Design: Archi Banal
Design: Archi Banal

OPINIONPop CultureApril 5, 2022

What Bridgerton gets right and wrong about being Indian

Design: Archi Banal
Design: Archi Banal

Season two of the hit Regency-era Netflix series introduces an Indian family, the Sharmas. While there’s plenty to love about these new characters, there’s also a lot that feels not quite right, explains Sapna Samant.

For us Indians, the khichdi is the first solid food offered to a baby or when one is sick. Mashed rice and yellow moong dal, a touch of ghee. Bland and easy to digest. We also have adult khichdi. Add whatever vegetables and spices you want to the rice and yellow moong dal; it’s still comfort food.

The Indianness of the Sharma sisters in the second season of Bridgerton is something like that. But before I break it down like the pernickety, argumentative Indian I am, I want to acknowledge how gratifying it is to see dark-skinned Indian women at the centre of a major television series.

Ours is a culture that places a premium on fair skin and still markets vaginal whitening creams, one where Sima Aunty’s class, caste and religious endogamy in Netflix’s Indian Matchmaking is an everyday reality. So it’s been beyond thrilling to watch Bridgerton and see that those shades of dark brown skin and wavy hair have been normalised as the idea of Indian beauty. I mean, we’ve forgotten our original Hindu goddesses were always dark.

Simone Ashley as Kate Sharma, Charithra Chandran as Edwina Sharma, Shelley Conn as Mary Sharma. (Photo: Netflix)

But here’s the problem: the depiction of the Sharmas in Bridgerton is a sort of cultural khichdi, a mash-up of various ingredients that don’t really make sense together, while other ones have been left out entirely as if they’re of no importance.

An Indian family seeking a suitor for their daughter in Regency-era England while India is being looted by the British is an interesting take, even in the romantic, candy-floss world of Bridgerton. There’s not a whisper about the oppression and suffering of millions of the Sharmas’ fellow citizens. Not even when Edwina Sharma (Charithra Chandran) is admiring the Queen’s jewels. Although, granted, the Brits stole the Koh-i-noor diamond from us for their royal crown in the mid-1800s, a few decades after the period in which the series is set.

The Sharma sisters are from Bombay (Mumbai), the territory that formed part of Princess Catherine of Braganza’s dowry when she married King Charles II in 1662. The king transferred control of Bombay to the East India Company and in the early 1800s, the era in which Bridgerton is set, the company was still governing the territory. At the time, the original seven islands of Bombay were yet to be fully joined, and were still largely inhabited by the indigenous fisherfolk known as Kolis, as well as immigrants from other parts of the subcontinent. There was no local royal family, who in the show supposedly employed the sisters’ father. Unless they had a monsoon palace among the mangrove marshes?

Then there are the ingredients that make up the family. Sharma is a largely North Indian Hindu upper-caste surname, but the sisters call their dead father Appa, which is Tamil. Kate (Simone Ashley) is didi, big sister in Hindi, and Edwina is bon, sister in Bengali. That mixing of languages is hard to believe, even coming from Bombay’s melting pot of the early 1800s. Besides, it’s noticeable that the Sharma sisters don’t switch codes like the rest of us Indians speaking our native tongues in private spaces.

Edwina is a typical overachiever. She can speak Marathi, French, Greek, Latin and “Hindustani” – if ever such a language existed. (It does not. We speak a mix of Hindi and Urdu.) She plays the sitar, the pianoforte and the “maruli”, if ever such a musical instrument existed. (It does not.) Edwina can also read Urdu. You know, she’s read the one and only Ghalib. Or “Galheeb” as she calls him. Mirza Ghalib, one of our greatest Urdu poets, was born in 1797 – he’d still have been a teenager when the events of Bridgerton were taking place.

Screenshot: Twitter

Women’s education in India was pioneered by Dalit woman Savitribai Phule, the first female teacher in India, who opened a school for girls in 1848. Edwina and Kate might have had English governesses courtesy of their Appa’s royal employer, but who taught them the Indian languages? Fortunately for Edwina, the ability to roll out perfectly round chapatis is not a requisite to marry a rich, titled Englishman.

Finally, we have the costumes. The jewel tones are beautiful. The dresses worn by the Sharmas include a hint of paisley and a touch of embroidery… but no traditional Indian textiles! No handwoven muslin or silk, no chintz or calico – all textiles that were so desired by Europeans. Maybe that’s because by the 1800s the British had destroyed the Indian textile industry by banning sales in England and taxing the hell out of our weavers in India so they could flood the market with substandard English-made fabric?

Much has been of the chai moment in episode three. Kate Sharma despises English tea. So do a lot of us. We need our spices. But who on earth brews masala chai the way she does it? It takes at least a minute of boiling water with the akkha (whole pieces) of masala for the taste to seep in.

The chai moment (Photo: Netflix)

For me there are only two genuinely authentic cultural moments. One is Kate oiling Edwina’s hair, just like we do with our children, our siblings and our close friends. A warm oil champi, a massage to soothe and nourish the scalp, is a truly intimate ritual.

And then there’s the pre-wedding, auspicious haldi ceremony where Mary and Kate apply turmeric and sandalwood paste to Edwina’s body. The room is decorated with fresh marigold, and a lovely orchestral rendition of iconic Bollywood film song ‘Kabhi Khushi Kabhi Gham’ plays in the background.

The haldi ceremony (Photo: Netflix)

Yes, those bangles are authentic too.

Those moments were rewarding, but for this nit-picky aunty they’re not enough – there’s nothing more off-putting than a khichdi that is palatable but not quite right. Bridgerton’s Indian characters have a kind of pan-Indianness, rather than the regional specificity that gives a special flavour.

Geetika Lizardi was the only Indian at the Bridgerton writers’ table. While she clearly had a lot of cultural input, could that burden have been lightened by having more Indian writers in the room? That’s something to keep in mind here in Aotearoa now that TV commissioners are keen to showcase our diversity. We need Indian characters that are culturally unambiguous – and that are created by Indian writers. Take note, Shortland Street.

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