20 years on from Bend It Like Beckham, where are we now with South Asian women on screen?

Written by Puja Nandi

I was born and raised in the multi-racial, multi-cuisine, multi-everything city of Birmingham. Growing up and seeing people like me on the streets wasn’t a problem. Not where I lived anyway although the ghettoisation of people of colour in Birmingham is a piece for another day. Point is, I saw brown quite a bit. But when I turned on the TV as a miniature me who was eager to learn and be entertained, I rarely saw anyone like me and nobody I could relate to. Whiteness on screen was so ubiquitous that it was dispiriting although I didn’t really know it at the time. I grew up internalising that void, undoubtedly like many POC have.

The earliest I remember a South Asian woman playing a protagonist was in the film ‘Bend It like Beckham’, played by Parminder Nagra. It told the story of a football-loving teenager from a Sikh family who falls in love with her coach, who is white. As well as the obvious interracial relationship pressures, it also covered other themes such as power dynamics, racism, British Asian identity, homophobia and the intersection between people of colour and women in what was (and still is?) a predominantly male sport. ‘BILB’ is now revered by many as a timeless diasporic classic and has stuck in my memory like remembering a favourite childhood blanket.

It would be remiss of me not to mention the trailblazing Meera Syal and Nina Wadia in the 90’s BBC sketch show ‘Goodness Gracious Me’ which is now firmly seated in the echelons of old school laugh-out-loud British comedy. Although that was a genius ground-breaking show for South Asians in Britain, it sometimes felt like it was reserved for those who understood the inside jokes. It didn’t have the same read-across, in for example the United States, as the humour was very much related to British Asian idiosyncrasies. I’ve always felt that representation was needed to hit hardest in film and TV that were for the masses, because that’s where you could feel the most heard and seen and that’s what BILB had achieved.

It seems fair to say that we have moved on quite a bit from the late 90’s/early noughties to where we are now with South Asian women representation on screens. With the recent introduction of the Sharma sisters played by Charithra Chandran and Simone Ashley in the Netflix hit’s latest season of ‘Bridgerton’, we are starting to see the film and TV landscape really shift towards including South Asian female actresses instead of pushing them to pithy side roles. And it’s not just South Asian women, it’s dark-skinned South Asian women that are finally getting the appreciation they’ve always deserved.  Before Bridgerton, the signs of turning a corner were all there in Mindy Kaling’s ‘Never Have I Ever’ (Maitreyi Ramakrishnan), ‘The Good Place’ (Jameela Jamil) and the Disney film ‘Spin’ (Avantika Vandanapu). At last, some decent representation that isn’t just someone South Asian playing a doctor, geeky friend or other typecast character.

Although there are points to improve in the aforementioned films and TV productions (as there always will be), it’s still important to recognise the progress that has been made since BILB. Now more than ever, we need to celebrate the victories of our talented sisters on screen, however big or small their role. The South Asian community has an unshakeable culture connected to art in its myriad forms and that culture has carried us through millennia. We have so much more to give in the way of acting prowess. Let’s hope our TV sets continue to be lit up by South Asian women.  Because like me, once upon a time, little brown girls everywhere are waiting to find some part of their lives reflected on screen, in a bid to have what all human beings find themselves wanting—connection.  

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