After many years of South Asian characters in movies and TV being largely stereotypical side characters, there’s recently been a shift in Hollywood. In recent years, there are more and more examples of leading characters played by actors who have roots in India and Pakistan, among other locations in South Asia. Plus, they tell stories that don’t put them into a small boxes, and represent a larger experience that is what representation in film and TV is all about.
We all deserve to be seen on the big and small screen, and characters like these open more doors for this community that makes up 25 percent of the population of the world. From regency romance to a Marvel superhero, we’re celebrating some recent great South Asian characters in movies and television. Check it out:
Kate Sharma (Simone Ashley) – Bridgerton
Bridgerton became the talk of the ton in 2020 when the Netflix series became the most successful original TV show for the streaming service. For the recent Season 2, Julia Quinn’s The Viscount Who Loved Me was adapted for television with its lead Kate played by British-Indian Sex Education actress, Simone Ashley. For the romance, the character was altered slightly to be Kate Sharma instead of Sheffield, with her and her family’s backstory being from India. The 2022 season seamlessly infused Indian culture into Kate and her sister Edwina’s identity whilst also ushering in an Indian lead of a romance set in the Regency era and for a very mainstream series.
When it comes to South Asian actors being considered for award season buzz, oftentimes the storylines have been around starring in a story about and set in their home country such as 1982’s Gandhi and 2008’s Slumdog Millionaire. Riz Ahmed changed this when he received an Oscar nomination for Sound Of Metal, becoming the first Pakistani actor and first Muslim actor to be included in the Best Actor category. In the drama, Ahmed plays a drummer in a metal band and drug addict who loses his hearing and must join a shelter for deaf recovering addicts. Ahmed’s incredible performance included the actor learning American Sign Language and how to drum like a pro.
Dev Shah (Aziz Ansari) – Master Of None
After Aziz Ansari ascended into popularity on Parks and Recreation as the sarcastic and entrepreneurial Tom Haverford, the comedian created his own series in Netflix’s Master of None. The show, which he also starred in and wrote, really showed the actor’s personal perspective as an actor and Indian-American immigrant through a somewhat fictional lens. One especially memorable episode is called “Indians on TV” where he touches on how Indian actors are often expected to be stereotypes with heavy accents. In the most recent season of the show, Ansari took a step back from starring to highlight Lena Waithe’s character while he showcased his impressive directorial approach.
Lucy Gulliver (Geraldine Viswanathan) – The Broken Hearts Gallery
The romantic comedy is a beloved genre, but over the years it has been plagued with the same faces and tropes over and over again. In 2020, though, Aussie actress Geraldine Viswanathan got to shine as the lead of The Broken Hearts Gallery alongside Stranger Things’ Dacre Montgomery. In the movie, Viswanathan plays a young woman who recently suffered a breakup and decides to start a gallery devoted to fallen relationships. The movie delivers a quality and unique rom-com that allows its half-Indian (of Tamil ancestry) main character / actress to lead the type of movie that has gone to white actresses over the years, and without her identity having to be her core personality trait, either.
Javed Khan (Viveik Kalra) – Blinded By The Light
Blinded By The Light premiered at the Sundance Film Festival before becoming a beloved (yet underrated) dramedy in 2019. The movie, directed by Gurinder Chadha, who previously made history as the helmer of Bend It Like Beckham, is about the son of Pakistani migrant parents, Javed, who falls in love with Bruce Springsteen’s music and uses it as an inspiration to write his own poetry. The story is inspired by the life of journalist Sarfraz Manzoor, who co-wrote the Blinded By The Light script. The movie and the character of Javed show how music can speak to and connect with anyone, including an immigrant kid who feels otherwise like an outsider in his life.
Mindy Lahiri (Mindy Kaling) – The Mindy Project
After Mindy Kaling wrote for and portrayed Kelly Kapoor on The Office, the comedian pitched her own comedy to FOX, The Mindy Project. She created, produced and starred in the series about a gynecologist’s attempts to balance her personal and professional life. The series that aired for six seasons brought Indian representation to television in a big way, with Kaling becoming the first Indian American to have her own TV show on a major network, and in a way that wasn’t solely focused on her ethnicity, but addressing the life of a working career woman, and later, motherhood.
Sheriff Hassan (Rahul Kohli) – Midnight Mass
Mike Flanagan’s incredible Netflix horror franchise continued in 2021 with an original series called Midnight Mass, which served as an existential discussion about faith alongside its scares. Among the cast was the groundbreaking character of Sheriff Hassan, played by Rahul Kohli (previously in The Haunting of Bly Manor and iZombie). He played the island’s sheriff, who is a Muslim who struggles with his teenage son to fit into the town’s predominantly Catholic population. Within the series, Midnight Mass beautifully represents a South Asian Muslim family and their difficulties in the western world as all the spooky things take place.
Rhea Kumar (Avantika Vandanapu) – Spin
Disney Channel is known for propelling young stars into mega stardom, such as Zendaya, Miley Cyrus, and Zac Efron, with their original films and TV shows. In 2021, the network made a massive move in representation by releasing the new DCOM, Spin, which is about an Indian-American teen who works at her tight-knit family’s restaurant, but realizes her true passion is to be an EDM DJ. The movie highlights Indian culture in a beautiful way and allows its young star, Avantika Vandanapu, to shine in a breakout performance.
Alex Parrish (Priyanka Chopra Jonas) – Quantico
Another network television win for a great South Asian character is Priyanka Chopra Jonas’ leading role in the ABC series, Quantico. The Indian A-lister moved to the American market to star in the thrilling drama about an FBI agent who becomes the prime suspect of a terrorist attack. It’s another first, with the actress becoming the first Indian actor to lead a primetime drama on American TV. But, Chopra Jonas also did so by playing a charismatic, badass, and intriguing character during the series’ three seasons.
Sir Gawain (Dev Patel) – The Green Knight
Medieval epics have always been led by white men, but David Lowery’s 2021 adaptation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight gave Dev Patel a unique role in that space. The existentialist storyline allowed Patel to deliver a meaty performance that comments on the hero’s journey in a refreshing (yet taxing) trudge to meet the Green Knight. Patel’s performance is one of the best of 2021 and should have really gotten more Oscar recognition.
Devi Vishwakumar (Maitreyi Ramakrishnan) – Never Have I Ever
Following Mindy Kaling’s The Mindy Project, she moved behind the scenes completely to create Never Have I Ever, a coming of age Netflix series. It stars newcomer Maitreyi Ramakrishnan, who hails from Canada and was born to Tamil parents. It is loosely based on Kaling’s childhood experiences, as it follows an Indian-American Tamil high school student dealing with the sudden death of her father, who decides to change her social status, though it does not come easy. The show is much like a lot of high school series in a lot of ways, but it also adds the layers of her grappling and balancing her Indian-American identity as well.
Kingo (Kumail Nanjiani) – Eternals
After Kumail Nanjiani made waves as a Pakistani-American comedian, writer, and actor in projects like Silicon Valley and The Big Sick, he was cast as the first South Asian superhero in Marvel’s Eternals. Not only does the movie include a big-screen Bollywood dance sequence, but Nanjiani got super ripped to take on the role because he wanted to make sure the first Pakistani superhero “could hang with Thor and Captain America.” Kingo is an Eternal and flashy actor who continued this breaking of stereotypes and continues to show Hollywood that South Asian actors have range and can fit in all genres far and wide.
In just the past few years, there’s been an uptick in South Asian representation and a lot of different firsts for its large population in the framework of Hollywood. Here’s to more great South Asian characters in the years ahead. We’ll look out for more examples of them in new TV shows and upcoming movie releases.