This article contains spoilers for Season 2 of Bridgerton.
Episode 6 of Bridgerton’s second season starts off with a haldi ceremony for the supposed bride-to-be, Edwina Sharma (pronounced as Shuh-ma throughout the show, much to every desi person’s annoyance and amusement). In the background, a string rendition of the theme song from the landmark Bollywood film, Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham… comes on. Indians get overly excited at seeing representation of any kind on Western screens – starved as we are for it – and I’m sure the K3G theme made some of us wet with excitement. But since the Regency-era Netflix series dropped last weekend, it has brought out massively diverse reactions from India.
I’ve had mixed feelings about Bridgerton breaking the period drama mould to present a reimagined version of Regency England with a racially integrated society, right from the first season. I wrestled with how the absolute legend Shonda Rhimes’ seductive and escapist drama, with its inclusive approach to casting, ignored the many evils of racism, colonialism, and poverty.
But at the time, when we were mainly discussing how Black and white relationships are depicted on screen, I didn’t feel the need to insert myself in a conversation that wasn’t for me.
This season, though, hits differently.
Particularly, the show’s complete glossing over of our very charged colonial past, its homogenous representation of what it means to be Indian, and then some exoticised Indian rituals that even Indians have never heard of.
A haldi (turmeric) ceremony is a pre-wedding ritual in which the bride or bridegroom are smeared with turmeric paste in a bid to make them glow on their big day. As elder sister and season heroine Kate (played by Simone Ashley) rubs haldi on her younger sister Edwina’s face, Edwina (Charithra Chandran) says, “Is it not also said when spread on an unmarried person, haldi will help them find a worthy partner that makes the rest of the world quiet too?” She then goes on to rub some haldi on Kate’s face in return.
“Really?” I found myself thinking. I had no idea haldi played that role too. I asked my girlfriends, my mum, and an aunt who presides over every wedding in our family. They’d never heard of this either.
So, I called up Chitra Keluskar, who fought the patriarchy to become a priestess who solemnises Hindu weddings. “I’ve never heard of this either,” she told me over the phone. “But maybe some Hindus believe in this because there are so many interpretations to our customs and traditions. I do think, however, that if people believed in this, unmarried girls would be covered from top to toe in haldi at every ceremony, thanks to our overenthusiastic aunties.” LOL.
At first, I was entirely too excited to have two of the show’s three leads be Indians. A whole generation of women have yearned to see faces like ours reflected back at us on Western shows.
That the Sharmas are dark-skinned was further reason to celebrate, in a country obsessed with Eurocentric ideals of beauty and where light skin is more desperately prayed for than bridging the country’s terrifying rich-poor divide. Bollywood, the mammoth Hindi film industry from India, is a highly colourist industry itself, so maybe watching darker-skinned characters being adored around the world will nudge it in the right direction.
Instead of being cast as nerds, maids, store owners or oddballs, the portrayal of the Sharma sisters as covetable women standing side-by-side with the marriage-obsessed debutantes seemed like a step forward. The Ton’s obsession with getting young women married to the
highest bidder best prospect is eerily similar to contemporary India, where getting married to a “well-settled” man majorly trumps having a fulfilling career or a life of your own.
But, as the season progressed, I got increasingly uncomfortable. I found myself getting angry when the Queen announced the younger Sharma sister as the season’s diamond, as it got me thinking about how the only diamond the Queen needs to hand over to an Indian (or a Pakistani, for that matter) is the Koh-i-noor.
Beyond the scene where Kate scoffs at British tea and adds spices to her own cup, I could not fathom how someone fresh off the boat could take English food – a hemisphere different from Indian food – without carrying a secret stash of pickle or, at the very least, show some unwillingness to fork it.
And as has been pointed out several times by folks on Twitter, it’s just been confusing to see how the Sharmas (a surname more commonly found in North and East India) lived in Bombay (in West India) but called their father “appa” (mostly used in South India), with the elder sister being called “didi” (Hindi for “sister”), and spoke Hindustani (a mix of Hindi and Urdu commonly spoken in North India) but not Tamil or another language from the south of India. Multilingualism has always been common in Indian households but, without the protagonist’s background being explored, Indians – who love tracing family histories – have been left fumbling for Kate and Edwina’s heritage.
This seeming homogenisation of Indian culture ties in with how there are so many gaps in etching out Kate’s character itself. Bridgerton’s lead definitely knows how to turn on the heat and sexual tension for the viewers who’ve come to expect good sex after season 1’s Regé-Jean Page (God, I miss him). But the creators do her a grave disservice by showing her as aggressively mean and with plenty of jagged edges, without explaining what made her behave like that. There is little representation of what life might’ve been like for the Sharmas back in India.
And Edwina asking Anthony if he’s read Ghalib does not cut it.
First, she pronounces it as “Guhleeb,” which, while we’ll forgive our white brothers and sisters for accenting, is uncharacteristic of someone who’s lived in South Asia all their life. Secondly, as Twitter pointed out quickly like it always does, the great Urdu poet who was born in 1797 would’ve been merely 16 at the time the show is set in, with no great works to his name yet.
It doesn’t help that the show says Edwina is also a pro at playing the “maruli,” a word which doesn’t exist but was probably referencing the “murali,” which means a flute.
Lady Mary’s largely invisible character allowing Kate to dictate her sister’s life was befuddling for me too. She went from a culture where mums are heavily invested in their daughter’s life, to another where mums are also heavily invested in their daughter’s life, so like… how? But maybe that’s just a personality trait?
But most of all, in the 1800s, India was already under the exploitative control of the East India Company, a merchant organisation, and later the British state. There is a racist implication when we find out how Kate and Edwina’s British mother was rejected by her family for marrying a lower-class Indian clerk with not the adequate “rank and title.” But for a country that was ravaged by its colonial rulers, it seems almost like a joke to paint over our colonial past.
Now, I do understand that the show is meant to be an escapist fantasy, but I also believe it entirely possible to address racism and classism without having to introduce racist or classist characters or take away the frothy romp of the show. The show just does a lot of hinting and winking at race and class without ever acknowledging it. And for me, who does not hail from the victor’s side, this lack of acknowledgement of our traumas and histories is a bit painful.
Butttt I still binged the show and found myself feeling a bit hot when the slow burning sexual chemistry peaked. There’s definitely moments of boredom and exasperation, but am I happy that millions of people around the world are bingeing a show with a strong Indian lead being given her fair share of screen time? Yes! Am I happy that a show that is supposed to be essentially fun and escapist entertainment weaves in cultural elements far removed from the white heroines I’m so used to seeing? YES! I know other Indian viewers have loved the scenes where Kate dismisses the British way of making tea, where she rubs oil into her sister’s hair as a nighttime ritual, how the gold bangles become quite a game changer in the plot, and the magnificent silks and bursts of colour that the Sharma wardrobes carry.
But for me, it’s all a bit kabhi khushi, kabhi gham. That translates to “sometimes happiness, sometimes sadness.” Unlike “maruli” which doesn’t translate to anything.
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