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  • Annya Pabial

How South Asians are Redefining the Period Drama Genre

If you’re anything like me and try to keep up with the never-ending list of new releases that are debuting every single day, you may have heard that season two of Netflix’s Bridgerton aired in March. This historical romance received wide praise from the global ton, specifically for its representation of people of colour. More particular to South Asians, the show introduced the Sharma family, with Kate Sharma (Simone Ashley) playing the leading man, Anthony Bridgerton’s (Johnathan Bailey), love interest.

This is such a significant step in the right direction for South Asian representation in Western media, especially in a period drama because, finally, writers and producers are embracing the factly existence of South Asians in British history. In the past, the U.K. has had a tumultuous relationship with South Asia, with the British Raj being overwhelming proof of that. Under the rule of the British Crown, several war crimes have been omitted from the nation’s collective memory. The most notable being the coercion of handing the Kohinoor over to the British Royal Family. This has subsequently affected the portrayal of South Asians in British media, most often depicted in stereotypical ways under the guise of comedic relief. However, that’s slowly changing as more British-South Asian actors are rising through the ranks, gathering immense popularity and showcasing their talents.

Let’s delve into how South Asians are redefining and claiming back the period-drama genre in British media.

Victoria & Abdul (2017) dir. Stephen Frears

The first piece I watched with South Asians in a period-specific setting was a film called Victoria & Abdul, a story based on the real-life events towards the end of Queen Victoria’s reign. The monarch cited as the Empress of India, oversaw the expansion of the British Empire which, just to remind you, eventually stretched across a fifth of the globe and subjugated an estimated amount of one in four people on Earth to the Crown. The film follows the story of two Indian Muslims, Abdul (Ali Fazal) and Mohammed (Adeel Akhtar), as they travel to England after being recruited to wait on Victoria during her Golden Jubilee. Abdul has bestowed the role of being Victoria’s munshi (a secretary or language teacher) and she insists that he teach her Urdu. This raised alarm bells with many members of the Royal family since it was improper for a servant to be in such close proximity with the Queen of England, never mind teach her the conventions of a foreign language.

The concept of a person of colour educating a white person, especially someone of the stature of a monarch, about their culture, and allowing both parties to embrace it rather than shy away from it, is rarely ever shown in the media. This alone gripped me as it is definitely something I believe we should adopt into society in a more universal way.

While the film shows some very raw scenes about the racism these men endured during their stay and the neglect they received from the royal household, the film shines a light on a moment in history that is never spoken about and one that is definitely never taught in schools. I myself had no idea about it until I watched the film and, as upsetting as it was, I found it very compelling that at last this story had reached a mainstream audience and starred such revered British actors like Dame Judi Dench and Eddie Izzard.

Very often, Western countries’ past, and present, war crimes are mitigated or forgotten about entirely, despite the impact of them still being felt today—not only through socioeconomic factors but generational trauma as well. People of colour are told to move on since it happened so long ago but, for me, such devastating atrocities like the British Raj deserve to at least be depicted in the way they truly unfolded, and not be sugar-coated by the oppressors who were responsible for them. This real-life account may have been a catalyst that encouraged filmmakers to consider creating more period drama pieces that include and spotlight South Asians, as does the next film that’s arguably even more subversive of the genre.

The Personal History of David Copperfield (2019) dir. Armando Iannucci

The Personal History of David Copperfield (2019) is a refreshing new take on Charles Dickens’ semi-autobiographical classic. With Dev Patel as the titular character, the film sees many actors of colour take on traditionally white roles with absolutely no explanation and complete embrace. There are quite a few times where a character, who is being played by an actor of colour, is seen to have white parents. I found this to be fascinating as, sometimes, Western cinema is incredibly precise with how they show the representation of people of colour, hence being very particular when it comes to the accuracy of it. For David Copperfield, a film set in the 1840s, people of colour are inserted directly into the era and nothing is thought of it.

The significance of this is two-fold: the actors of colour playing white roles are showing how being white isn’t a requirement to do the part justice. This subsequently opens up future opportunities for other actors of colour; by depicting people of colour as part of Britain's literary history [which was a fact before the creation of this film], members of the audience holding conservative or nationalist ideals may be swayed to reconsider their position. One film alone cannot fully break down the divide between races, genders, sexualities, classes, etc. However, the slow and gradual introduction of minorities into spaces often dominated by white, cisgender, straight, or even wealthy people, can definitely have an impact and shift the mindset of audiences and filmmakers alike.

A Suitable Boy (2020) dir. Mira Nair

A Suitable Boy (2020) is a BBC miniseries based on the 1,500-page book by Vikram Seth and directed by Mira Nair (The Namesake & Salaam Bombay!) Unlike the other media listed in this article, this series takes place in India and is set in the wake of the subcontinent’s Partition. This feature portrays the nation as it attempts to shed itself from the last constraints of the British Raj through two upper-middle-class North Indian families’ journeys of marital tradition and political/religious loyalties. A series like this being endorsed and produced by the BBC is incredibly reassuring to see as, most often, media that depicts more progressive matters straying from the pushed social canon are typically created by independent film companies, and given less promotion and budget. This is reinforced when we consider the historical context of it being so heavily influenced by the bloody aftermath of British colonialism.

While reviews of the show have been caught between accolades from the brand new perspective and storyline to the critique of the overall technical execution, A Suitable Boy delivers a very unique lens on the struggle South Asians faced when the British left. It also demonstrates the lives of ordinary people during the time which is something that I’ve not seen be articulated in Western media very much, if at all. It not only adds a layer of personality to the general stereotype of the typical Indian [a subconscious idea that a lot of us hold, regardless if we are South Asian or not] but also underlines this specific period in Indian history that is definitely never spoken about amongst general audiences.

Personally, I would love to see more concepts like this onscreen. The Partition of India is a very unambiguous point in time that, like many barbarities, bred a multitude of spanning and traversing consequences that are still being bared today. This show is a good place to start dismantling some misconceptions people may have about South Asian history. Furthermore, it reiterates that the period-drama genre doesn’t have to be exclusive or only evocative of British or American notions.

Bridgerton (2020) dir. Chris Van Dusen & Shonda Rhimes

Finally, Bridgerton, the show that has been all over your social media feeds for the past month. When the Netflix Original premiered in late 2020, it shattered the period-drama mould by proffering a racier, reimagined version of Regency England with a racially integrated aristocracy. Season 2 sought to continue this vision with the introduction of the Indian Sharma family. The two sisters, Kate and Edwina, are both on the marriage mart and, while Kate deems herself too old to find a husband, they both catch the eye of Anthony Bridgerton for very different reasons. Externally, Kate wishes to find a suitor for her younger sister and attempts to steer Edwina and Anthony to each other, all the while developing complicated inner feelings for the same man. This is a very interesting way to express the role of the older sister in South Asian families. More often than not, the older sister is forced to sacrifice her own needs and ambitions in order to fulfill family or societal obligations. While Kate seemingly starts off on this path, she takes control of her own narrative and rewrites this very notion.

Simone Ashley (Kate) has been on a streak with her past few roles (Broadchurch, Sex Education, and now Bridgerton) and shines through in the character of Kate Sharma, as does her sibling counterpart, Charithra Chandran. Not only does Bridgerton highlight South Asians amongst the backdrop of 1800s English high society, but it also focuses on the intrinsic motivations of three women, all of which are after very different things from the mother, Mary Sharma (Shelley Conn), wanting to establish her prestige and notoriety, to Kate’s self-awakening of her own desires. What’s even better is that this show has a very specific audience of Netflix users and has been pushed and promoted by the company themselves. The platform has been regarded for setting forth a variety of media types, and to have a South Asian female lead as one of the faces of its most recently beloved show is brilliant to see. This would have garnered attention from period-drama enjoyers, casual Netflix-goers, and South Asian audiences alike.

The way in which the Sharma family redefines the genre is through their unabashed sense of identity, particularly through Kate. She is very self-assured with herself and her ideals, only compromising them when she realises she may have become too caught up in her affair with Anthony, but still rides through the show as an unstoppable force of femininity. It is very revivifying to see three South Asian women as main characters in a show about British aristocracy and British ideals, not just in terms of representation but for the mere acceptance that South Asians can rival their white peers when it comes to matters of noblesse.

There has been a growing trend of South Asians making a prominent and lasting presence in Western media, particularly in period-drama pieces. I feel as though it’s been a long time coming, and still has a long way to go before South Asians are given the same opportunities as their white counterparts, but it is very reassuring to see.

These features highlight how notions of social constructs, like race, surpass traditional modes of expression while dismantling the need for there to be a “standard” in genres. Additionally, these pieces assert a statement on how history isn’t meant to be viewed from one lens, rather there is a world of perspectives that shape the human experience in life. We live on a shared planet so it only makes sense that reality is accurately portrayed in our media, regardless of the genre, language, or even ideology it originates from. The continued portrayal of South Asians in Western media gives me hope for the future of the film industry, and I’m excited to see this trend of dismantling racial constructs and cultural stereotypes extend into something that is definitively deemed as a cinematic norm.

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