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  Opinion   Columnists  19 Aug 2023  Shreya Sen-Handley | South Asian marvels, but can they last?

Shreya Sen-Handley | South Asian marvels, but can they last?

Shreya Sen-Handley is the author of the award-winning 'Memoirs of My Body', short story collection 'Strange', and new travelogue 'Handle With Care', and a columnist and playwright. Her Twitter and Insta handle is @shreyasenhan.
Published : Aug 20, 2023, 12:05 am IST
Updated : Aug 20, 2023, 12:05 am IST

In cinema outside the subcontinent, however, South Asian representation is negligible at best.

Indian Spiderman. (Photo by arrangement)
 Indian Spiderman. (Photo by arrangement)

Golgappa Week on Google reminded me that we had some crunchy phuchka shells left in our kitchen cupboard, so, we whipped up another lipsmacking batch of tok-jhaal golden globes to celebrate this Google-anointed occasion.

Phuchka shells, like many other ‘exotic’ ingredients, can now be bought in the smaller cities and towns of Britain (not yet in the villages! Can you imagine Mr Tweedbody sampling a phuchka behind his lace curtains, and keeling over from shock at its punchy scrumptiousness?).In Nottingham, a reasonably diverse (though I do believe I’m its only Bengali!) small city, and my adopted home, they can be found in the cramped little shops of its South Asian neighbourhood. Consequently, every now and then, we spend a Sunday morning exploring their shelves, ooh-ing and aah-ing as we stock up on desi marvels.

But there’s more than desi nosh on our plates this summer. Never Have I Ever seen quite so many South Asian faces on Western television. From Mindy Kaling’s hit sitcom about a Tamil-American family, to Amol Rajan rising to BBC’s University Challenge, to the masala-packed Miss Marvel on Disney, South Asian characters are spicing up the small screen. Nowhere near the level of white, black, or even East Asian, representation in global television and films, which the first continue to dominate, it’s up from the near-zero of past decades, when the excruciating Apu from The Simpsons, voiced by the unequivocally un-Indian Hank Azaria, was the only brown dot (or should we say ‘blot’?) on the mass entertainment landscape. But now, Brummie comedy Man like Mobeen, Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy on BBC, and Bridgerton Season Two’s Indian sibling sare amongst the vanguards of change.

In cinema outside the subcontinent, however, South Asian representation is negligible at best, despite the hoo-ha over RRR last year, or the ubiquity of Piggy Devoid-of-acting Chops. Encouragingly, the new Spiderverse movie, not only has South Asian presence, but unlike Ms Marvel or the Eternals, is doing well with worldwide audiences. Its Indian Spidey is strikingly different from other Spiderman avatars, with a swish blue dhoti, Indian bodysuit motifs, and a flying mop of jet hair. Yet, as my teenage son rightly identified, Indian Spidey’s superpowers spring from a mystic yogi and not radiation, ramping up its stereotypical mumbo-jumbo quotient, when his creators — Indian, as it happens — could have used this splendid opportunity to highlight India’s scientific talent!

When watching Western commercials as well, you could be forgiven for thinking there aren’t billions of South Asians on this planet, with a diaspora of millions, and the spending power to merit representation in adverts — but noooo.

You might ask why representation — its quality as well as quantity — matters? What about spotting bits and pieces of ourselves on global platforms is significant? Why should we care if the world denies us airtime and shelf-space?

Not only is it human to crave connection, to see aspects of our identity widely recognised, or even celebrated, reinforces our sense of self and enhances well-being. For the children of overlooked communities, regularly jostled out of the spotlight, seeing others of their ilk succeed provides the boost they need to break moulds and glass ceilings.

How important it is to them is revealed in conversations with Generation Z. A push towards diversity in recent years has resulted in a handful more black characters cropping up in films, serials, and books, but brown folk are still largely absent. My just-turned-teen daughter points to even groundbreaking books like Malorie Blackman’s Noughts and Crosses depicting a world of only two colours — black and white. Where are the Asians, Arabs, Latinex, who, together, constitute most of the globe?

Gen Z’s justifiable frustration with this also makes me wonder why previous generations were more accepting of their invisibility. Was the diaspora smaller and less vocal? Did they lack the platforms for protest (e.g. social media) or did they have bigger, existential battles to wage? And those of us in India then, were we less aware of global culture?

Speaking for myself, books in English were my childhood mainstay, and when India opened up in the nineties, American television and films became staples, too. Yet, I didn’t feel left out when the Famous Five, each of them white (or, like Timmy, canine), swigged ginger beer between adventures on sunny beaches. Curious about their picnic fare, yes, but they struck me as distant fictional creatures, bagging a place at whose table wasn’t even a consideration. Nor did the lack of brown fodder for the dinos of Jurrasic Park trouble me very much. In my mind, right or not, fiction was fiction, and real life, Indian.

Yet, real-life representation can be doubly troubling. That Britain, Scotland, and Ireland, are now led by three subcontinentals — Sunak, Yousaf, and Varadkar — is not only amusing, nor a coincidence, hopefully, but a measure of our success in the wider world. But that two out of three of them are faltering, and have henchmen like Suella Braverman, projects the wrong image to the world. Because, even when we didn’t vote for them, or share their ideology, they are seen as the face of South Asian communities. That it shouldn’t be so, and is a function of white prejudice, where we’re all lumped together but they have individual agency, is a rant for another time.

For now, let’s not forget that scum always floats to the surface, but true South Asian talent is as deep and wide as the sea, and water finds its own level. Eventually.

Tags: south asia, mindy kaling, spiderman