a maharajah and you wonder … how sound is the logic of that one particular reference?”
WATCH | The trailer for season two of Netflix series Bridgerton:
Similarly, Khosla says that Bridgerton could have been more deliberate in referencing its characters’ South Asian culture by 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 Tamil people. Yet the sisters are from Bombay (now known as Mumbai), which is located on India’s west coast and where Tamil speakers are only a fraction of the population.
“You can’t just be like, ‘okay, what’s one Indian word for father or a word for sister? What’s a city in India?’ and then throw it all together. Because all of those things have specific meanings and come from different regions.”
Series features fashion, music with Indian influences
However, this season is winning praise for specific cultural touches in the costuming, language, music — and tea preferences — of its Indian characters. Early on, Kate voices a distaste for bagged English tea, instead preferring chai’s blend of spices, loose leaf tea and milk.
“I love the way that it incorporates a lot of South Asian elements,” Khosla said. “I love what they did with the costuming and the jewelry, adding those little Indian flairs … I like the details of the oiling of the hair and how Kate takes her tea.”
The Sharma sisters’ dresses were designed with Indian influence, Sophie Canale, Bridgerton’s lead costume designer, told Arts & Objects Magazine.
“You’ll see elements of certain cuts from Indian dress that I’ve taken with sleeves,” Canale said, adding that she chose Indian silks and pashminas with jewel-like colors.
Indian fabrics were highly desired in England at the time, said Avalon Fotheringham, a specialist in Indian textiles and a curator at the Victoria and Albert Museum, in an interview with Financial Times. “There was a huge amount of influence coming through from trade via the East India companies across Europe,” according to Fotheringham.
5:51People in the South Asian community proud of representation in the new season of Bridgerton
In one memorable scene, the sisters take part in Edwina’s pre-wedding haldi ceremony, in which a turmeric paste is applied to the bride and groom as a blessing (in Bridgertontea haldi scene only shows the bride). The scene is set to an orchestral cover of Kahbi Khushi Kahbie Ghaman iconic song from the hit Bollywood film of the same name.
Actress Simone Ashley, who plays Kate, said during a global press conference that she was delighted by the haldi ceremony and the inclusion of a song from “K3G,” as the film is known.
“What the show has done has, I think, just brought a sense of joy to representing many different cultures and, to this one specifically, South Asian cultures,” Ashley said.
“I just want to bring the fun to it … and to bring that through music in such an amazing scene, which we had so much fun filming? Yeah, it brings a smile to my face.”
A debated approach
Boyagoda was teaching a class this week when he asked his fourth-year students a simple question: “Bridgerton. What do you think?”
It led to a pretty good debate, he said, noting that the class of “very literate, media savvy” female students is likely Bridgerton‘s ideal demographic. (The show’s second season is one of Netflix’s most successful, streamed for a record breaking 193 million hours in its first weekend.)
“On one side, you had a student saying, ‘I just like a fun romance. Yeah, it’s colourful. It’s enjoyable. Leave me alone.’ And then on the other side, you had another student who basically said, ‘This is a show that legitimates a monarchy that is responsible for centuries of colonial violence,’ And just to say that, ‘Oh, because it’s a person of color, look at how progressive we are.’ The structure is still the same.”
As for Boyagoda’s feelings about Bridgerton? Don’t overthink it. It’s a “frothy, Netflix, steamy period drama,” he said.
“Let’s not pretend this is some major cultural document and then freight it with significance that it can’t sustain.”