Last week it was announced that British actress Simone Ashley would star as the female lead “Kate Sharma” in the next season of Netflix’s smash hit series Bridgerton.
Seeing Ashley, who is of Indian heritage and has a Tamil background, cast as the lead is really exciting news, showing us how far South Asian representation on screen has come.
From big names like Mindy Kaling and Aziz Ansari, to younger up-and-coming actors like Geraldine Vishwanathan and Maitreyi Ramakrishnan, Tamil actors have been on our screens for decades.
However, it’s only recently that audiences have seen a push towards showcasing Tamil characters in their full authenticity.
The caricatured representations of South Asians often seen in Hollywood frequently essentialize South Asian culture as a monolith.
The reality is however, that South Asian culture is hugely diverse, and there’s no one particular way to look, speak, or act South Asian.
Linguistically, culturally, ethnically, and religiously, so often these nuances between South Asian cultures have been steamrolled in order to create either a stereotypical caricature, or a palatable brown character for a white audience: not too dark, not too ethnic of a name (hi to all the Devs, Devis, Mindys and Rajs), and probably cast as some sort of doctor or scientist.
But for once, Ashley’s casting offers hope that Tamil characters, as well as South Asian characters as a whole, can finally be part of stories that don’t rely on stereotypes.
In honor of the win, let’s take a look at the evolution of Tamil Representation in Hollywood so far.
Apu Nahasapeemapetilon (Hank Azaria, The Simpsons 1990-Present)
Unfortunately, no list looking at the evolution of South Asians on screen can start without acknowledging Apu Nahasapeemapetilon from The Simpsons. While Apu’s own backstory says he’s originally from Rahmatpur, West Bengal, his last name is a caricature of “hard to pronounce” South Indian last names, many of which are of Tamil origin.
Hari Kondabolu’s documentary, The Problem with Apu, explores the harm of stereotypical representations like Apu colouring North American understanding of what it means to be Indian on screen. After much conversation and backlash, Hank Azaria stepped away from voicing the character in 2020.
Mohinder Suresh (Sendhil Ramamurthy, Heroes 2006-2010)
At its debut in 2006, Mohinder Suresh in NBC’s Heroes was one of the most significant storylines for not only South Asians, but specifically for Tamil representation. Suresh, played by the familiar face of Sendhil Ramamurthy (who would go on to star in The Office, and Never Have I Ever as Devi’s hot dad), was an integral part of the series. A geneticist from Chennai, Tamil Nadu, Suresh tries to uncover the truth behind the death of his father, and continue his research on superhumans.
At the time, Ramamurthy was relieved to finally see a Hollywood storyline that went beyond stereotypical representation. Suresh had flaws, goals and a backstory that made sense. He wasn’t a caricatured mix of Indian cultures (though, Mohinder isn’t really a common first name for a character that is supposed to be Tamil). But, in a 2007 interview with The AV Club, Ramamurthy mentions he was still being offered scripts with one dimensional characters. It seems like 2007 was ages ago now, but for context, Grey’s Anatomy was starting its third season. Layered storytelling wasn’t impossible, it just seemed to have only just begun for South Asians in Hollywood.
Mindy Lahiri (Mindy Kaling, The Mindy Project 2012-2017)
There’s no doubt The Mindy Project altered the way South Asians as a whole were represented on screen. Launched in 2012, and created by Indian Tamil actress, writer and producer Mindy Kaling, the show is a romantic comedy that stars Kaling in the lead role.
For what felt like a first in this kind of a representation, being Indian wasn’t crucial to Mindy Lahiri’s storyline, and her experiences didn’t rely on stereotypes about South Asians.
At the same time however, while the show has received praise over the years, it has also faced a fair share of criticism. Mindy has been dubbed as “whitewashed”, one-dimensional, and at times, criticized for downplaying or making fun of her Indian heritage. Many say that her life and storyline really don’t represent reality for the vast majority of South Asians in the diaspora.
But when there are so few representations of South Asians on TV in general, the bar for each individual character to relate to all South Asian people becomes impossible to reach. Inevitably, South Asian writers are pressured to represent and speak for every single South Asian culture, even if audiences know that’s simply impossible to do
Criticism against The Mindy Project is completely justified: why does Mindy only date white men? Why is her Indian culture so often the butt of a joke? Why is Danny’s casual racism in their relationship never addressed? Yet, the show offered to so many second and third generation South Asian girls a protagonist in a romantic comedy. White girls grew up idolizing Carrie Bradshaw, Blair Waldorf and Brooke Davis, sometimes outright ignoring their character flaws. Mindy Lahiri is by no means perfect, but when she’s your only choice, she’s everything.
Dev Shah (Aziz Ansari, Master of None 2015-Present)
Created by American actor and stand-up comedian of Tamil Muslim descent, Aziz Ansari prior to his public indescretions, Master of None debuted on Netflix in 2015 and follows Dev Shah, a commercial actor who’s trying to get his big break. The series explores Dev’s personal, professional and romantic relationships and paints a nuanced picture of what it’s like as a second generation immigrant and having to navigate his race with his upbringing in the States.
Unlike The Mindy Project, Dev’s background as an Indian-American colours his experiences as an actor, and allows the show to tackle storylines about some of the tokenization and microaggressions South Asian actors are faced with in the television and film industry.
One of the most notable episodes in the series is one that follows Dev’s father’s upbringing in Thiralnalveli, Tamil Nadu. This episode was one of the first times I’ve seen Tamil spoken seamlessly by South Asian characters on screen, bringing to light the voices and unique differences between those living in the South Asian diaspora.
Devi Vishwakumar (Maitreyi Ramakrishnan, Never Have I Ever 2020-Present)
Probably the most layered story on the list, Never Have I Ever put Tamil culture in the spotlight unlike we’ve ever seen before in Hollywood. The show follows 15-year old Devi Vishwakumar as she figures out highschool and crushes, all while coping with the recent loss of her dad. Created by Mindy Kaling, the series catapulted Tamil-Canadian actress Maitreyi Ramakrishnan into the spotlight. In early 2019 Kaling put out an open casting call for the role of Devi, and Ramakrishnan beat out 15,000 actors.
The success of Never Have I Ever rested entirely on its lead actor. Ramakrishnan’s experience as a Tamil-Canadian teen and second generation immigrant shines through and makes Devi’s character even more relatable and authentic. Some fans did challenge the stereotypical portrayal of Devi’s cousin and mom, and the writer’s decision to include a storyline about moving back to India, but overall, Never Have I Ever becomes one of the best, well-rounded, well-researched representations of Tamil culture and Tamil kids' experiences growing up in the diaspora.
Where do we go from here?
Seeing Ashley cast in Bridgerton gives me hope for South Asian representation that goes beyond stereotypes and allows actors of colour to tell stories that don’t pigeonhole them into the same storylines.
Bridgerton’s extravagance appealed to audiences of all backgrounds to see themselves in the fantastical storylines and immersive world of the 19th century Ton.
While the reality of British colonialism affecting and harming people of colour during the time period paints a starkly different picture, Bridgerton offers an fictional alternate universe where people of colour are part of the Aristocracy. For so long South Asian stories have only focused on and centered around our struggles.
As a Tamil lover of historical romance myself, I am excited to finally see someone who looks like me front and centre and bask in the extravagance of it all. And if you haven’t seen Bridgerton season one, go do me a favour, and then come back and thank me later.
About the author: Anusha is a first year Master of Journalism student at UBC, based out of Edmonton, Alberta. Anusha has an interest in media studies and representation in popular culture including film, television, social media, fan culture, celebrity, and beauty. Follow her on socials @perhapsanusha