Indian representation in Western shows is always a livewire situation — the claws are out, the meme machines ready to rev. This instinctive doubt, the oppositional stance, is understandable, for rarely has this representation felt researched.
In And Just Like That…, the Sex and the City reboot, for example, the protagonist — who has never heard of Diwali, despite all those White House lamp lightings, might I add — and indeed the filmmakers, refuse to make a distinction between a lehenga and a sari. Even shows like Never Have I Ever, with Indians in the driver's seat, have often bungled not just the accents but references, too — images of Durga Puja in a montage describing Ganesh Chaturthi, with subtitles that read 'speaks in Hindi' when the characters converse in Tamil. Then, there is the questionable decision of using dust-struck jaundiced filters to show Chennai.
With all this baggage, when news broke of the cast for the second season of Bridgerton — Simone Ashley, whom you might recall from Sex Education, and Charithra Chandran as the sisters Kate Sharma and Edwina Sharma — there was rumble of excitement and doubt. The famously colour-blind Regency era world of the show would certainly welcome this diversity. But would it accommodate it on its own terms?
The creator Chris Van Dusen has noted, "Bridgerton wouldn't be Bridgerton without the colorful, multiethnic, and multihued world we established in Season 1," and this Indian infusion was seen as both a welcome and a challenge.
Kate Sharma and Edwina Sharma's mother, Lady Mary Sheffield Sharma (Shelley Conn), belonged to an aristocratic family, but after marrying someone below her station, was estranged. They raised their daughters in Bombay. Kate is her step-daughter, but after the father's passing took over the paternal mantle, being Edwina's sister, caretaker, and teacher.
They return to London to find a match for Edwina. Kate has resigned to a life of spinsterhood. Viscount Anthony Bridgerton (Jonathan Bailey) tries to court Edwina, but as the season progresses, the love between him and Kate froths till it turns the story on its erotic head.
Based on Julia Quinn's book The Viscount Who Loved Me, Simone Ashley's character was initially named Kate Sheffield. Later, it was changed to Kate Sharma taking into account Ashley's Indian heritage. Quinn described this move as a "wonderful way to make the show more inclusive".
They also worked with historian Priya Atwal, who wrote Royals and Rebels: The Rise and Fall of the Sikh Empire. Small, intentionally designed details — like Kate oiling Edwina's hair, the intimate Haldi ceremony, the wedding kangan, the bangle passed on from one generation of women to another, the sharp digs at British tea, the peacock, and the sprinkling of Indian words and references — pepper the show. Then, there was also the much discussed Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham cover by Chris Bowers.
The second season of Bridgerton, for one, has markedly better writing. One evidence of this is the lacking sex in it — an acknowledgement that it finally has characters with personalities thicker than chiffon, with a screen presence that is palpably erotic enough to inject the sexual into the sensual. It doesn't need to burst through the proceedings with shocks of butt-crack and bosom. Though, of course, who are we kidding, we miss the sex.
This might be because Kate Sharma is so headstrong, so full of the vitality and juice that was missing in Daphne (Phoebe Dynevor), the female fixation of the first season. Her doe-eyed beauty could hold a close-up with such intensity and insistence, it was hard to look away.
But soon, the questions mounted.
While Kate calls her sister Edwina 'bon' — infusing Bengali into this cultural hodgepodge — Edwina calls Kate 'didi'. They call their father 'appa' like dutiful South Indians, and like the rest of the pale cast, call their mother the pearl-clutching 'muh-maah'. There were no markers of cultural specificity. This seems intentional, the decision to not root the Sharma family to a specific Indian cultural context, a decision that doesn't bode well for the Indians watching the show with binocular attention. And yet, the show teased. In the end when Anthony proposes, he calls Kate 'Kathani Sharma'. An odd name that I was trying to slot within India's geography.
The sisters are said to speak Marathi — which the Netflix guide incorrectly calls a 'dialect' — and Hindustani. (Hindustani, was indeed, what Urdu and Hindi were together called, before the neat bifurcation over the 19th and 20th Century, contrary to a lot of angry tweets wondering if Hindustani is a language.)
People tend to believe that representation is a profound tide that lifts all boats. It often isn't. It's a mere marker or a symbol of success, more an aesthetic than an ethical choice.
Edwina pronounces Ghalib as Guh-leeb — for a moment I thought she was referring to some quaint quill-wielding Brit, till I flipped through the scene in subtitles. The dates are tricky. While it is true that Ghalib, who would be around 15 years old at the time of the show, had been writing from a young age, his Diwan, the collection of ghazals for which he is most well known was published much after the timeline this show is set in. There was also the horror of placing the spices for tea in the strainer as though the concept of a simmer was lost.
For all the fumbles — and there are many as has been pointed out — what is fascinating is the strong reactions people had, almost proud at having thickened their stack of evidence against the show's attempts at representation. Someone, insisting on a ridiculous brand of realism, wondered why Edwina was wearing expensive silks during her Haldi. People were quick to call the "maruli", an instrument Edwina is supposed to play, nonexistent, without wondering if this was both a mis-pronunciation and mis-subtitling of 'murali', the wind instrument similar to the flute. (Not helped by the Netflix guide refusing to even note it) Where does this righteous, reactionary rage come from?
People tend to believe that representation is a profound tide that lifts all boats. It often isn't. It's a mere marker or a symbol of success, more an aesthetic than an ethical choice. Does it really swell your heart that Kate Sharma's first words in the show are in Hindi? Marxists often argue in favour of authorship over representation — hire more people of the community, insist on economic upliftment. That is true progress in this world, one that is ethically necessary. This is not to say aesthetics doesn't matter. It is to say that those grumbling will always grumble, for within them there is a profound desire to be seen correctly, and to be seen correctly is given this paramount ethical weight, which, for the makers, is just a production decision, a diversity hire, a promotional tagline.