Spoilers ahead. The second season of Bridgerton, Netflix’s hit Regency-era show, has a lot of shocking moments. There’s the dissolution of Penelope and Eloise’s steadfast friendship, a super steamy sex scene between Kate and Anthony, and, oh you know, the fact that Kate hooks up with sister Edwina’s fiancé in the first place. But the moment that truly made me gasp was a lot more subtle. In fact, you might not have even caught — or heard – it.
In the lead-up to Edwina Sharma (Charithra Chandran) and Anthony Bridgerton’s (Jonathan Bailey) impending nuptials — the Sharma women take part in a Haldi ceremony, a pre-wedding tradition in Indian culture meant to bless the couple. It’s a beautiful moment in the show, with Edwina being lovingly smeared with tumeric by her sister Kate (Simone Ashley) and mother Mary (Shelley Conn). Under their banter and laughter, one of the show’s now-iconic Kris Bowers instrumental songs begins to play. But this cover isn’t a Top 40 hit or something off of a Taylor Swift album. Instead, it’s an instrumental version of a Bollywood song, “Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham.”
Alone in my room, I gasped aloud, before pausing the episode to rewind and rewatch the scene once, twice, and three more times. And there it was, the distinct tinkling opening notes. It may have been an over-the-top reaction, but it wasn’t entirely unique. “I recognized the song immediately,” Charithra Chandran tells Refinery29 over Zoom. “I immediately paused the episode and texted Chris [Van Dusen, show creator].” The moment was, like for me, a total surprise. "And what a lovely surprise,” she says. “I got super emotional. … This is like two parts of my life merging into one.”
It was for me, too. Growing up in a predominantly white suburb outside of Vancouver, Canada, I remember two films constantly on rotation throughout my childhood: A Cinderella Story (the Hilary Duff/Chad Michael Murray one, to be specific, but Brandy still slaps) and Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham. The former was well known by my predominantly white friends and a staple of every elementary school sleepover. The latter was just for my sister and me. Dressing up in our hand-me-down salwar kameez outfits on the weekend, we’d watch the three-hour-long Bollywood film — about a wealthy family torn apart by class issues — in our basement, popping up at every musical interlude to twirl around in front of the TV to the songbird voice of Lata Mangeshkar and swoon over heartthrob Shah Rukh Khan aka the Bollywood Leonardo DiCaprio (but honestly better).
Despite the fact that we hadn’t grown up speaking Hindi or Punjabi and were unable to, largely, discern what was being said on screen (there are trusty subtitles for that), these moments still held meaning for us. They were constant reminders of visits to Toronto to see our mama and papa, when we’d tuck into their big king-sized bed and watch Kuch Kuch Hota Hai and Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham on the VCR.
The song holds fond memories for Chandran, too. “Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham is one of my mum's favorite films,” Chandran says. “If she's bored, she’ll put it on and watch it.” “I think it's so much fun that they put [the song] in the show,” Simone Ashley agrees. “I'm just so glad that they're representing different cultures and [that] people can hear themselves in this show. It's bringing a smile to people's faces.”
While these moments with our grandparents were special on their own, as anytime you get to spend with grandparents usually is, they also held extra meaning, as some of the rare moments when we felt a connection to our South Asian heritage.
Many second generation Americans from immigrant families probably know this feeling intimately. Growing up between two cultures can sometimes come with some embarrassment (I remember finding out that not everyone kisses their family members on the mouth, and being embarrassed by it), but it can also come with a feeling of loss and disjointment from your culture and true feelings of identity. My dad’s side of the family is from Guyana — a Caribbean country with a rich history that hosts a diverse population of people from India, Africa, China, and Europe — but is ethnically South Asian (my mom’s side of the family is English and Scottish). My ancestors would have come from India as indentured laborers. Generations of immigration means that Indo-Guyanese culture is beautiful, but in itself a little disjointed, influenced by both the Caribbean and India culturally. My family doesn’t speak a lick of Hindi or Punjabi, they love both Soca and Bollywood music, and sometimes, we’ll wear saris for family weddings (but have no idea how to wrap them ourselves).
While as an adult I can recognize the beauty in this as a cultural identity all of its own, growing up I was always wishing I’d fit neatly into a tidy census box, and never felt like I completely aligned or was enough a part of either culture. This is something other second gen or mixed people may know well — the intimate and acute feeling of trying to fit in with your more western (aka white) peers, while simultaneously holding onto your other cultural identity. And always feeling like you’re never quite doing enough.
With all these complicated feelings around identity, my enjoyment of Bollywood films and these songs were something that made me feel firmly connected to at least some part of my identity. They were something tangible that I could look to as a representation of who I was, at least in part. It’s also part of the reason why I did three years of Bollywood dance lessons.
Hearing the first chords of “Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham” on a popular US show, among iconic westernized hits like Madonna’s Material Girl, was so exciting, a rare instance of two of my identities, like Chandran’s, perfectly melding and co-existing in an authentic way.
And it was validating. While we’re way past the time of needing recognition from western media to determine that a show or movie is worthy of our time (see: Parasite, Squid Game, and Minari, to name just a few), that doesn’t stop the fact that there is still value for many people in seeing yourself and your culture recognized on-screen in blockbuster shows in a meaningful way. Or, at least having your experience acknowledged. The inclusion of the much-beloved Indian song on a show that prides itself on having a timely and meaningful soundtrack, recognizes that this song, and Bollywood tunes in general, have value beyond its country of origin.
And while Bridgeton’s second season does a good job sprinkling in more surface-level moments of South Asian representation through the Sharma family — the trim and beadwork on their gowns, the comments about Indian vs. British tea, the sisters calling each other “Didi,” and Edwina's jhumka earrings (though it should be noted there’s still a lot of work to be done) — there’s something different about featuring Bollywood music. The fact that it is so subtle, probably only discernible to those familiar with the films and songs from the genre, feels like an intentional nod, a sly wink that this moment, in a show about and set in England, is by and for a specific audience. For me, it felt like an intentional carving out of a special moment for South Asian viewers to delight in and celebrate their culture.
And, it helps bring people together — even across cultures.