Growth of South Asian Representation in Western Media and Its Significance
How many non-Bollywood films about South Asians can you name? Not films that feature South Asians for a few minutes and make a lame joke about our food or accents but films that place South Asians front and centre. Ten? Five? One? And how many of those films were written and directed by actual South Asians? Maybe you’ve noticed by now that Hollywood or British film/TV production companies like the BBC aren’t exactly making room for South Asians stories and haven’t been for decades. While it isn’t the job of non-South Asian filmmakers to produce films about us, it would be nice to see someone like myself accurately represented on the big screen or even have a South Asian in a film or TV show who isn’t burdened by stereotypes. This wouldn’t be an issue at all if the film/TV industry allowed South Asian creators to have a fair chance and allowed us to be part of the conversation.
Lion (2016), Four Lions (2010) and Slumdog Millionaire (2008) are among some of the very few films concerning South Asians that have made it into the mainstream… kind of. But all of the screenplays were written and directed by white men which is incredibly baffling to me when you consider how innate these stories are to the South Asian experience. While this looks like a point in favour for Hollywood being able to create brilliant, Oscar-baiting films about us without us involved in the creative process, it absolutely isn’t. Those films should have been made by South Asians. They’re our stories, no one else’s so why couldn’t the production companies find a South Asian director to hop aboard the project? Speaking as an aspiring Indian filmmaker, I can tell you for a fact that there’s no shortage of South Asians who want to tell our stories.
I know a lot of people’s retaliation to the outcry of South Asians wanting accurate representation is to clap back with the fact we all have Bollywood but that argument is tone deaf. Bollywood has not and most likely will not ever represent all kinds of Indians, never mind South Asians as a whole. There’s no doubt that the film industry back home likes to push certain romantic narratives, uphold particular gender roles and reinforce a specific light-skinned image, all of which can be damaging for audiences and are some of the obstacles that western film and television industries are attempting to repent for in their own long history of not so great cinematic choices.
Representation for diasporic South Asian subjects in western media is pretty scarce and Bollywood stories cannot realise the unique experience immigrants and children of immigrants have. Returning to my earlier point, white filmmakers also cannot comprehend this experience so it makes no sense to accept media about South Asians made by white crews. I would argue there’s been an increase in the need for good diaspora representation because more and more of us are beginning to realise the shortcomings of Bollywood and orientalised South Asian stories. One of the most important reasons I personally advocate for rep comes down to the fact it generates more opportunities for South Asians living in the west that would not otherwise exist. South Asian creatives may already have a hard time pursuing their chosen career since there’s still a stigma around pursuing an “unconventional” career. As well as positively impacting those less familiar with South Asian culture, by depicting more than one portrayal of South Asians, film and TV producers can convey the message that South Asians don’t need to fit inside a certain box or category. Not all of us are super intelligent and nerdy or awkward and unattractive so we should see the sheer diversity of our communities reflected in the media. Both western media, like the character of Raj Koothrappali from The Big Bang Theory, and Bollywood films unfortunately maintain stereotypical tropes like the nerd or fat characters as comedy relief rather than ever giving them a serious storyline.
Bollywood hardly ever branched out from its traditional boy-meets-girl romance drama flicks, aside from some over-the-top action movies, during the nineties and noughties, and is only just starting to produce films about social issues like female independence. The 2016 film Pink tackles the issue of violent misogyny that is rife in India in an engaging and new way that is quite revolutionary for Bollywood. More recently, the 2019 film Ek Ladki ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga is a film about a closeted lesbian who is outed to her homophobic family, something that has never, ever been done before in contemporary Bollywood. While the film had its insensitivity towards the LGBTQ+ community with some strange jokes and didn’t really focus that much on the actual lesbian or her lover, we need more media like this which portrays such issues in a positive light. It comes as no surprise that we have next to no diasporic representation for queer people because Bollywood doesn’t; if the already established film industry native to us doesn’t showcase queer, disabled or mentally ill people positively then of course it’s even harder to make films about our western counterparts in an even more competitive world.
That being said, things are starting to pick up the pace for South Asian representation if you look in the right places. Just last year, drag queen Priyanka made herstory by being the first queen of South Asian descent (Indo-Guyanese) to win a season of Drag Race. We’re also beginning to see more South Asian women making their mark in the TV world; most recently with Shadow and Bone’s Amita Suman, Sex Education’s Simone Ashley, Never Have I Ever’s Maitreyi Ramakrishnan and The Good Place’s Jameela Jamil. Notice how all these stories are either loyal to the South Asian experience of living in the west or have South Asians simply inserted into a concept that was bred in the west. The combination of both South Asian culture and western ideas makes for more genuine narratives and characters that resonate with us far more than Bollywood stories ever did. Sure, Kabhi Kushi Kabhi Gham is nostalgic and you love singing along to the songs but it’s not the most relatable thing you’ve ever seen. Even some of the new attempts of creating more relatable media like the Netflix show Mismatched have fallen short for audiences and come off as cringe or surface level.
While us South Asians will always have Bollywood to rely on whenever we want a comforting and familiar story, there’s too great a disconnect between the conservative narratives they often peddle and the language barrier as, quite honestly, not every South Asian speaks Hindi fluently. Not to mention the fact that most Bollywood actors are light-skinned since some parts of South Asian haven’t managed to get over their colourist views that were instilled in past generations. We turn to western depictions of South Asians because they’re the most immediate and relevant to us. How would a film like Bend It Like Beckham ever have been made if not for visionary British-Indian director and writer Gurinda Chadha? South Asian diasporic subjects have an incredibly unique perspective on their culture and we should make room for more of our stories to be made because they’ve never been given a real chance. We don’t have the same budgets or resources or, apparently, even the manpower which are all pitiful reasons to excuse the sad reality that queer, mentally ill, disabled, neurodivergent and finacially disadvantaged South Asian children grow up without ever seeing themselves accurately represented on screen. I don’t need to tell you how alienating it can feel to be a brown kid living in the west who may not be completely in touch with their either adopted or inherited culture but it’s made even worse when it feels as though you’ve been forgotten by Hollywood when so many of your white friends have countless icons to look up to.
The course to seeing true representation for South Asians is a slow but hopeful one because we’ve already made huge strides in the past five years alone compared to where we were in the nineties. It’s getting better but I’m still not satisfied with stumbling across the odd South Asian character in a random TV show or waiting five years for a South Asian actor to be cast as an extra in a semi-blockbuster film. However, there was a huge breakthrough made earlier this year when Riz Ahmed became the first Muslim to be nominated for best actor at the Academy Awards, as well as being one of the first two Asians nominated alongside fellow nominee Steven Yeun. Ahmed’s performance in the 2019 film Sound of Metal is a strong and compelling one, depicting the story of a drummer who loses his hearing and is forced to accept a future filled with silence. I definitely recommend a watch! It’s one of those rare, few films where a South Asian character is allowed to exist on screen without being followed around by oriental tropes.
Representation has obvious positive psychological benefits for South Asians; seeing someone of a similar background to you go through something you’ve experienced reassures us that our own feelings towards issues regarding race, gender, sexuality, cultural expectations or family struggles are valid. Sometimes you need an external influence who tells you there’s not one way to live life. I grew up being told by my family that I had to follow a particular set of rules whilst simultaneously experiencing things they never had and belonging to more than one community. Had I seen more Indian characters in films just living their lives, I might have accepted and realised some things earlier and given myself less of a hard time. Representation ultimately makes us feel like we aren’t isolated; that we’re seen; acknowledged as part of society and uplifted through our own voices. I, and so many young South Asian children of the diaspora, lacked that whilst we were growing up but I look forward to that changing and South Asian communities understanding more about ourselves through the current generation of aspiring filmmakers, writers, musicians and artists who will finally push through to take us all into the wider mainstream consciousness.