Simone Ashley & Charithra Chandran On How Bridgerton Subverted Hollywood’s Problematic Tokenism

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While the first season of Bridgerton sent viewers into a spin over its titillating sex scenes and devilishly handsome Duke of Hastings (Regé-Jean Page), the second instalment in the Netflix series has the world talking for different reasons.

Focusing on Viscount Anthony Bridgerton’s (Jonathan Bailey) quest to find a wife, Season Two’s approach to physical intimacy is relatively subdued, but its exploration of feminism and South Asian culture through Kate Sharma (Sex Education star Simone Ashley) and Edwina Sharma (Charithra Chandran) makes it both an enriching watch, as well as groundbreaking since authentic representation still isn’t the norm.

Chandran, a newcomer to the industry, recently revealed in a Radio Times interview that she had been told by people at her university, “You only got the lead in that show because they needed to have a person of colour in it.”

As disheartening as it’s been to hear such comments, the 25-year-old firmly stands by speaking about the beauty of what Bridgerton has done in flipping Hollywood’s box-ticking casting on its head. Yes, these are characters with Indian heritage, but they’re not one-dimensional supporting characters that so often people of colour are pigeonholed into for the sake of a production appearing diverse.

“I’ve thought about this a lot, obviously, because we’re [Chandran and Ashley] in this position,” Chandran tells Refinery29 over Zoom. “And I think what’s special about Bridgerton is that one, our brownness isn’t an afterthought.

“It’s not the entirety of our characters, but it’s actually a thoughtful part of it. I think the fact that Kate and Edwina are Indian adds to the weight of family obligation and obligation to marry well. It’s a core part of the story and it’s really thoughtfully done.

“And, we’re also not supporting characters, right? Simone’s the lead in the show. Historically in film, there’s always like this Black best friend trope where you’re just there for diversity — you make the best friend a person of colour. Bridgerton’s subverted both of those things.”

I think what’s special about Bridgerton in two ways is that one, our brownness isn’t an afterthought. It’s not the entirety of our characters, but it’s actually a thoughtful part of it.

charithra chandran

As Chandran says, the Sharma sisters’ brownness is respectfully and organically weaved in, whether that’s through Edwina calling Kate didi (the Hindi word for sister), Kate oiling Edwina’s hair, or casually making her tea with traditional spices — we call that masala chai, by the way.

As a South Asian woman myself, I was prickled with goosebumps watching Kate and mother Mary Sharma (Shelley Conn) lovingly spread turmeric on Edwina, which is a ritual performed in a haldi ceremony, a traditional Indian pre-wedding event. Bridgerton became known for its glorious instrumental covers of pop songs in season one, and to feature the famous 2001 Bollywood song, Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham as the backing track during this scene was a beautiful nod to the culture and a treat for brown women watching at home.

“It was so much fun,” Ashley told Refinery29 of filming that scene, explaining that Kate’s beloved corgi, Newton, got in on the action behind the scenes. “Newton gets involved. There was a scene where Tom was putting the petals down and Newton runs through.”

Ashley was surprised to see the haldi scene incorporated into the show, revealing, “when we read the script, we didn’t see it coming.”

Bridgerton. (L to R) Shelley Conn as Mary Sharma, Charithra Chandran as Edwina Sharma, Simone Ashley as Kate Sharma in episode 206 of Bridgerton. Cr. Liam Daniel/Netflix © 2022
Bridgerton. (L to R) Shelley Conn as Mary Sharma, Charithra Chandran as Edwina Sharma, Simone Ashley as Kate Sharma in episode 206 of Bridgerton. Cr. Liam Daniel/Netflix © 2022

Chandran felt a “combination of things” filming it. “It’s so emotional because we’re doing something that feels so close to us and close to our culture and we kind of recognise the macro significance of it,” she says.

“But then on a micro level shooting it, it’s hilarious because [during] every take we’ve got this paste put on our body and then after every take we go and stand outside and get it scraped off. So, we recognise the significance but actually shooting it was really fun for us.”

For both women, some of the most rewarding aspects of the show were portraying the beautifully close bond between the Sharma sisters while playing strong, female leads.

Kate is headstrong from the get-go, challenging societal expectations thrust upon women her age as she goes hunting with the men and unapologetically speaks her mind.

“I think Kate in particular, she is slightly controversial. She is breaking a lot of rules of the ton, especially within that era,” says Ashley.

“I hope her personality just encourages women to own their own opinion, to not people-please, and to dare to follow their own instincts.”

Edwina’s feminist journey is a slower evolution and it’s gratifying as a viewer to see her recognise and claim her power over time. Chandran explains that Edwina initially chose to rely on her older sister to make bigger decisions on her behalf about her future.

“She [Edwina] doesn’t have the inclination at the beginning to ask questions and to ponder,” the actor explained. “She passes on a lot of her responsibility and all of that decision-making to her sister and puts that burden on her in a way. I think in many ways, it’s almost easier to do that, but you kind of kind of compromise on your happiness.

“And [then] there’s just a moment a moment of reckoning, almost like a flashpoint, where Edwina actually has to have clarity and go, ‘What do I want from my life? What do I truly want? Not what I’m expected to want.'”

Bridgerton. (L to R) Charithra Chandran as Edwina Sharma, Simone Ashley as Kate Sharma, Jonathan Bailey as Anthony Bridgerton in episode 207 of Bridgerton. Cr. Liam Daniel/Netflix © 2022
Bridgerton. (L to R) Charithra Chandran as Edwina Sharma, Simone Ashley as Kate Sharma, Jonathan Bailey as Anthony Bridgerton in episode 207 of Bridgerton. Cr. Liam Daniel/Netflix © 2022

There’s an important takeaway in this for the audience, as Chandran claims, “I think we seldom ask ourselves those questions in life”.

“Often women aren’t allowed to ask those questions or aren’t allowed to wish for a better future or more honest future for themselves.

“I’d like to think Edwina may be able to serve as inspiration to men and women that you can take control of your situation — no matter what.”

Bridgerton Season 2 is available to stream on Netflix.

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