I’m Still Looking For South Asian Role Models In Films.

I flicked on Bend it Like Beckham like I do once or twice a month. It’s my feel-good film, it gives me a boost whenever I need it. Seeing a girl who has the same skin colour as me, around the same age as me, from a Sikh family living in the UK, exactly like myself, I naturally connect to her.

Watching it, this time around, I read the description before pressing play. “In London, a tradition-bound Indian girl – obsessed with soccer – finds a way to fulfill her dream of playing with the help of a fellow teen and a sympathetic coach…”. An ‘Indian girl’ is something you don’t see very often in western films nowadays. Even though Bend it Like Beckham was released almost 20 years ago, Jess Bhamra is still looked at as a role model for Indian girls in the UK. It’s the first film many people think of when it comes to an Indian female lead or even a majority South Asian cast.  

We’ve recently seen south Asian representation creeping into tv shows such as Never Have I Ever and Sex Education, but is it enough? Never Have I Ever was released on Netflix in 2020, it follows an Indian American teenager, Devi, as she battles with her want to fit in and her Indian heritage. Sex Education was released in 2019 on Netflix and is a melting pot of representation for all different races, genders, and sexualities. It has moments of south Asian representation with the character Olivia who is South Asian, with a South Asian boyfriend Amir, and friends with a south Asian gay male Anwar. The show offers episodes of Olivia and her culture, with moments where she’s dressed in traditional outfits and doing classical Indian dancing. These moments represent the people who are connected to their tradition and culture whilst also making their own decisions when it comes to how to dress, having sex, and drinking alcohol. Her character is one of many different characters that exist within the South Asian community, who isn’t necessarily from a strict upbringing but is still within some form of restraint to her community. 

Never Have I Ever, via Netflix

Netflix isn’t the only platform to show south Asian representation, Channel 4 released Ackley Bridge in 2017 which is set in Yorkshire and follows the lives of characters in a British and Asian segregated college. The community is full of both white and Asian communities and represents the multicultural life that exists in cities. 

These representations from Devi, Olivia, and Ackley Bridge give insight into realistic situations that south Asian girls face every day. Watching them in these very popular shows, I feel recognised and understood, that we aren’t all the same, but we can relate to one another. But a scattering of representation can never go far enough when such a small amount of shows focus on South Asian communities. When it comes to south Asian representation, we still go to a 20-year-old film, rather than something new and current. Is it because Bend it Like Beckham is the one we feel most connected to and represented by? It could be because it’s a film rather than a tv show so we place it on a higher platform. TV shows are making slow progression in the representation front but when it comes to films, nothing springs immediately to mind that isn’t a Bollywood film. 

We’re not used to seeing South Asian representation in media despite the fact there are so many of us living in the UK. Sanjana, a student, said: “Growing up in the UK, I am not used to seeing South Asian people in films or TV shows. Whilst I have gotten used to seeing people who don’t look like me on TV, I think it would be nice to get at least some representation.” There is some representation, but it isn’t always accurate, and it doesn’t account for the whole community: “I think I would like to see TV shows and films which more accurately represent what it is like to be South Asian in the UK. I’d like to see South Asian characters in more “British” TV shows and films.”

When there is representation, it’s usually from side-line characters and shown in stereotypical situations.

Tara Bharadia, Miss Manchester finalist and student, said: “I never realised until I was older, but I never got to see people who looked anything like me in any films or TV shows when I was a kid. Even in cartoons. If there is any representation – there is a token brown character, usually male, who is good at maths and can fix computers.”

“It is as simple as more south Asian’s in TV shows and films. Not just side characters or token brown members. But some shows I look at the main character and think – why did this person have to be casted white? That’s why I am running for Miss Manchester, you grow up thinking beauty queens have to look a certain way, why can’t they be brown?”

As an Indian girl, I do find it easier to connect to a film when I see someone who looks like me. Large topics like education, future careers, love and mental health is something we all face but in different ways which can be based on our backgrounds. Whether we like it or not, movies and media have a massive influence on what we think and feel, especially when it comes to ourselves. Therefore, having representation for all can decrease the amount of dislike or negativity we think or feel about ourselves. It’s been 20 years since Bend it Like Beckham and still there hasn’t been another film with the same level of impact and representation for the South Asian community. Who knows what will happen in another 20 years, but we can’t wait till then to have more films to represent multiple personas of an Indian girl? Society is constantly evolving so we need to catch up and represent all, not just the majority.


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