Just finished binge watching Bridgerton: Season 2 and a bit confused by some of the choices made by characters and crew? Read on to hear how two brown women (Medha and Angelitha) felt about seeing a desi twist brought to life in a regency romance!
When news broke of Simone Ashley’s casting as lead for season 2 in Netflix’s hit series Bridgerton, it was momentous. It is rare to see a South Asian lead in any show, let alone one of this calibre. Simone Ashley is a dark-skinned South Asian woman. It’s a casting decision that has never been made before. Suddenly, Kate Sheffield, an originally white character, becomes Kathani Sharma, a headstrong, whip-smart young woman who suffers no fools. And who is also brown.
Along with announcements of Ashley’s casting we also received a name for her character. Kate Sharma. In itself, this was a groundbreaking moment. It was the recognition that this wasn’t just casting a brown woman in an originally white role. At the very end of the season, when Anthony Bridgerton (Jonathan Bailey) uses her full name ‘Kathani Sharma’, we realise that the change wasn’t limited to her last name. Kathani Sharma is an unapologetic brown woman. A culmination of all the choices made before.
Because that’s what this show is. It is a combination of choices made by the producers, writers, costume designers and others. These choices develop a show that seamlessly intertwines the now-familiar regency setting with the unique cultural elements brought forward by the Sharmas that truly form representation. When executive producer/showrunner Chris Van Dusen hinted that desi culture would influence season two, it was met with apprehension. Especially given the rudimentary and overly-simplified “love cured racism” explanation of the Ton’s diversity last season.
As two desi women watching season 2, it was certainly a concern we had going in. How would our culture be incorporated? Would it be a celebration of the things we are proud to be a part of? Or would it be a tokenistic portrayal? Used only to show how anti racist the show is, and how it defeated colonialism?
To our relief, season two did not follow the same narrative from season one. What we noticed was a consistent incorporation of desi culture, in areas from costuming and ceremonies to popular media. Even in the portrayal of the Sharma family, we see a general air of “desiness”. There is a sense of otherness to them, but not a negative otherness which is usually accompanied by ostracization. Nor is it an otherness that led to gawking and exotification. It is an otherness that is accompanied by feelings of comfort. Even though they stood apart from the rest of the Ton, they felt familiar to us.
Some elements are easy to note, like the slight accent Ashley and Charithra Chandran (Edwina Sharma) employ throughout their performances. Others perhaps aren’t so noticeable to those unfamiliar with desi culture. This season was incredible to watch because of both the obvious and subtle elements. As brown women, we were finally seeing ourselves on the screen. It’s a feeling we want to share with all the viewers. Bridgerton took the first step by infusing our desi culture seamlessly into the season, and we want to make sure those efforts are not left unnoticed.
Although Bridgerton feels entirely singular, the cultural influences that have shaped the show are obvious. From the use of string quartet covers of modern music to a vaguely gossip girl-esque voiceover narrating the events of the story cheekily. We are able to recognise plenty of modern storytelling decisions used here
Bridgerton has always been unapologetic in what it is. Filled to the brim with tried and tested romance tropes. But there’s something more about Kate and Anthony’s story. It goes beyond the obvious enemies to lovers narrative and infuses it with something more unique. Something inherently desi. Specifically, something inherently Bollywood.
If you’re someone of South Asian descent or if you’re just one of those people who enjoys watching Bollywood romances, you’d notice a striking similarity between them and the second season of Bridgerton. It’s hard to say if it was a deliberate choice or a wonderful coincidence. Either way, it’s impossible to deny.
The Dreaded Love Triangle
The “love triangle” in Bridgerton stands apart from what most of us are used to. Kate and Anthony are never confused about their feelings. Anthony is well-aware of what – or who – he wants. In fact, it is precisely because he knows he can never want Edwina in that way that he pursues her. Similarly, Kate understands early on that she might not hate the viscount as much as she claims. Yet even as she becomes aware of her own feelings, she begs Anthony to go through with the wedding. This may be frustrating to viewers watching the story unfold. You’ve never seen two people more dedicated to their own unhappiness than Kate and Anthony. Unless you’ve seen a Bollywood love triangle.
A Bollywood love triangle isn’t like the love triangle that has been popularised in western media. In desi films, a love triangle is a classic trope, used in the most famous romance movies of all time. Yet, unlike for western audiences, it hasn’t grown stale. I’d like to argue that it’s because a Bollywood love triangle is way more dynamic. In a Hollywood movie, a love triangle may cause strife because one person has feelings for two potential love interests. Archie Andrews has been in the middle of a love triangle for decades. Take Bella’s infamous struggle between the werewolf and the vampire.
A Bollywood love triangle is much more complex. There are always extenuating circumstances that lead to that particular dilemma. Rarely does a character have feelings for more than one person at the same time. There is never any animosity or jealousy between any of the players. This is often because one person sacrifices everything for their beloved’s supposed happiness. They have no problems fading into the background for a happily-ever-after that doesn’t involve them.
This happens in Kuch Kuch Hota Hai, where Anjali leaves her best friend without telling him of her feelings for him so he can be with Tina, whom he was falling in love with. It happens in Kal Ho Naa Ho, as Aman nobly hides his feelings for Naina and helps Rohit win her over when he realises that he’s dying. More on the nose, it happens in Mujhse Dosti Karoge, when both Pooja and Raj, though very aware of their love for each other, choose to sacrifice it for their best friend when tragedy befalls her. Raj makes it all the way to the altar with Tina before Tina recognizes the sacrifice the two lovers made for her, bangles playing a significant role in that realisation as well.
Finally, we see this in Bridgerton, where Kate and Anthony truly only ever want each other. There is no conflict in where their hearts lie. The narrative makes this clear early on. Anthony only proposes to Edwina because he knows he loves Kate. He fears that she’d suffer a fate similar to his mother. Kate begs Anthony to marry Edwina because she believes it would break her sister’s heart. She also believes it would put a mark against Anthony’s honour otherwise.
This love triangle is born out of self-sacrifice, not any real confusion regarding their desires. Edwina is understandably angry at her sister’s deception. However, she gets over her feelings for Anthony almost immediately when she realises she never really knew him. Her relationship with Kate only grows stronger. By the end of their story, Edwina even nudges her to claim her happiness with Anthony.
Lips Don’t Touch
Because of the Indian Censor Board’s infamous strictness, kissing in Bollywood has long been taboo. Atleast up until it became commonplace about a decade ago. Yet romance still managed to thrive in Indian cinema, ruling the box office over every other genre of film. The determination to circumvent the conventions at the time has led to the phenomena of the “almost-kiss”, or the “not-quite-kiss”. Characters romancing each other in Bollywood never lack for tension because it’s always there.
The means of release, a kiss, that’s so natural in most other romance films simply wasn’t an option here. Characters are shown to nearly kiss and then get interrupted or get struck by an immediate sense of horror at their actions. Neck kisses also became popular around this time (debatably sexier). Similarly, Kate and Anthony never let their lips touch. But the lack of space between them, the act of allowing their noses to touch, and the way they almost breathe each other in, feels more intimate than a kiss.
In Bridgerton, there’s no real limit to the explicitness of the sex scenes, as we all know. The restriction is in the characters’ circumstances. Kate refuses to give in to her baser desires because of her sister’s supposed feelings for him. All the while, Anthony repeatedly brings up that he is a gentleman as a shield and barrier between them. They almost kiss a staggering three times before they finally give in near the end, the tension between them ripe. The kiss feels earned in ways that most do not, because of the anticipation.
The Language of Bangles
The act of slipping bangles onto a love interest’s wrist is a familiar act in Bollywood movies. It allows for moments of contact that can feel scandalous, with the right amount of tension, all while looking completely innocent. While we don’t get exactly that, we watch Anthony press Kate’s bangle into her palm with both hands. Anthony gazes at Kate in a way that immediately alerts Edwina of his true feelings. The gesture that would have been the gentlemanly thing to do in any other circumstance is suddenly almost unbearably intimate.
This isn’t the only tender scene surrounding those bangles. Later we see a focus on them while Kate and Anthony talk in a closet. The wrist grab with the sound of bangles clanging in the background feels especially poignant as Anthony pleads with Kate to wait with him. The act of pulling someone back towards you right as they’re leaving is reminiscent of scenes where the man tugs on his love interest’s dupatta (scarf) as she turns away from him.
Is This Real Life?
Bollywood romances are very rarely known for their realism, but neither is Bridgerton. They are so far-off from our own realities. They become sweeping fantasies that we lose ourselves in. There are, however, grounded moments of true emotion that straddle this line beautifully. Anthony imagining Kate in place of Edwina at the altar is an example that springs to mind. It serves as a defining moment. Anthony’s feelings for Kate and the impossibility of their situation are made exceedingly clear. Even though Anthony and Kate are largely at fault for this situation, the fantasy gives him a respite from it. The dream sequence shows Anthony’s state of mind. We watch as he loses sense of reality and imagines the moment how he truly desires it. In Bollywood movies, dream sequences are a staple for this very reason.
Characters break out into song in scenic locations where they rhapsodize about being in love. They sing about their heartbreak in lyrical agony. Wouldn’t it have been something to see Jonny Bailey break out in song, but perhaps that was a mite too unrealistic, even for Bridgerton. While Anthony doesn’t go quite that far, he certainly comes close enough. One thing they nearly all include is the dream sequence imagining a wedding ceremony. Isn’t that exactly what Anthony imagines with Kate in a white dress at the altar, as his heart’s true bride?
When Their Eyes Met
Anthony reveals near the end that he’d been in love with Kate all along, right from the moment they met. This immediately brings their first meeting, where they raced each other on horseback, into a new light. The way Anthony’s face lights up as soon as her hood falls off is reminiscent of another popular Bollywood trope; love at first sight. This isn’t exclusive to Indian films but there is something to be said about the frequency at which this occurs. It’s rare for one to not feature the lead being struck by a woman’s beauty upon laying eyes on her.
While this doesn’t always translate to love at first sight, it certainly does tend to mean something at first sight. In Anthony’s case, he’s not just bowled over by her looks. (Though with Simone Ashley playing Kate, it’s hard to imagine that that’s not a major factor in his reaction). He’s entranced by her tenacity and the fact that he, by his own admission, hadn’t met anyone like her before. There’s also a sense of recognition in his eyes. Where he was listless and lost just moments ago, he’s suddenly revitalised, awakened by her. You see it in him, the feeling of finding something he never realised he needed. And things are never really the same for him again.
In fact, the meeting of eyes play a very special role in Kate and Anthony’s story. These are two characters who are literally unable to take their eyes off each other. From looks across rooms when they’re not supposed to be even thinking of each other, to the blatant staring during dances and weddings and boat rides. Other characters also notice the looks and comment on them. Most notably when Lady Danbury warns that one charged look between them will inform the entire Ton of their feelings for each other.
However, in a very Bollywood moment during their dance at the Featherington Ball, Kate and Anthony unveil their eyes to each other in a dazzling show of naked longing. If eyes truly are the window to the soul, this moment was a love confession on its own. It’s a moment that takes away all the outside distractions and purely focuses on their gaze and the emotions conveyed. There is no one else at that moment.
There are other moments sprinkled in that feel special to anyone who’s grown up watching Bollywood movies. The sad bride is a huge staple in Bollywood films. We see a subverted version of that with Anthony being visibly devastated as he watches Kate walk down the aisle. Aside from the obvious Bollywoodification, Bridgerton takes it a step further with its incorporation of Indian cultural elements.
Perhaps the most seemingly obvious cultural element is Kate’s love of chai. She mentions repeatedly her dislike for English teas, a common sentiment across desi households. The Sharmas wear dresses and jewellery that appear to be exactly the same as the rest of the Ton in their cuts and the shine. However, rest assured, the desi influence is very present.
It’s in the jhumkas that adorn Kate’s ears, a common bell shaped dangle earring worn by Indian women. It’s the patterns of the fabric used in Kate’s dresses. The paisley being the most obvious, with its origins tracing back to India. They dress the Sharmas in similar fashions and styles as those around them. This allows them to be a part of the society they’ve gone to rejoin. Still, the costumes allow their culture to shine through because of the aforementioned details.
A final clear and obvious choice is the inclusion of a Bollywood classic in the soundtrack. When it plays in a particularly emotional point of the show, it makes that poignant moment even more so for those who recognized the nostalgic tune of Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham, a title which literally translates to ‘Sometimes Happy, Sometimes Sad.’
Inclusion of Language
The very first words from Kate Sharma set up on the path Bridgerton chose to take. In a moment of shock for Kate, we see their seamless integration of “Baap re!” a common Hindi exclamation used to proclaim surprise similar to how one might use “Oh my god!” in English right now. The integration of common phrases isn’t just a one time occurrence. It is a fixture throughout the series. Kate calls Edwina ‘Bon’ and Edwina refers to Kate as ‘Didi’, a word used in respect to elder sisters. The use of these terms mixed in while speaking English is common in most desi households, a way of combining familiar language and phrases with the one commonly spoken. It’s done without any emphasis, and shows comfort, providing viewers familiar with the terms the same comfort.
Role of the Elder Sister
But the changes made in the show go deeper than surface level. They go past what Kate wears or what she says. Kate Sharma’s personality is the benchmark for the majority of eldest Indian daughters. Self sacrificing, taking care of younger siblings and mutual happiness are common. Eldest daughters in desi families take on a role adjacent to parents. Her goal is to ensure the security of those she’s responsible for- her younger siblings and oftentimes her parents too.
In the book, we see a Kate Sheffield who is alright with being overlooked, as long as her sister is valued. In the show, however, we see a Kathani Sharma who has actively dedicated her life to ensuring her sister’s happiness over her own. Kathani Sharma has spent the majority of her adult life ensuring Edwina is prepared to face the future.
She does it purely for the love of her younger sister and the need to ensure Edwina’s happiness. It’s stated over and over again, Edwina’s happiness is the one Kate must first secure before ever considering her own. Her own comfort and life will always come second to Edwina, even when Edwina’s happiness could mean pain for herself. It’s that level of self sacrifice which is a common theme in desi families for eldest daughters.
Something that might catch audience members off guard is the ceremony occurring the night before Edwina and Anthony’s almost wedding. This is the scene between the Sharma women where they smear a yellow paste on Edwina. They also take turns smearing it on each other. The show does an excellent job explaining its a pre-wedding desi ritual. The ceremony is called a Haldi, performed before weddings to ensure auspicious beginnings for a bride and groom. It’s used as a way to protect the couple in their new life. It’s an emotional and intimate moment for families and friends and a blessing.
Haldi (also known as turmeric) is applied, as a paste, to the skin. Applying the haldi is a way of purifying and cleansing. It’s used to prepare the bride and groom for their marriage. They are leaving their old life behind. (It also helps with exfoliating the skin and leaving a nice healthy glow). Filled with laughter, colour and joy, the scene is reminiscent of many desi weddings. The significance of seeing such a ceremony on the TV show that reaches tens of millions of households is incredible.
Even when you see desi characters on television or movies, you rarely see this part of our culture incorporated. The standard has always been the white dress western wedding. By including this ceremony, the show chooses to combine the Sharma’s desi heritage with the Bridgertons’ own traditions. It shows something that is commonplace for many people today, with the combining of cultures and rituals, each retaining parts of their history, and creating something new together.
The pattern on the floor painted on specifically for the Harmony Ball is another cultural element. While we see patterns on the ground for other dances as well, this specific pattern was reminiscent of a rangoli. Rangolis are patterns made on the ground of homes. They often symbolise ideas such as happiness, peace, serenity. They are used to welcome the Goddess Lakshmi. Lakshmi represents wealth and good luck. The patterns are usually geometric shapes, florals, or other basic patterns. The symmetry is what represents the serenity and other ideas of rangolis. Rangolis can also symbolise harmony, which was the theme of that ball. The dance is the culmination of harmony between the families and its members.
It shows a melding of the cultures, something that felt needed after the ordeal of facing the Ton through the scandal and working together to beat it. They not only find peace in those moments, but they also make the decision to put it all behind them and truly connect.
And the rangoli does bring harmony in that country dance. We see multiple pairings we’d never seen before, from Kate and Colin, to Edwina and Gregory. We even see one of the most lighthearted moments of the show with Anthony swinging around his youngest sister, Hyacinth. Having a rangoli as the dance floor pattern was an excellent, small but noticeable addition. It is a melding of two families and backgrounds to bring about one of the most harmonious, lighthearted moments of the show.
Bridgerton has committed to the inclusion of POC in this world without making the same mistakes they did in season one. They didn’t use brown women for their ‘love cured racism’ rhetoric. Instead, this season feels like a celebration of desi culture and of Kate and Anthony. It’s the acknowledgement that with the inclusion of desi women comes their culture and background. It’s not enough to merely have a dark-skinned woman lead this show, as momentous as it is. Her character should be substantiated beyond what is simply visible. In that, Bridgerton takes steps to create a well-rounded individual, shaped by her culture but not defined by it.
In Hindi, the name Kathani means ‘utterance’. When Anthony utters her name, there is a type of completion. Kathani Sharma isn’t just a woman who happens to look Indian. She may maintain the core of Kate Sheffield, but she is now a separate entity. Her being desi has now irreversibly changed the character, enriching both the romance and the show as a whole. With the combination of choices and changes made, the culmination being the complete name change, Kathani Sharma is unapologetically a brown woman.
Thanks for reading the work of our guest authors Medha and Angelitha! For more from them both, check out our Bridgerton Browntable here!