When Riz Ahmed said in an interview “all of a sudden, I’d hear 
my mum shout ‘Asian’, and 
I’d run downstairs just to watch… I really want you 
to understand how much that meant to someone 
who doesn’t see themselves reflected in culture. it’s a message that you matter” For many of us that resonated deeply – we had the exact same scenario at home.  

Being a South Asian today can still mean dealing with the many prejudices and presumptions that have come from television and films, even though many of the stereotypes and cliches are beginning to change.  

Our parents had to endure programmes, made before political correctness and before “authenticity” became the buzz word du jour. Where nothing was sacred, from the “blacked up” Punkah Wallah in It Ain’t Half Hot Mum to Bernard Manning’s schtick peppered with the P word. Where our parents were so desperate to see themselves represented that we all watched Mind Your Language – and laughed. And if it wasn’t crass caricature and accepted abuse, when more actual Asians started popping up in shows, they were inevitably typecast as a nerdy scientist or a heavily accented corner-shop keeper and later maybe a taxi driver or terrorist.  

Why does it matter?  It matters because growing up assimilation was the name of the game – but it also made you invisible. Representation in popular culture shines a light on our self-perception of identity. Television and film don’t just reflect culture; they also shape it.  We shouldn’t underestimate the importance of seeing yourself on television, films or in magazines and books.  

The day, as a kid, when I saw an Asian shopkeeper in some forgettable drama, called Mr. Patel but wearing a turban and with no beard, has always stayed with me. This casual lack of care in getting the nuances and authenticity of characters who were supposed to represent us was what made me think I had to get involved – to try and create our own stories and control our own narrative.  

Has the cultural landscape of the UK changed over the last twenty years. How far have we moved from stereotypical characters to portrayals which are as multifaceted and diverse on screen as we are in our real lives?  

Several people share their feelings about how people like us are depicted on the Telly. What were the films or shows that stand out for them? 

“It was embarrassing to hear characters with exaggerated thick Indian accents and a subservient role on the TV – it was a parody and also emphasised the foreignness and otherness – when all I wanted was to fit in and be accepted “  

There were some seminal moments that had a lasting and powerful impact with films and dramas that changed the narrative and then there was a long lull before the more recent films comedies and dramas. They all show changing the story tellers brings you fresh surprising revelatory stories which would otherwise not be told.  

A producer recalls “Hanif Kureishi  was a writer who massively shifted what we had seen until then – the thing that first blew my mind was My Beautiful Launderette (1985) I had never seen anything so nuanced so layered and so different. And the drama series based on his book “Buddha of Suburbia” again gave us a multi layered piece that told a powerful story” Interesting fact – the soundtrack for the BBC drama was written and performed by David Bowie, who was a fan of the novel and shared the same Bromley hometown as author Kureishi.  

Bend it Like Beckham directed by Gurinder Chadda and released in 2002 resonated with many. Siyma Aslam, founder of the Bradford Literature Festival, says, “When I saw it, I went, ‘This is us. This is our life. This is how we live.’ South Asian and British. The film was as British as the soccer-loving, Beckham-worshiping Jess, and as Punjabi as the Gurudwara-going, aloo-gobi-eating Jess” And of course everyone still loves and cites Goodness Gracious Me, a funny satirical sketch show which started on radio. The “having an English” sketch was great because it flipped the script. 

 Audiences connect with those who feel authentic – regardless of their similarities or differences. And it’s surprisingly simple, the only way it can happen is if the story tellers change. It’s always been that simple.  

“The Mindy Project was a funny sassy show with a South Asian lead and exec – that was inspiring and joyous to watch. It’s nice not to be seen through the lens of problems and issues all the time!” Mindy Kaling followed this with the Netflix comedy Never Have I Ever. And it’s star Maitreyi Ramakrishnan is playing Elizabeth Bennet in The Netherfield Girls, an upcoming adaptation of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice.   

“Bridgerton second season – was moment. Kate and Edwina Sharma, portrayed South Asian actors – with great cultural portrayal “ 

The gatekeepers have traditionally controlled what stories are told – but that is now changing at some pace – which is exciting. There has been a shift in expectations, with people expecting more authentic portrayals of themselves and others. And social media has added to that momentum giving people the freedom and confidence to make content and be unapologetically themselves. 

More recently there have been a diverse mix of films written, produced and directed, by South Asian diaspora. The Long Goodbye (2020), Definition Please (2020), Unmothered (2020), The Elephant Whisperers (2022), Wedding Season (2022), Joyland (2022), Land of Gold (2022), and Polite Society (2023)   

 A young writer hoping to make her own drama someday “I loved Polite Society it great to watch a South Asian female led action comedy “The writer and director Nida Manzoor (also creator of the brilliant We Are Lady Parts) said in a recent interview it took a decade to get the film picked up by Focus Features. there’s even less representation in decision makers, never in my career have I seen a South Asian executive give me feedback. It’s always, ‘We’ve got another South Asian film like yours; yours can’t exist.’ And that’s the real issue.” 

Sujata Day, writer, director, and star of Netflix’s Definition Please, a comedy-drama about a former Scripps National Spelling Bee “When I first moved to Hollywood, I was auditioning for a lot of stereotypical roles; I was having to do an accent or wear a hijab even though I’m not Muslim. They put all brown people in a box, “But as more people of colour started creating and writing their own work, we saw a change. We had brown people writing brown characters and brown stories.  

Riz Ahmed co-wrote The Long Goodbye, with director Aneil Karia and Last year, became the first person of South Asian descent to win an Oscar in the Best Live Action Short Film category.  

And this year, the Sundance Film Festival held its first dedicated South Asian lineup of film screenings and panels. So, we should carry on pushing, hustling, collaborating and telling our stories.  

And we end as we started with a great thought from Riz Ahmed “Herein lies the true beauty of the South Asian diaspora: we are not a monolith.”