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When the World Pays Attention to South Asians

Updated: Sep 5, 2023


Globalization impacts our lives on a daily basis. From technology to medicine, politics to music, and art to fashion, globalization has fostered exchanges between hundreds of cultures. Although Western media still dominates mainstream culture, voices from diverse backgrounds are now included in the entertainment space. Since the COVID-19 pandemic, South Asian culture has gained more recognition, exposing people worldwide to its vast and rich history. 


“Naatu Naatu” 


One of the most iconic examples of such recognition occurred at this year’s Academy Awards. Last March, the Telugu song “Naatu Naatu” from the film RRR won an Oscar for Best Original Song, becoming the first song from Indian cinema to do so. Set against the backdrop of 1920s colonial India, the film portrays a fictionalized version of two Indian revolutionaries, played by Ram Charan and Jr. N.T.R., fighting against the British Raj. While at a party hosted and attended by the British elite, a British officer, Jake, starts to berate the Indians who are at the party, almost all of whom are servers. He proclaims that Indians know nothing of art and high culture, including various Western dance styles. In response to his taunts, Charan’s character begins to play the drums and asks Jake, “Not salsa, not flamenco my brother. Do you know Naatu?” and proceeds to outdance them alongside N.T.R. with the viral hook step


The moment in” Naatu Naatu” where the British officers fall while attempting the step is significant and symbolic; while Westerners may have cultural knowledge unfamiliar to Indians, that knowledge is not more valuable than that of Indian art forms and practices. Differences in knowledge, art style, and language do not make one group inferior to the other.


The energetic dance demonstrates a fusion of modern and traditional influences while the song composition combines various instruments, including mandolins and Indian skin drums called duffs, to create an infectious and unique sound for both South Asian and Western audiences. RRR’s portrayal of freedom fighters and independence is also a well-recognized narrative that survivors of colonialism and their descendants connect with worldwide. RRR’s Oscar win for  Best Original Song is a milestone for Indian cinema, now embraced by Western audiences.t It demonstrates that a difference in language does not pose a barrier to connecting with other cultures. The historic win demonstrates that  South Asian entertainment stands alongside Western productions in merit and prestige.


Bridgerton


In addition to shining during awards season, South Asians have also stood out in recent period dramas. Season 2 of Netflix's hit show Bridgerton (March of 2022) features actresses Simone Ashley and Charithra Chandran as the Sharma sisters. The record-breaking season depicts a racially integrated Regency-era England, and stars Kate and Edwina Sharma as the first Indian protagonists of the show. While Bridgerton does not explicitly state where the sisters are from in India, many expressions and traditions highlight their roots. Kate calls Edwina “bon”, a Bengali term for little sister. Edwina calls Kate “Didi”, a Hindi term for older sister. They both refer to their dad as “Appa”, a Tamil term for father, speak Marathi and Hindustani, and discuss growing up in Bombay. South Asian viewers feel nostalgia as they witness Kate oiling Edwina’s hair and Edwina’s haldi ceremony with an instrumental version of the Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham theme song playing in the background. 


South Asian characters have long been subjected to tired tropes, exaggerated accents, and brownface. Perhaps the most infamous case of brownface, or in this case, brown voice, is the character of Apu from The Simpsons played by Hank Azaria. From his exaggerated accent to his stereotyped occupation as a convenience store owner, many South Asians criticized the character for perpetuating negative stereotypes and for being voiced by a white actor.


Instead of falling into formulaic stereotypes, Kate’s character is an example of a complex South Asian female being at the center of a story with elements of romance, feminism, and classism. She also gives insight into many struggles commonly faced by the eldest daughters of immigrants. Almost everything Kate does is for the benefit of her family, even if it means giving up her own happiness. The nuances of these characters reflect the creators’ desire to authentically represent South Asian culture rather than tokenize it.


India in Exhibition 


This past April marked a momentous occasion recognizing South Asian fashion and art. Just after Dior hosted a historic fashion show at the Gateway of India, the Nita Mukesh Ambani Cultural Centre (NMACC) celebrated its grand opening with the “India in Exhibition” launch. Fan favorites like Zendaya, Gigi Hadid, and Tom Holland, alongside Bollywood stars such as Alia Bhatt, Shah Rukh Khan, and Deepika Padukone, were in attendance at this grand showcase of Indian performing arts and craftsmanship. 


The event, which highlighted designers from around the world, was inspired by Indian history, architecture, and textiles. The showcase also presented a crossover between big-name Western fashion houses and timeless South Asian art. Throughout history, colonizers, rulers, and celebrities have stolen and appropriated South Asian art instead of praising and recognizing it. The NMACC launch is an example of an intricate and thoughtful tribute to South Asian art, traditions, and heritage that should be celebrated worldwide. 


While South Asian representation remains imperfect, “Nattu Nattu” winning an Oscar, Season 2 of Bridgerton, and India in Exhibition serve as examples of how South Asians are finally getting the screen time they deserve. Moreover, they pave the way for new generations of artists and entertainers to thrive in popular culture. South Asians’  increased presence in entertainment encourages a more inclusive society that can celebrate cultures from all over the world.

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