In racism-free England “Bridgeton” colonialism still clings to Sharmas

In a quiet room hidden from the prying eyes and gossip of British high society, Kate Sharma applies oil to her little sister’s thick black hair.

This is a common practice among South Asians, which causes the hair to smell of coconut oil and the feeling of the mother’s hands. These intimate, private moments are unlikely to be found in the Western media, let alone the series, which takes place in London in the 1800s.

This is a scene shared by Kate and Edwin Sharma (Simon Ashley and Charitra Chandran, respectively), two Indian characters who have joined Bridgeton’s cast in the second season. The eight-episode series, which debuted on Netflix last month, deviates from the formula used in the previous iteration in which the story existed in England, which was blind to racing.

Charitra Chandran as Edwin Sharma and Simon Ashley as Kate Sharma in Bridgeton.Liam Daniel / Netflix

However, Sharma’s storyline has several references to Indian prehistory, including a professed love of tea, accents that seem to slip between British and Indians, and even nod to British imperialism.

Harlin Singh, an associate professor of women’s studies and South Asian history at Brandeis University, said the inclusion of brown-skinned actresses like Ashley and Chandran was significant in itself, and some of the cultural moments came into the house. But with insufficiently researched language use and a half-and-half approach to racing, there were areas where the new season was insufficient.

Netflix did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Mismatch of languages ​​and regions

When the Sharma sisters along with their mother Mary first enter this story, they have just traveled to London from Bombay, India (since 1995 known as Mumbai), and are seeking to marry Edwin to British high society. Kate, whose mission is to find her sister’s husband, presents Edwin’s skills, including fluency in two Indian languages: Hindustani and Marathi.

But there is an obvious problem, Singh said. The Marathi are believed to be their native language, spoken in central and southern India.

“They’re Sharmas,” she said. “They are from North India.”

Ajoa Ando as Lady Danbury, Charitra Chandran as Edwin Sharma, Shelley Cohn as Mary Sharma, Simon Ashley as Kate Sharma
Ajoa Ando as Lady Danbury, Charitra Chandran as Edwin Sharma, Shelley Cohn as Mary Sharma and Simon Ashley as Kate Sharma in Bridgeton.Liam Daniel / Netflix

Throughout the season, Edwin calls Kate “Didi,” which in Hindi means older sister, but they both call their deceased father “Appa,” the South Indian father’s name. What’s more, Kate calls Edwin “bon”, which in Bengali means sister.

“I’m a little annoyed,” Singh said. “Conduct your research. … If you’re going to shoot Indian women, be specific. Are they from the North? Are they from the south? They say “appa”, but then they say “didi”. The real idea is that they are trying to find out. “

Bleached approach to the fight against colonialism

While Sharmas entered the London social scene in Bridgeton’s idealized world, the real Britain of the 1800s laid the groundwork for colonialism in South Asia.

The show does not completely shy away from considering the interaction between the British and the Indians on the subcontinent. Mary Sharma, played by Anglo-Indian actress Shelley Cohn, was particularly excluded from English society after marrying a poor Indian clerk.

But the show ignores the violent and exploitative aspects of colonization.

Shelley Cohn as Mary Sharma, Charitra Chandran as Edwin Sharma
Shelley Cohn as Mary Sharma and Charitra Chandran as Edwin Sharma in Bridgeton.Liam Daniel / Netflix

“I think it’s much smoothed out,” Singh said. During the regency where Bridgeton takes place, the East India Company is in India. At the moment, this is corporate colonialism. “

While the white characters in “Bridgeton” tell Kate about her desire to go to India to “learn” things like Ayurvedic medical practice, the reality was much different. The East India Company, a British company created to trade over the Indian Ocean, used military force over much of South Asia and sowed the seeds of colonialism.

Although there were Indians in England at the time, they were not at all oriented in social circles like Sharmas, Singh said.

“This relationship existed, but Indians in high society in England – talk, move, move the same, are part of society, debutants – I think it’s very unrealistic,” she said. “They would face a break with racist and cultural stereotypes. They would not be so easily accepted. “

Simon Ashley as Kate Sharma, Ajoa Ando as Lady Danbury, Shelley Cohn as Mary Sharma and Charitra Chandran as Edwin Sharma in the second season
Simon Ashley as Kate Sharma, Ajoa Ando as Lady Danbury, Shelley Cohn as Mary Sharma and Charitra Chandran as Edwin Sharma in the second season of “Bridgerton”.Liam Daniel / Netflix

While other color actors – such as Ajao Ando, ​​a black actress who plays Lady Danbury’s noblewoman in Bridgeton – are cast in roles that have historically been played by white people without race as a factor, Sharma’s Indianness is much explored.

The second season in each episode reminds viewers of their origins, but Singh said he neglects to dive deeper.

“In such shows, they hope for special righteousness,” she said. “We do the right things, the right presentation. And if you’re going to do that, do some research. “

Cultural nods throughout the season

For Singh, the most touching moments in the second season of “Bridgeton” did not come from the dramatic love triangle between Anthony Bridgeton (Jonathan Bailey) and the Sharma sisters, but in small glimpses of the life of each character.

Although some details were inaccurate, Singh said, it was comfortable to see Kate and Edwin alone with their long black braids cascading down the sides, stealing cloves into English tea to make her look more like tea, or put on traditional jewelry.

“Just by showing Indian women as an object of desire, conversation or love, we’ve done it 100 times before, and not always to our advantage,” she said. “But these things are close to our lives.”

Charitra Chandran as Edwin Sharma, Simon Ashley as Kate Sharma, Shelley Cohn as Mary Sharma
Charitra Chandran as Edwin Sharma, Simon Ashley as Kate Sharma and Shelley Cohn as Mary Sharma in Bridgeton.Liam Daniel / Netflix

The most notable moment occurred in the sixth episode, when three Indian women sat together and participated in a traditional Haldi pre-wedding ceremony. Mary and Kate apply a paste of turmeric on Edwin’s face on the eve of her big day, a ritual that is supposed to bless the bride before marriage.

Traditional orange garlands adorn their room and they hold the ceremony without much exposition or explanation. In the background is a performance of the classic Bollywood song “Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham”.

“I met a thousand tomorrows, but they all led to it,” says Edwin, and her sister spreads her arms.

Like many older brown daughters, Kate carries the family on her back, Singh said.

Ajoa Ando as Lady Danbury, Simon Ashley as Kate Sharma
Ajoa Ando as Lady Danbury and Simon Ashley as Kate Sharma in Bridgeton.Liam Daniel / Netflix
Simon Ashley as Kate Sharma, Charitra Chandran as Edwin Sharma
Simon Ashley as Kate Sharma and Charitra Chandran as Edwin Sharma in Bridgeton.Liam Daniel / Netflix

“The senior really carries a kind of burden,” she said. “They have such a caring, parental role. And that’s what we see in Bridgeton. She is a kind of architect of her sister’s future. ”

Aside from inaccuracies, Singh said she still sees magic in Bridgeton’s second season. It is a space rarely occupied by women from South Asia, and viewers rarely see family relationships.

“These are intimate parts of our lives,” she said. “I find these moments much more convincing, much more moving. … I keep hope in the imagination of love stories.


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