Op-Ed: ‘Bridgerton,’ A Love Letter To Us
By Ramya Kumar
This season certainly delivers on the long-awaited nail-biting, lust-driven, slow-burn, love-at-first-sight, enemies-to-lovers plot between Kate Sharma and Anthony Bridgerton (can you tell how much I loved it?), but the highlight of this season for myself and the show’s South Asian audiences has been the Sharma family, the new arrivals to the Bridgerton TV universe.
A deviation from the white Sheffield family featured in “The Viscount Who Loved Me” (Book Two of the Bridgerton series that serves as the literary inspiration for this season), the Sharmas are an Indian family from Bombay, India, consisting of Mary Sharma (played by Shelley Conn), and her two daughters, Kate the eldest (played by Simone Ashley), and Edwina (played by Charithra Chandran). They have temporarily moved to London to participate in this year’s marriage season, mainly to find Edwina a suitable husband who meets Kate’s very high standards. The plot unravels as Edwina and Kate fall for the same man, Anthony Bridgerton (played by Jonathan Bailey).
The second season has received widespread acclaim—breaking records as the most-watched title amongst Netflix’s English shows—for the incredible performances from Simone Ashley, Charithra Chandran and Jonathan Bailey, each of whom executed their roles exceptionally, creating a love triangle for the ages. The focus of appreciation amongst the show’s Desi audiences has been the script’s natural incorporation of the Sharmas’ Indian heritage, never-before-seen in the historically white Regency-era dramas and romances of Hollywood. Immediately from Kate Sharma’s opening line in the show, “Baap Re!”, a way of expressing astonishment or frustration in Hindi, audiences see that Kate’s background plays a major role in her character. Throughout the season, the Sharmas repeatedly turn to their Indian roots as a form of respite from the ongoing dramatics of their lives. In one episode, Kate massages coconut oil into Edwina’s hair as Edwina cries to her over a failed attempt at getting engaged to Anthony Bridgerton. This scene, only a few minutes long, holds so much power in Western media, as audiences around the world watch and experience the emotions of such an intimate moment between two Indian sisters, a type of moment that has usually been privately reserved for the living room floors of South Asian households.
A scene in a period drama wherein Kate so tenderly cares for her sister as they both take comfort from their inner turmoil through hair oiling—a lovely nod to Indian culture that was seamlessly woven into the larger arc of their characters—carries a great deal of power for all the show’s Desi viewers growing up in a Western society that might have taught them to denounce their culture for the sake of assimilation. Scenes like these, however short they may be, teach us that we can, in fact, take solace and comfort in our culture, rather than push it away out of fear of being othered. We watch Kate and Edwina Sharma and know that our culture can serve as a place of familiarity and love in a world and time of our lives that might be otherwise fraught with unfamiliarity and animosity. From the hair oiling to Kate’s chai recipe that she makes when she’s anxious (I noted it very carefully for future use, thank you very much), to the Haldi ceremony scene before Edwina’s marriage, to the beautiful Indian jewellery and clothing subtly incorporated into all the Bridgerton-esque regency era outfits, this second season of Bridgerton found delightful ways to highlight the Sharmas’ Indian background—representation that will positively impact young South Asian viewers for years to come.
Along with their background, the choice to cast Ashley and Chandran, two dark-skinned South Indian actresses (Both from Tamil Nadu! Represent!) for the lead roles of this season is revolutionary—a choice that must become normalized and more frequent for both the Western and Indian entertainment industries. Colourism has been the key determinant in casting for women in Bollywood movies since its inception in the 1930s. For nearly a century now, Bollywood has exclusively cast light-skinned actresses to play main characters, usually love interests, and has outright dismissed casting dark-skinned women. Colourism persists in Western media as well among the relatively few Black and Brown women who are cast as lead roles in movies and TV shows, even fewer are dark-skinned; even fewer of those roles are main characters in well-developed romances, and never before have two dark-skinned actresses played love interests in a period drama, a genre usually dominated by Colin Firth and Keira Knightley look-alikes.
Kris Bowers’ cover of “Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham”—a song that has held a sentimental place in the hearts of Bollywood lovers for generations—for this season’s Bridgerton soundtrack (a beautiful cover that immediately took over the #1 spot on my Spotify “On Repeat” playlist), has joyfully inspired a multitude of TikTok and YouTube edits of audience favourite “Kanthony”—Kate and Anthony’s couple name—scenes set to Bollywood music. However, a realization dawned on me as I watched these edits of “Kanthony”, scenes set to the songs that made up the soundtrack of my childhood: this was the first time in my life that I had ever seen scenes from any TV show or movie set to Bollywood music featuring an actress with a complexion similar to mine. The wonder of finally seeing romantic scenes featuring beautiful, dark-skinned women as love interests set to Bollywood music—especially scenes from a genre that has thus far featured entirely white casts—carries immense validating weight for the millions of dark-skinned women around the world who have been negatively impacted by colourism.
For my entire life, due to the colourism in Indian culture and in the world, my self-esteem has been directly correlated with how light I can make my skin appear. From using “Fair and Lovely” skin-lightening cream, to regularly applying lemon juice to my face, to avoiding the sun altogether, I was taught to do everything in my power to keep my skin as light as possible—my experience is unfortunately not a unique one at all. For so long, dark-skinned women around the world have grown up believing they are less likely to be loved or courted or pursued romantically simply because of their skin colour. We also had very few examples of women in the media who looked like us who were loved and desired irrespective of their skin colour; from Bollywood to Hollywood, the only women who have been seen as conventionally desirable are all light-skinned, and most of the time white. For viewers who do not look like Ashley and Chandran, their casting is perfect because of their talent and phenomenal chemistry on screen. However, for brown-skinned girls around the world, Edwina and Kate Sharma are arguably life-changing fictional characters. Not only are the skin tones of the Sharma sisters consistently flattered with impeccable makeup and jewellery, but Edwina is also hailed as this season’s “diamond”, the most desired, beautiful, eligible bride-to-be of all the women in the entire “marriage mart.” To have the beauty of a dark-skinned South Indian woman celebrated in such a manner made me emotional (to say the least), not only for the younger version of myself whose life and self-esteem would have been transformed by watching this past season of Bridgerton at an early age but more importantly, for all the young girls watching now who will be able to grow up knowing their beauty deserves to be celebrated and that they are perfect as they are.
From the makeup to the lighting to the costumes, this season of Bridgerton showcases Ashley’s and Chandran’s beauty and complexion magnificently, inspiring makeup tutorials and Bollywood-Bridgerton fusion styling tutorials from South Asian content creators across the internet. The sophomore season’s refusal to add to the lack of representation for dark-skinned women in Western media and to instead show us that we can be love interests, that we deserve to be pursued, that we have the power to craft a romance that matches our desires, and that we deserve to be the bane of someone’s existence and the object of all their desires without changing our skin colour should be celebrated as its own triumph—a triumph that also highlights how much more needs to be done for diversity and representation in media. But for now, I will end this article optimistically and extend my sincere gratitude and awe to Charithra Chandran and Simone Ashley, two Tamil actresses who are talented beyond measure and whose careers I cannot wait to follow and celebrate.
I’d also like to add a note of appreciation to the creators, writers, and costume designers of Bridgerton who made the incredible South Asian representation of this season happen. I am absolutely obsessed.