From the nerdy best friend to the call centre operator, South Asian women have often been depicted as racial stereotypes on television and in film.
These were certainly the roles that I saw brown girls in on-screen while growing up in the '90s. And while Hollywood is still predominantly white, the industry is slowly but surely shifting towards better representation of South Asian women.
Over the last few years, brown men have made some bigger leaps in the entertainment world. For example, Aziz Ansari launched his successful Master Of None series, Patriot Act's Hasan Minhaj became the first Indian-American comedian to host a late-night program, and Dev Patel has had more award nominations than you count on both hands.
But more recently, brown women have claimed their space on the screen, and it's about time.
There was a time when Mindy Lahiri (played by Mindy Kaling) from The Mindy Project and Jesminder 'Jess' Bhamra (played by Parminder Nagra) from Bend It Like Beckham were the only two brown females we could readily quote from pop culture. Since then, The Good Place's Jameela Jamil built a solid following behind her I Weigh movement, and YouTuber Lilly Singh became the first Indian woman to have her own late-night talk show.
But it's encouraging to start to see even more young South Asian actresses like Never Have I Ever's Maitreyi Ramakrishnan, Spin's Avantika Vandanapu, and upcoming Bridgerton star Simone Ashley being cast in major roles. It marks what is finally a turning point in Hollywood — and hopefully a new norm.
For the first time, I feel seen and heard in mainstream media. These women are in roles that resonate with the twenty-something Indian-Australian I am now, but they're also part of coming-of-age storylines that fill the gap of diverse content that I missed seeing growing up.
In Netflix's Never Have I Ever, Ramakrishnan portrays protagonist Devi Vishwakumar, who we watch navigate high school feuds and love triangles without being reduced to a mere stereotype. She's not simply the academic bestie who comforts her blonde friend after a break-up or the model student that other parents ask their children to be more like.
We see her living her best life like any other American teenager, but also learn about how her culture and being the daughter of Tamil immigrants has shaped her and her journey, without having to digest a script filled with cringe-worthy cliches full of papadums and chutney.
Another recent win for brown girl representation is Spin which was released on Disney+ this month. Starring Avantika Vandanapu as Rhea Kumar, it's the Disney Channel's first original TV film featuring an Indian-American lead. While I grew up watching Miley Cyrus in Hannah Montana and Selena Gomez in Wizards of Waverly Place, young brown girls today can watch Kumar's heartfelt journey in Spin as she discovers that she wants to be a DJ.
It's a powerful role as she explores the grief following her mother's death, considers a career that's not typically accepted by traditional Indian parents, and then embraces her heritage by incorporating Indian beats in her music. It's a movie I wish existed in my early teenage years.
Sydney-based Sanjana Nagesh is the founder of the popular Instagram account, BrownGirlGang (BGG), which showcases the work of inspiring South Asian women to its 135,000 followers (which include Never Have I Ever's creator Mindy Kaling).
Nagesh said the online BGG community is very passionate about South Asian female representation, and the influx of rising stars in lead roles has helped her audience feel recognised in pop culture.
"Similar to their predecessors like Cece Parekh in New Girl or Jess Bhamra in Bend It Like Beckham, the leads in Never Have I Ever and Spin resonate with brown girls globally as they delve into what it looks like to fuse two cultures," Nagesh told Refinery29 Australia.
"It’s a vibrant and nuanced world that often means your closet is a mix of mum jeans and sarees, your playlists shuffle between Rihanna and Bollywood tunes and your favourite foods are pizza and samosas."
Nagesh explained that representation is not merely about our lives being mirrored on-screen, but also about helping us shape our views around identity, appearance and our place in the world.
"In today’s age, so much of our time is spent on screens and as a result, we’re bombarded with content showcasing what a 'perfect' world looks like," she said. "The endless content we fill our days with hold the power to influence societal beauty standards, career choices and more.
"Creating more inclusive roles that showcase leading South Asian women inspires millions of people who look like them to take up space and use their voice to rewrite the stereotype of what a brown girl ‘should’ be, whether that's in her career ambitions, fashion choices or any other aspect of life."
But while Hollywood has been casting more brown women, it's also been criticised for mainly selecting actresses with fairer complexions, such as Priyanka Chopra, Deepika Padukone and Indira Varma.
Colourism, where fairer complexions are viewed as more worthy than darker skin tones, is deeply embedded in South Asian communities around the world. Many have capitalised on this through skin lightening creams and bleaching products.
However, Netflix announcing Sex Education's Simone Ashley as the female lead and Kate Sharma in Bridgerton's upcoming second season has been refreshing. Casting the daughter of Tamil Indians not only addresses a lack of South Asian representation, but challenges the community’s damaging beauty ideals favouring colourism.
And enlisting Ashley as well as fellow British Indian, Charitha Chandran (her on-screen sister Edwina) acknowledges South Asian women with darker complexions deserve screen time and are just as beautiful and worthy of finding love.
So great to see South Asian dark skin representation 👏🏽 looking forward to seeing Simone Ashley smash it in #Bridgerton next season. 🍿 @shondarhimes @shondaland @netflix https://t.co/HJ79IGaaZ7— Leyya Sattar @_TheOtherBox (@Leyyax) February 16, 2021
In Australia, Geraldine Viswanathan (Bad Education and Miracle Workers) and Pallavi Sharda (Beecham House and Tom & Jerry) are examples of South Asian Australian women who have forged successful acting careers abroad.
Having brown women in directing, producing and editing roles is just as important, as Everybody's Talking About Jamie star Lauren Patel recently emphasised.
"I’d like to think it’s improving, but I think that even though we’re on the screens, we need to also be behind the cameras," the British Indian actress told Refinery29 Australia. "We need to be in the rooms making the big decisions."
The likes of Mindy Kaling and Bend It Like Beckham director Gurinder Chadha have proved the significance of South Asian women stepping into these decision-making positions to champion the next generation on the screen.
Normalising our existence in the entertainment industry also extends to podcasts and online multicultural communities like BrownGirlGang, Diet Paratha and Deepica Mutyala's Live Tinted, and even the red carpet. Earlier in the week Sri Lankan Australian actress Menik Gooneratne of Neighbours fame arrived at the Emmy Awards in a traditional Indian lehenga.
As more of these women shine in the public eye, the more our own realities are reflected, validating our unique experiences and educating others. As Nagesh put it, "Every new strong female lead paves the way for the next, and a win for one of us is a win for all."