Sheerah Ravindren in Brown Skin Girl music video

Never will I ever forget these moments of South Asian representation in 2020

December 29, 2020

Dramatic narrator voice: ‘Previously on South Asian representation this year…’

By Safa Arshadullah, Contributor

As we approach the finish line of this messy year, I’ve been reflecting on the various moments of South Asian representation that had us gasping, cringing, celebrating, and binge-watching from the comfort of our couches. This year, we’ve seen actual steps toward South Asian representation in western media—and no, not just side characters on sitcoms, but full casts of Desi actors on Netflix. It’s interesting to have seen a variety of reactions to these moments, including the many memes on Subtle Curry Traits and insightful think pieces written by South Asian creatives.  

I’ve had great conversations with friends and family about whether or not these media moments reflect our values, identities, hopes, and wishes. 

So, here it is: a roundup of 7 moments of South Asian representation that stood out to me (among many!), that I’m excited to unpack with you. 

1. Never Have I Ever: Of course we need to start here.

meme from Never Have I Ever about doughnuts
photo credit: Never Have I Ever

Mindy Kaling’s Indian American coming-of-age Netflix series Never Have I Ever (2020) already made the news when it casted teen Maitreyi Ramakrishnan from Canada after an open casting call last year. Highly anticipated in it’s intentionally diverse casting and semi-autobiographical story of grief, youth, and exploration, Never Have I Ever gave us the messy, nerdy, horny, vulnerable Indian American teenage girl we like to see. Just as any other show navigating identity in a cultural landscape where those conversations are only just budding in the mainstream, there were hiccups along the way, from clunky lines about Priyanka Chopra’s beauty or questionable accents. However grating the stereotypes of Indian culture and personalities were, Never Have I Ever offered a peek into a new generation of coming-of-age narratives pushing past the norm and opening up the stage for more holistic representation. 

2. Sohla El-Waylly & Priya Krishna: Our favorite South Asian food writers and content creators.

Priya Krishna and Sohla El-Waylly
photo credit: NYT Cooking

Holding down the fort for innovative and personal food exploration after the Bon Appetit fiasco of 2020 are Sohla El-Waylly and Priya Krishna. Sohla fearlessly led the charge in cracking the cheery facade of the wildly popular test kitchen, exposing unjust payment and treatment of BIPOC staff members. She proved that standing by your values and actively (and publicly) questioning systems of power and acts of injustice will undoubtedly instigate necessary change. This past week, these two culinary experts joined forces and competed in a gingerbread house-making competition. Throughout the past six months, Krishna has been sharing her microwave idlis on Instagram, continuing as a food writer at the New York Times, and graciously sharing her partner Seth’s intricate bakes. El-Waylly has joined the Babish Culinary Universe and Food52, accepting funky food challenges and developing recipes. Their previous employer is still faltering, but Sohla and Priya haven’t looked back. They don’t need to. 

3. Indian Matchmaking: Still thinking about Vyasar’s moment of vulnerability. 

Meme from Indian Match-Making
photo credit: Indian Matchmaking

Blowing up the internet with her facial expressions and (rightfully) high expectations, Aparna Shewakramani single-handedly brought Indian Matchmaking (2020) to the mainstream. Shedding light on one type of arranged marriage, it sparked global discussion on the intersection of culture, diaspora, and relationships. Each cast member’s perspectives on matchmaking and marriage highlighted how parental and sociocultural pressures manifested in their lives and what they expected from the process. Of course, the show was limited in what it could and couldn’t show in the courting process, and ultimately, seeking a life partner on camera adds pressure to an already vulnerable process. Even more jarring were the tensions of caste, colorism, class, and religion that were briefly discussed or altogether ignored. For a show sweeping broadly into an Indian identity, there is much more work to be done. 

Read Kulfi founder Priyanka Ganjoo’s thoughts on Indian Matchmaking here: Indian Matchmaking Is a Missed Opportunity to Challenge South Asian Beauty Standards by Loni Venti on Allure

4. Brown TikTok: We can’t not talk about South Asian TikTokers.

Nad in a TikTok
TikTok credit: @nad

Brown family cheeeck! We’ve got Bharatnatyam, Bollywood remixes and mashups, skits about Brown parenting, incredibly intricate outfits, Nihari Birria tacos and other recipes, parents doting on pets they didn’t expect to love—the list truly goes on and on. TikTok has also been a platform for South Asians to voice their experiences, concerns, and thoughts about the wider diaspora and connect on a fundamental level. From stereotypes and tropes in mainstream media to centering social justice, Brown TikTok has their opinions and evidence at the ready. While there are pockets of ethnically or religiously defined communities, it’s been admirable to see so many connections and celebrations of difference and nuance. It’s amazing to see South Asian creators become well-known not just within South Asian spaces, but in general on the internet. Here are some you need to check out asap: 1. @juvaria, 2. @nad, 3. @anthonygomes999, 4. @fatimasfabkitchen.

5. Code Switched: Long awaited yet priceless.  

Scene from Code Switched web series
photo credit: Code Switched

This 5-episode web series was meant to premiere almost 3 years ago. Thank goodness it finally received it’s crowdfunding, because it was truly one of this year’s saving graces. Chronicling the lives of 5 South Asian millennials in Chicago, Code Switched’s comedy writing is so tight and so perfectly turned away from the corny ‘stereotype-breaking’ tropes that have developed over time. Yeah, Rahul is lying to his parents about being a lawyer, but they also don’t blink twice when he shares his work toward becoming an actor. “That’s what you want to do? So go do it, beta.” Priya is killing it at her job and buys a home for her mother, all while grappling with her love life. Zara’s promotion affords her a vacation to Costa Rica and her parents are figuring out how they want to spend their retirement and new season in life. With its attention to detail, whether it be immigrant mothers sharing secrets of their previous life or Krish’s “Hanji Hello” sweatshirt, Code Switched knows it’s audience. More than that, it seamlessly weaves other BIPOC narratives into the lives of the 5 protagonists and doesn’t disservice them in any way. Just watch it––it’s worth your time—and more views means we get season 2!

6. Nadiya Bakes: Nadiya Hussain’s vibrancy is everything. 

Nadiya Hussain wearing orange and white
photo credit: BBC

Having already stolen our hearts as the winner of the Great British Bake Off series 6, Bangladeshi-British Nadiya Hussain is back on screen with her show Nadiya Bakes. While her 2019 cooking-focused Time To Eat was uploaded to Netflix this year, Nadiya Bakes (2020) takes a deeper look into the creative baking world that shot Nadiya to fame. Her compassion and honesty shine through the screen as she shares her no-nonsense, accessible recipes for everyday baking. Nadiya Bakes also highlights various bakers and pastry chefs, shedding light on underrated and unique BIPOC talent. Sharing stories of picking mangoes in Bangladesh as a child or when her sisters come over for a good gossip, Hussain is inexplicably charming and straightforward in her love for food and how she shares that love with the people around her. 

7. Riz Ahmed & The Long Goodbye: An impactful breakup of 2020. 

Riz Ahmed's The Long Goodbye album cover
photo of: The Long Goodbye album cover

Riz Ahmed has broken up with Britain. This poignant album, The Long Goodbye explores loss of cultural identity and being ‘no land’s man.’ Ahmed being disenfranchised by the place that you thought you could call home (‘The Breakup (Shikwa)’, ‘Any Day’), the disconnect from a place that you are inherently tied to (‘Where You From’, ‘Mogambo’), and the anger, confusion, and doubt (‘Can’t I Live’). The swell from vulnerability in the initial tracks to intentional braggadocio (‘Deal With It’, ‘Karma’) in the latter few, parallels growing into yourself, finding your fitting and strengthening your self-love regardless of what the oppressors say or do. Ahmed’s lyricism is unmatched, whether it be spoken word or rap. Sitars and shehnais in the backing tracks as well as intertwined voicemails from celebrity friends with their own complex background throughout the album, solidify Ahmed’s artistry. 

There are undoubtedly other beautiful examples of South Asian representation throughout this ~special~ year, from Bangladeshi-British Joy Crookes’ soulful singles, to TazzyPhe’s return to hilarious and thoughtful storytelling on YouTube, to tears of joy seeing Sheerah Ravindren in the ‘Brown Skin Girl’ music video. 

Ultimately, there’s no such thing as ‘good’ or ‘bad’ representation. We need more. 

The more South Asian stories we see, we write, we direct, we produce, we create, the more we construct a meaningful, intentional future of equitable representation. 

I’m curious to know: What are some of your favorite South Asian media moments this year? Who do you want to see in the spotlight?

About — Safa Arshadullah is a budding brand strategist constantly recalibrating the masala mixture for her chai. You’ll most likely catch her experimenting in the kitchen as an expression of culture & identity, sharing underrated podcasts, or, of course, dissecting the newest Brown representation in pop culture.

Cover photo of: Sheerah Ravindren, @sheerahr in ‘Brown Skin Girl’ 

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