- Annya Pabial
The Best South Asian Diaspora Films and Shows of 2022
Last year, we saw a spectacular explosion of South Asian talent on both the big and small screens. Within the past decade already, a very clear-cut path has been carved out in the entertainment industry for diasporic subjects. This torch, so to speak, has been carried both by those who came before and the newer arrivals. The gap between much needed positive representation—and the ability to simply exist onscreen as a brown person—was partially bridged as we saw more similar-looking faces looking back at us appearing with more frequency.
It’s been known to overabundance that past depictions of South Asians in Western media have been anything but kind [most of the time]. All throughout the 90s and 00s (and before), South Asians were mostly used as comedic relief, a weak form of propaganda that reinforced harmful misconceptions, or just plain bad. The turn of the century brought about positive change as more South Asians were being given opportunities they were previously denied.
I won't put a damper on the great strides made in Western media in favour of South Asians by pointing out that we still have a long way to go before such things are as commonplace as they are for others. However, I will say that I hope this momentum continues through this year, and surges into something even bigger. The growth and embrace shown through positive South Asian representation has been somewhat remarkable over the past year; I hope it becomes entirely commonplace and ordinary in the future.
In celebration of this notion, and all South Asian representation achieved, let’s take a brief walk down memory lane or, if you missed any of these big hitters, discover a couple newfound favourites.
Ms. Marvel - Season 1 (Created by Bishir K. Ali)
Starting us off bold and strong is Marvel’s Ms. Marvel.
I’ve been a fan of Kamala Khan in the comics for a few years, so to see her finally make her way into the MCU has been a very long time coming. It took just under ten years to do so, since her first appearance was in 2013, which is pretty good going. Kamala’s solo comics quickly gained a lot of popularity and acclaim amongst South Asian fans and non-South Asian readers alike. She was a down to Earth, realistic, relatable character, very often echoing the lifestyle of many superhero lovers (that’s a polite way of saying she’s a complete nerd), until she received powers of her own.
In regards to the show, it was wonderful to see that the core essence of her vibrant character translated well. Iman Vellani did an exceptional job in the titular role. She delivered great action sequences and had her geeky side down to a T, which is to be expected since she has made it abundantly known what a big Marvel fan she is (#TeamIronMan!). I really hope this opens some big doors for the actor as she not only deserves her chance in the limelight, but I have a feeling she would do great if she were put in some other genres of TV or film.
As a whole, the show was vital in cementing a more positive representation of South Asians and Muslims in the MCU. For a franchise as big as this—with its previous, poorer portrayals of the aforementioned communities—I was actually quite shocked to see all the ‘brown-ness’ be so heartily embraced. Those title cards displaying different South Asian languages, the MCU logo flicking past with Hindi and Punjabi songs playing in the background, the sheer accuracy of what life is like living as a diaspora subject in the West, as well as the fact Marvel employed actual Muslims and Pakistanis to tell Kamala’s story all blew my mind!
It has been confirmed that Ms. Marvel will be returning for a second season, so Kamala and Iman lovers alike will get at least one more opportunity to see this star shine bright. And, if you haven’t already, I highly recommend you check out the first season! Even if Marvel or superhero media isn't your vibe in general, this show is a great example of ensemble brilliance. Also, it’s just super heartwarming and cutesy too. (Seriously, Iman Vellani is adorable!)
Bridgerton - Season 2 (Created by Chris Van Dusen)
Whether you think it’s a dressed up version of those raunchy romance books for bored housewives or you think it’s the pinnacle of television, Bridgerton made quite the splash with its second instalment last year.
Hot off her success from Sex Education, Simone Ashley (Kathani or “Kate” Sharma) tried her hand at another genre and dazzled both effortlessly and elegantly. Audiences instantly fell in love with the Sharmas, with the two sisters receiving most of the adoration. Charithra Chandran (Edwina Sharma) also established herself as a confident and well-rounded actor in her role, and had a great onscreen connection with Ashley. Sisterhood is a nuanced thing in any community, so to see it portrayed as complex and devoted as it was in Bridgerton from the Indian point of view was very refreshing. It was also a treasure to see the younger generation play off older, more experienced actors like Shelley Conn (Lady Sharma) and Adjoa Andoh (Lady Danbury). What’s more, audiences also recognised that this was a big step in seeing some positive dark-skinned Indian representation, which is not something to be ignored!
Personally, period pieces aren’t really my thing, but I did appreciate the tastefulness of the show and the willingness to include ethnic minorities in an era that would have been dominated by white people and white prestige. It brought a completely fresh perspective to the genre which paid off, since the show has been such a huge, global hit. It’s not very often you’ll see a cup of chai being daintily sipped on or a traditional maiyan ceremony being so openly embraced! So, for that, it very easily made it onto our list.
Midnight Mass (Dir. Mike Flanagan)
This gothic supernatural horror miniseries turned heads when Rahul Kohli was cast as a single father, Sheriff Hassan, a protector of an impoverished, isolated community that suffers from the wicked intentions of a mysterious priest. Evocative of classic slasher films, the series uses conventions of the horror genre well to tell a whole new story of just how far religious benevolence can go.
Kohli previously starred in popular Netflix series The Haunting of Bly Manor, working with the same director, and also proved himself to adapt to the crass and brutal world of DC’s Harley Quinn show when he took a stab at playing infamous Batman rogue Scarecrow. He's known for purposefully picking unique, challenging roles, and his portrayal in Midnight Mass was no exception. A tid-bit behind his influence for the character came when he was playing The Last of Us, an apocalyptic action-adventure game. He cited the character of Joel as being some inspiration in his depiction, which won over even more of the audience and cemented him as a heartthrob.
Just as with his other work, Kohli excels and shines with a role he’s clearly spent a lot of time crafting. An especially poignant part of his character development came from the fact that during his immersive research for the role, George Floyd was murdered. The atrocity made him startlingly astute to the divisive nature and possible fallout of depicting an authority figure. Yet, it also brought him awareness to the reality that there really are both good and bad officers of the law, and Sheriff Hassan does everything in his power to be on the side of good.
This show is absolutely worth a watch!
Hullraisers (Dir. Ian Fitzgibbon)
Next on the list may be a little unconventional, but is a true testament to the diversity of the South Asian diaspora.
This miniseries follows the lives of three working class women living in Hull, which is in Northern England, or more specifically the county of Yorkshire – for all those who are unfamiliar. It shows a very honest and accurate reality of juggling huge aspirations, current dead-end jobs, motherhood, and high maintenance friends.
Taj Atwal plays Rana, an empowered, proud, and unapologetic woman who is liberal with her drinking and escapades with men. Atwal described her approach to the character to initially be one of questioning why Rana is so open with her indulgence in vices, despite being an honourable police officer by day. She thought to herself if there was some sort of emotional vulnerability that made her act the way she does, if there was some inner ruin that no one saw. Upon some reflection and conversation with the director, she realised that Rana is simply enjoying life since she truly is so reassured and confident in herself.
The entirely empowered woman who has no one and nothing to answer for is quite a rare literary device. Often, she is tainted by at least one insecurity, yet Rana is not. This is rarer still for South Asian representation, so it was actually a little awe-inspiring to see complete and utter self-love and self-respect onscreen in the form of a bright, intelligent, and endearing brown woman.
Hullraisers as a whole is an ingenious, well-written, and astronomically funny show. Being from Yorkshire myself, it resonated quite a lot, but I think it has a universal grit to it that allows any viewer to lose themselves in the ludicrous but very honest world of Rana, Toni, and Paula. I mean, the play on words from the title alone tells you all you need to know for what’s in store – absolute carnage.
Eternally Confused and Eager for Love - Season 1 (Dir. Rahul Nair)
Netflix describes this miniseries as an “offbeat, raunchy & dark humour” piece which definitely tracks. I wasn't too sure of it when it popped up in my recommendations; it seemed a little comparable to a cheesy coming-of-age show, but I was proven very wrong by this comedy-drama hidden gem.
Meet Ray (Vihaan Samat), a twenty-four-year-old virgin who is dying to rid himself of that unfortunate title. The only thing is… he’s entirely hopeless when it comes to romantic endeavours. And I mean entirely hopeless. He's completely awkward and almost petrified when it comes to anything in his life, not even women. Guided, or perhaps restrained, by the ludicrously hilarious voice of his childhood superhero, Wiz (Jim Sarbh), that is constantly battling against his own inner monologue, Ray struggles to make a splash with the ladies.
If you find yourself relating to Ray, then this show may be right up your street. Comprised of eight easily digestible twenty-minute episodes, the show is quick paced and equally as quick witted. Set in Mumbai, the characters switch between Hindi and English, which I thought was a rather fun narrative feature. It's mostly lighthearted and self-deprecating, and had me literally laughing out loud with how unhinged some parts were.
Samat is great in the role of Ray, and I have to mention Dalai Mulchandani, who plays his childhood friend and the openly queer Riya, for being such a lovely onscreen delight. The cast as a whole are wonderfully put together and complement each other, but I found that the real star of the show was Jim Sarbh who voiced Wiz. He was out of this world dedicated to the role and outrageously funny. Most of the harshest, most brutal quips come from Wiz and had me a little beside myself with how oddly familiar that devious little voice sounded.
The series has been renewed for a second season, which is set to be released later this year in March. So, if this has piqued your interest, I suggest you watch the first season before it comes out to be fully caught up on the insane adventures of Ray and Wiz!
To Kill A Tiger (Dir./Writer Nisha Pahuja)
As the only documentary on this list, To Kill A Tiger is the heart-rending story of a father’s hunt for justice in the name of his thirteen-year-old daughter who suffered a brutal gang rape.
Ranjit, an Indian farmer from Jharkhand, decides the men who attacked and assaulted his daughter cannot go unpunished. While this may seem like the most reasonable thing to do after suffering such an injustice, other members of his community are not on his side. Unfortunately, it is not uncommon for sexual predators to escape retribution, like countless have done and continue to do so. In opposition to this unfair status quo, Ranjit takes on the arduous battle to make some form of right on the heinous wrong his daughter was put through.
Through the compassionate lens of Canadian filmmaker Nisha Pahuja, audiences are granted an intimate insight to this family's plight as they refuse to accept the established status quo. Assaults of the nature Ranjit’s daughter suffered are common in this part of the world, and most people, including other members of their community and the police, dismiss the violent crimes and advise the victim to marry their attacker in an effort to save face and regain dignity. Ranjit, however, deems this as unacceptable. Working in partnership with Srijan Foundation, an NGO advocating for gender rights, he and his family take on the burden that comes hand-in-hand when seeking justice in the face of corruption and inequality.
Naturally, this documentary is very intrinsic to the culture in India and the country’s disparity in gender equality, however that is not to say it doesn't resonate with Western audiences, or even non-Indian audiences. Broadly speaking, the story offers a comment on rape culture as a whole, how women are silenced, told to stand down, or ousted entirely. Ranjit and his daughter are consistently told to drop their case, that it will avail to nothing but more harm for their family, and that they should simply accept what happened.
While this one is a harrowing watch, it is one that is so painfully honest and raw, and tackles such a prevalent issue in India. I wouldn’t advise you to watch if you find the mature themes upsetting or triggering; however, it is the most important and poignant piece of media on this list.
Kaur (Dir. Kaki Wong, Writers Dr. Parvinder Shergill & Juggy Sohal)
This short British film took inspiration from the real-life incident that occurred in 2021 where a five-year-old Sikh boy’s hair was forcibly cut by school bullies in London.
The protagonist, Avani (Parvinder Shergill), takes it upon herself to embark on the sacred path of Sikhi and decides to wear a traditional turban to show her devotion to her religion. Her father (Stephen Uppal) cautions her against this decision by recounting his own racism and trauma he underwent as a visible Sikh; her mother (Nina Wadia) supports her decision and encourages her to live her true and authentic lifestyle. Set in the present day, the film tackles the concept of a loss of culture through younger generations.
Shergill addressed the issue of a lack of Sikh representation in mainstream media, especially that of turban-wearing Sikh women. In an interview with 5X Press, she said “I don’t understand why it’s not normal in cinema, when it’s normal to us. The whole point of the screen is to show the reality of someone’s life, but it’s not representing that.”
I have to agree. There is a severe deprivation in rep for Sikhs in general, but even more so for Sikh women especially. Being Punjabi myself and immersed in both Hindu and Sikh culture, there is a clear difference in the awareness of the latter for the general public. Co-writer Sohal also added that “Most people hear about Singhs. But actually, if you break it down, Caucasian mainstream audiences don’t actually know what that entails, some don’t even equate a turban with Sikhism.” Again, this is very true as many people may associate this particular item of clothing with all South Asians in general, whether they mean to do it with prejudiced intent or they are just uneducated on it.
The message this film showcases that being proud of one’s religion and displaying it for the world to see is a valuable one. Even in our own community, women are shunned for being expressive or open with their beliefs, so it is as much an introspective idea as it is a general cause for celebration. Contrary to many people’s perspectives, racism against Sikhs is still very much alive, especially in England – a nation that has had a very violent and tumultuous relationship with its Indian immigrants. Kaur depicts a great deal of this hardship through lived experience, as well as an immense amount of pride for being true to who your heart tells you to be.
Joyland (Dir. Saim Sadiq)
If you haven’t heard of this one by now, you definitely must have been living under a rock.
Joyland exploded onto the big screen at various film festivals across the globe, and was revered with immense critical acclaim. In his feature film directorial debut, Saim Sadiq earned many accolades, including the Queer Palm at Cannes. Joyland is the very first Pakistani film entered to Cannes, though one presumes it is not the first to ever be submitted, and, prior to this, Sadiq was the very first Pakistani filmmaker to screen and win an award at the Venice Film Festival for his short film Darling. To make matters even more impressive, Joyland is the very first Pakistani film to be shortlisted for an Academy Award. To say it’s made a splash would be an understatement.
This Urdu and Punjabi-language Pakistani motion picture details the life of Haider (Ali Junejo), a Pakistani man living in Lahore who is already married with a child. Their family, the Ranas, are rather traditional and patriarchal in their ways, and yearn for a son. Our protagonist joins an erotic dance theatre group in secret, seeking some thrills away from his stifling family life. It is here that he meets the witty and unapologetic Biba (Alina Khan), a transgender dancer, and subsequently falls in love with her.
This motion picture is remarkable and revolutionary for a number of reasons. Not only does it spotlight a community of marginalised people that are very much real and fight for their rights to even exist in Pakistan, but it also showcases real, authentic transgender talent. This is incredibly important for accurate representation as far too often, LGBTQ stories are told through the gaze of heterosexual and cisgendered filmmakers and actors. The fact this film, a product of Pakistan that was not made in the West, cast Alina Khan in the role of Biba shows the strides made by South Asian cinema. Of course, many were in uproar for such a story to be representing Pakistan at such prestigious festivals like Cannes, but those who understand just what this means for the queer South Asian community didn’t feel that way.
Visually, it is completely stunning and breathtaking. It is not only the gripping plot that allows for this film to be such a great watch, but the scripting, framing, colour palettes – just everything! Joyland is set to release in the U.K. on 24th February, and will be shown in select theatres in the States. So, if you’re able to, you should definitely watch it.
RRR (Dir. S.S. Rajamouli)
RRR is an Indian Telugu-language historical epic drama that focuses on 1920s British occupied India. The story centres on a Gond tribesman, Bheem, who has set off to Delhi with the intention of rescuing a little girl from his tribe, Malli, who was abducted by colonisers. His path crosses with an officer of the Imperial Indian Police, Raju, who has been hired to neutralise the threat.
No spoilers ahead, since there may still be some of you who have not yet had the chance to watch this riveting and rousing film…so I’ll be as vaguely specific as I can be with my thoughts.
Firstly, I know, another story about colonists in India being, well, colonisers? Yawn… but no. This film actually depicted a very important side to this era of history that is usually overlooked. The British committed as many minor atrocities as they did major ones, both as an overall organisation and as individuals. The act of kidnapping a young girl from her native tribe, her home, is all-encompassing of this notion.
In true epic feature-length fashion, the runtime is a staggering three hours and seven minutes. The word epic is very apt for this flick as the mise-en-scène is incredibly grand. Created from a budget of ₹550 crore ($72 million), RRR is the most expensive Indian film to date. On top of this, I personally think it's a great, colossal ensemble performance that has many moving parts working together to make something truly special.
Even more impressive was its reaction from audiences and critics alike. The film was nominated for the category of Best Achievement in Music Written for Motion Pictures (Original Song) at the Oscars, scored Best International Picture at several other award shows, and even won the Golden Globe for Best Original Song - Motion Picture. A lot of fans were upset it was ‘snubbed’ for having not been submitted as India’s entry for Best International Film at the Academy Awards, but that shouldn't take away from the masses of other accolades it has collected.
RRR made history while recounting a meaningful part of Indian history. While most would rather forget about the British Raj and all the subcontinent suffered under its violent rule, it's important that we remember accounts such as these from time to time, especially for non-South Asian audiences since the crimes of colonisers are very rarely taught to us in the West. It imparts an inspiring message amidst a less than hopeful occupancy, which is reiterated by its pleasantly surprising ending. Check it out!
Four Samosas (Dir. Ravi Kapoor)
To close this roundup is a lighthearted, punchy comedy that depicts the very tale of Vinesh or ‘Big Vinny’ (Venk Potula), an unmotivated Indian-American rapper, and his three friends who decide to rob his ex-girlfriend’s father’s grocery store in order to steal some fake diamonds and ultimately disrupt her pending wedding. Guided by petty motives and a need to prove he is in fact the Alpha male, Vinesh feels both slighted and tainted by the fact his ex would rather wed his rival over him.
Set in the L.A. neighbourhood of Artesia, also known as ‘Little India’, the flick is reminiscent of Wes Anderson’s stylistic approach to storytelling, right from the opening shot down to that warm yellow filter overtop and all the way through with the framing and camera handling. I personally loved the inspiration derived from such an influential director, and thought it was very charming to see it applied to a story full of nuance regarding the diasporic experience. Similar to Anderson’s films, the cast works well to bounce off each other and stimulate the feel of a well-knitted friendship group.
I would be very interested to see more South Asian-led/made films that so openly dote on their influences, especially those which are of the West. As proved by Four Samosas, filmmaking techniques transcend ethnicity or nationality, and simply have an impact on the viewer. I’m a complete sucker for anything that can repackage iconic imagery to be its own new thing, and even more so when it concerns the diaspora.
While some critics found it to be an underwhelming watch, Four Samosas is, from the very first scene, a down-to-Earth feel-good film. If you can appreciate a benign, dumb film that’s on the shorter side (eighty minutes) and is more vibes and jokes than it is a substantial plot, then you’ll enjoy this.
And that wraps up our wrap-up of South Asian-centric media from 2022. I hope you were able to find something that you hadn’t already seen and can stick on your watchlist for this year. Let us know if there were any big pieces we missed, if there are any shows or films you would have included, or which one from our list was your favourite!