South Asian Representation Isn’t Perfect, but It’s Complex and Debate Worthy, and That Matters
By Anmol Irfan
The last few months have been a flurry of binge-worthy TV dropping on streaming services, and surprisingly, two of the biggest hits included South Asian shows. While shows like Indian Matchmaking and Fabulous Lives of Bollywood Wives got all of us talking, a few other comparatively quieter ones have added complexity to the mix. The truth is, people around me within the South Asian community practically jump at any sort of representation because it’s been lacking for so long. If you ask me, we’ve gotten sick of being the punchline, the single story, the brown character that is there both for comedy and pity.
Which is why, when Mira Nair’s adaptation of one of the longest English novels to be published in a single volume, Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy, dropped on BBC, I was more than intrigued. From period dramas to reality TV, the global entertainment sector is realising the power of South Asian stories and its audience is responding. But with great power comes great responsibility, and with little space for our stories to come through still, as audiences, we pressure them to be ‘just right’. The truth is, I find more heart in the stories that are inherently flawed because aren’t we all? The pressure to have the perfect story is an unrealistic one. Despite the clout it received, amidst compliments, viewers and critics called A Suitable Boy ‘hasty’ and “very British”. But regardless of what your personal opinion of the show may be, it struck up a complex debate about how all its different parts moved together.
Viewing it as an ode to newly independent India, I was struck by everything from the glamorous saaris to the very open discussions about sex, relationships - and more specifically the ‘unsuitable relationships’ the show depicted. Many have asked if the show was outdated, or if it caters too much to the Western perception of the old British India. The accents, the caste system and arranged marriages, the hidden hints of a same-sex romance between Firoz and Mann that the show never teases out. Are those norms still relevant today?
In the universe of Zoya Akhtar’s Made In Heaven (which dropped on Amazon Prime in 2019), we see a modern version of the same issues being played out. Following Tara and Karan, two friends who run a wedding planning business, the show doesn’t hold back from getting into all the dark corners of South Asian culture. From digs at India’s ruling party, the BJP, to an emotional episode where Karan is arrested for being gay and launches a campaign against Article 377 which declared homosexuality illegal in India, the show doesn’t hold back. But amidst all the social commentary jumping out from both shows, what strikes me the most is that none of the characters are perfect.
Even the most critical approaches to these stories can’t help but praise some aspect of it, and despite my own love for both shows, I’m aware of how they could improve. In choosing the boy her mother wanted, does A Suitable Boy’s Lata perhaps glorify the good girl trope, and shatter the fight led by thousands of women in South Asia who want to break this system of arranged marriage? By making us fall in love with Tara and then revealing how she leaked her own sex tape with her then-boss, doesn’t Made In Heaven merely gloss over the very serious moral issues of consent and honesty?
The debate around recent South Asian representation is fierce - but I see that as a good thing. For so long we’ve tried to create the ‘perfect’ representation - a character or story that really embodies what it means to be South Asian. But in a region with such a confusing colonial past, a diversity in identities that is perhaps still not understood, and underlying issues of class and gender tying it all together, it’s impossible to get that perfect story. A Suitable Boy and Made In Heaven are situated 60 years apart and yet, so many of the problems have remained the same. If that tells us anything at all, it’s that these debates, which unweave the complex strands of understanding what it means to be South Asian, are perhaps 6 decades too late.
But they’re here now and they’re ushering in a new era of representation - one that may still have a long way to go and many critics on its journey, but at least it’s got us talking.