11 South Asian Women Break Through the Fashion Barrier by Baring Their Insecurities on Camera

Splashed all over the pages of every magazine and media outlet, and every brand’s social media is a very clear picture of socially accepted definitions of beauty. It is no secret that there are very real aspects that are severely limiting our perceptions of what constitutes being beautiful. Some of the biggest barriers are reinforced by society at large and these barriers bleed into almost every industry, particularly in fashion and beauty. These hurdles include size, color, hair, height, face structure, shape, posture, and the list goes on. In a world that is so obsessed with aesthetics, and the “perfect face,” “perfect body,” etc. there is a dearth of diversity and representation. To the extent that even public figures, professional models, and actors, are often published after intense Photoshop edits. There is much more to beauty than fair skin, a size zero frame, and an angled jawline.

To challenge these preconceived notions and to show the world that beauty does not have a type, Brown Girl Magazine formed a partnership with the designer Ayush Kejriwal, who has publicly spoken out regarding this issue and is consistently pro-women (ALL types of women) in his rhetoric. Kejriwal contends, that there is “immense pressure for women to adhere to society’s perception of beauty.”

He continues to say, “Beauty is confidence and happiness. What we feel is what we portray, and therefore, it is when a woman finds confidence and joy within, that she feels and radiates beauty.”

This “inclusivity and breaking the barriers campaign” will help legitimize every shape, size, color, and whatever else is stopping the everyday girl from owning her fashionista status.

When asked why he was interested in partnering with Brown Girl Magazine on this project, Kejriwal eloquently speaks of the responsibility and accountability he feels towards the subject of beauty:

“I have always believed that social media gives us the power to influence people, and as brands and influencers, it is our responsibility to empower people instead of feeding on their insecurities. My brand aesthetic is to make my audience feel good about themselves. When this idea was pitched to me, it resonated with what my brand stands for, and my deep belief that beauty does not discriminate. It was one more way to reach an audience to empower them.”

Brown Girl Magazine’s objective is to impart the everyday girl-next-door with the confidence and the courage to find her beauty within herself, know that she is deserving of just as much as any other girl, to wear whatever she wants, and be whomever she wants to be, despite society’s constrained and absurd standards of beauty.

Pooja Rudra, who served as the photographer said,

“I am deeply grateful to be working on a project that embraces reality and every woman for who she is and not who she should be. With this project, I hope that women everywhere can break free from these unattainable and preposterous shackles that are placed on what defines her beauty and her worthiness of love and acceptance.”

Moreover, it is crucial for today’s impressionable youth to see this type of diversity being embraced in a public forum such as this to develop a more holistic view of beauty as they are growing into their sense of self-worth and individuality. Brown Girl Magazine’s CEO and Co-Founder, Trisha Sakhuja-Walia wholeheartedly believes and supports the vision of this photoshoot because it truly encompasses the mission of the online publication to highlight and support real women.

“It makes my heart so full to work alongside women who aren’t afraid to break archaic beauty standards and stand in front of the camera with full confidence in who they are, regardless of how they may be perceived. Here’s hoping more publications take notice of the honest work we are doing and try emulating the same.”

“This collaborative shoot between Ayush Kejriwal and Brown Girl Magazine spoke to me in many lengths. In several instances, culture and religion are separated, and rightfully so. That is not to say, however, that culture and religion cannot coexist in a unit, or rather in a person or an identity. One of my ongoing goals as a fashion blogger is to represent the idea that my religion and culture both coexist in me beautifully and peacefully to create immense parts of who I am. I am grateful to be able to express that through fashion, just as I am grateful that this shoot allowed me to continue doing this. I felt empowered throughout the entirety of the shoot knowing that all parts of me were accepted. I was able to showcase being a proud, Muslim, Bengali woman while remaining effortlessly bold and beautiful.

Ayush Kejriwal’s designs are fitting for women who want to express themselves in any way. In my case, I was able to wear one of his maxi dresses, that spoke volumes with its rich colors, prints, and textures, as do all of his designs. This shoot only reaffirmed to me that it is always possible for me to portray the power of my culture while remaining modest and true to who I am. Being true to your identity brings an inner peace that is also exuded from the raw and earthy feels of Ayush Kejriwal’s designs. Furthermore, as we continued to model for this shoot in a group setting, I found myself surrounded by South Asian women from various regions, who pursue different passions in their own ways. We were all equally represented in this shoot and my respect and love for one did not overcome my respect and love for the next. We all worked off of each other’s energies and allowed it to enhance our own individuality. It was pleasantly astounding, to say the least. For me, this inclusivity shoot was exactly what it aspired to be and more.” — Syeda Hasan

“While growing up, the fashion world was extremely exclusive and intolerant of diversity in types of women represented. I myself experienced the effects of that demeaning dialogue —“you are too tall, too dark, your nose isn’t symmetrical.” This shoot emphasized inclusivity and acceptance of all types of beautiful women. It resonated with me, as a woman ambassador, to be part of a project that emphasizes clothes being showcased in your own natural form. I feel we have a massive responsibility to showcase and project our values and beliefs through our work and the projects we choose to collaborate with represent a part of us. I take pride in choosing concepts that align with my values and this shoot was definitely one that I can proudly stand behind. Maybe it was the designs, or the textures or the intricate yet elegant combination of modern style infused with the vintage concept — it felt nostalgic and it evoked inspiration. The shoot gave me an opportunity to appreciate the woman I have become without having to compromise who I used to be. It transcended the connection to a bigger purpose- representation without discrimination.” — Punita Mangat

“At any given point in my life, I have always been ‘too’ something. Too fat, too skinny, too dark, too pale, too short, too tall, always ‘too’ something and never just right enough. In a world where media dictates so much of how we ‘should’ be, I am exhausted. I am sick of feeling less than. I am tired of having to compare. I am fed up of doubting myself and telling myself that if I was just ‘a little’ more of this or that, I would be more accepted; more successful. I am drained from scrolling and swiping and taking in the trillions of tiny illuminated conglomerations of so-called ‘perfect’ pixels always just a finger tap away. I am done. I have had enough. In a world where we are conditioned to think WE are never enough, I am here to embark on my personal journey to teach myself I am not just simply enough, but I am ‘more than.’ I am just right; in all my imperfections, in all my flaws, in all my glory. And I hope and pray, I can begin to convince you that you are too.” — Priya Mukhopadyay

“When you are 5’10 and curvy it’s natural to feel like a giant standing amongst the average petite desi girl. It’s taken me years to embrace my body and feel comfortable in my own skin. I’m now proud of how tall I stand, my uniqueness and the way my body curves.

Being part of the body inclusivity campaign with Brown Girl Magazine and designer Ayush Kejriwal was more than just wearing a beautiful garment. I was empowered and proud to stand amongst women who had different stories to tell, came from different backgrounds and were various sizes and colors. It made for an unforgettable moment when we all came together to share our stories.

As I draped the intricate saree from Ayush Kejriwal’s collection, I was reminded of all the reasons why a saree to me is the most flattering garment in a South Asian trousseau. With its ability to be worn hundreds of ways, it clings and falls effortlessly. Its charm is that it’s one size, inclusive to all, allowing every woman that adorns it to feel feminine, graceful and beautiful.

My hope is to see more designers take this approach of inclusivity, that women of all different shapes, sizes, and colors are represented so we can truly see the beauty of this diverse world we live in.” — Nisha Vedi Pawar

“I am so excited and to be part of this wonderful project to celebrate and highlight diversity among South Asian women. As a multicultural South Asian woman, I cannot explain enough how much it means to me to be part of this project by Brown Girl Magazine and I want to thank them for asking me to be a part of this! Women come in all shades and sizes and I love the direction that publications such as Brown Girl Magazine are taking to reflect the beauty and uniqueness to include all women. Being a part of this photoshoot and project was such a fulfilling experience for me, I am very proud of my cultures and anytime I can express that through the media and inspire and empower others is really a fulfilling experience.” — Sunita V

“I used to pay to get my hair straightened and if I didn’t have enough money to go to the salon I would sit in a chair and make my mom flatiron it. I wished I had blue eyes. I hated my love handles. My eyeshadow was never pigmented enough. I would put sunscreen on while I was in class because I didn’t want the sun to shine through the windows and make me darker. The only thing I had going for me was that I was slightly taller than the average girl.

Then one day, I was too lazy to straighten my hair and I realized everyone loved my curly hair. I also realized my melanin is a blessing and finally looked in the mirror believing I was beautiful. The absence of people like me in magazines, on the runway, in the media made it difficult for me to understand my own beauty. We need more of us photographed and on billboards. We need to praise ourselves.” — Suswana Choudhury

“I love the concept of this photoshoot because it displays the diversity of skin colors and body types in the South Asian community. Growing up, my skin was darker; I was bigger and taller than most of my friends. I could not relate to any model in the South Asian community. I would often look at mainstream media but found no one that looked like me. Society has had some unrealistic beauty standards and I’ve been a victim of body shaming for a long time.

When first asked to be part of this project, I was hesitant only because I was not as comfortable in my skin than I thought I was. After some thought, I realized this was the best way to represent other women who looked like me and probably feel the same way. It has been truly a rewarding experience to be part of this project. This photo shoot represents what real women look like. I hope this project can inspire women to accept themselves, and be comfortable in their own skin. Our collaboration with Ayush Kejriwal is a positive contribution to media and the right step forward for all women of all sizes and colors.” — Christine Varickamackal

“I’ve been an avid fashion lover since childhood, but it has always felt like an unattainable dream that I could only admire from a distance. From childhood, my surroundings conditioned me to think only a specific type of beauty is allowed to dress up and wear nice clothes. Women who are 5’7” and taller or are size two or smaller are the only ones entitled to be celebrated and have the opportunity to look their best and wear whatever they want.

You scroll their social media, flip through magazines or browse through TV channels — media constantly reinforces only one type of beauty. The South Asian community and our culture are built on this very facet.

I think most people don’t realize how impactful and dissuading physical judgment really is. Media’s representation of women and what is considered beautiful is an issue that scars gravely into the psyche of the woman, causing far more psychological damage that spills over into other aspects of our lives apart from the fashion industry.

Ayush Kejriwal has cemented his brand to be that of a fighter. He is a pioneer in advocating for acceptance of inclusivity in fashion and the natural diversity of womankind. Collaborating with Ayush is one of the loudest statements that we as women could’ve made, with our concept echoing in the media and fashion industries. South Asian fashion is one that is lagging when it comes to being inclusive. This idea of showing women from all walks of life is non-existent in Indian fashion. Starting from couture brands down to the local shopkeeper who dismisses a woman who doesn’t abide by the superficial standards of our society.

This shoot was important to me because I never saw myself in fashion. I was always the curvier girl from childhood. Being teased as a child was only the tip of the iceberg as stepping into womanhood, it became apparent that if I didn’t mold myself into what society considers beautiful, I would be a failure in every aspect of my life. I would be robbed of everything that correlates with the idea of happiness. My participation in this shoot was to be a part of a camaraderie that fights for the right of women being celebrated regardless of external physical characteristics.” — Nehal Mehra

“Growing up, I always felt too short, too dark, too ordinary for high fashion. All the women I saw wearing my favorite fashion designers were marvelously tall, in fantastic shape, with seriously sharp facial features. All things I would never be.

I stand tall at a whopping 4’11 (I’m a giant, I know), I happen to be one of the darkest skin colors in my Gujarati family, and my button nose and chubby cheeks never exactly screamed model to me, or anyone else for that matter.

While these unrealistic beauty standards in the fashion industry did create an air of majesty and larger-than-life elegance, they also distorted what fashion was meant to do. To me, fashion has never been about putting beautiful clothes on flawless models. Fashion is a form of expression that allows the everyday woman to look and feel her best. It has always been about taking an ordinary day and making it feeling extraordinary.

Being a part of Ayush Kejriwal x Brown Girl Magazine’s body inclusivity campaign was refreshing, and quite honestly, a much-needed reminder on what it means to feel beautiful in your own skin and the role that style and fashion can play in the way in which we perceive ourselves.

As I looked around on the day of our photo shoot, I saw beauty in so many different shapes, sizes, and colors. It wasn’t about trying to conform to unrealistic beauty standards created by Photoshop or layers of makeup. It was about appreciating beauty in every form. It was about wearing clothing that enhances our natural beauty and reminds us to love ourselves the way we are. And most importantly, it was about loving and appreciating the beauty within ourselves, even when sometimes society tells us we are not enough.” — Ashni Mehta

 “By any beauty standard, whether European or South Asian, I am not considered ‘model’ material. From my dark skin to my short stature to my bob, there really is no attribute I have to be considered magazine worthy. As an adult, I’ve come to embrace my looks and love the woman I’ve become, However that was a long journey. It probably would have been shorter if I saw women that resemble me in these magazines and runways. I think back to that young girl who struggled with her reflection and it made me think of all the other young girls out there dealing with that right now. If they see me modeling in this shoot, then maybe it’ll help on their journey to self-acceptance. I applaud Ayush Kejirwal for wanting to break the mold and push boundaries and striving to make all women feel beautiful, regardless of age, size, and skin color. It was an honor and a privilege to model side by side by these women I love, wearing a designer I admire. So here’s to many more!” — Liya Samuel

I grew up with a unibrow, had braces for the majority of my high school and college years, was always very hairy, and I am shorter than the average girl. I spent years bleaching my face to hide the dark, thick, black hair on my chin, cheeks, sideburns, and neck, and I would lather layers of makeup to hide the scars from years of teenage acne. I’ve always been lighter than the average South Asian woman but that meant the hair on my skin was even more visible, so I never imagined I’d feel comfortable in front of a camera.

Not wanting to wear certain clothes because I’ve gained some weight over the years, or not wanting to take photos showing my teeth, or not showing my side profile to hide my jawline are just some of the new insecurities I’ve added to the list as an adult. But now that I am well into my late twenties, I wish I could just feel enough and not spend another two decades criticizing myself.

Standing amongst the models we chose for this collaboration with designer Ayush Kejriwal, I honestly felt whole. There’s a huge void of ‘real’ bodies and faces in the fashion industry — millions of brands and ad campaigns in both western and eastern media are spewing lies and propaganda to young women and men by Photoshopping everything we see. They’re dictating how we should look, even though it’s fake, and they’ve been successful for centuries, but we say no more.

We want to challenge these preconceived notions. By working on a campaign that highlights inclusivity (body, height, features, color), we want to take a small jab at the ‘standard’ in the industry to show that everyone is beautiful and we don’t have to look for specifics in a person in order for them to fit the bill of the ‘ideal model.'” — Trisha Sakhuja-Walia 

Project Team:

Designer: Ayush Kejriwal (@designerayushkejriwal)

Content Partner: Brown Girl Magazine (@browngirlmag)

Photographer: Pooja Rudra, PR Photography (@dharpooja)

Concept: Nehal Mehra (@_nehalmehra)

Stylists: Liya Thachil (@ammachic_), PANASH by PH (@panashbyph)

Makeup Artists: Jasmin Rahman (@jasmin__rahman), Sumona Chanda (@looksby_sumona), Mina Khan (@makeupmny), Emaan Khawaja (@emaan.makeup)

Hair Artists: Drishty D’Costa (@drishtyempire), Puja Khullar (@pujakayy)

Models: Syeda Hassan (@nostylgia_), Sunita V (@sunitav_), Trisha Sakhuja-Walia (@tsakhuja_walia), Suswana Chowdhury (@suswana_sohinee), Nehal Mehra (@_nehalmehra), Christine Varickamackal (@crackaloo), Ashni Mehta (@ashnii), Priya Mukhopadhyay (@priyamooky), Nisha Vedi Pawar (@lovelaughmirch), Liya Thachil (@liyabobiya), Punita Mangat (@punitasala)

By Brown Girl Magazine

Brown Girl Magazine was created by and for South Asian womxn who believe in the power of storytelling as a … Read more ›

‘The Black Rose’: British Asian Shweta Aggarwal Voices her Truth Against Colourism and the Battle to end her Skin Whitening Cream Addiction

Black Rose

I was a mere 14-year old on the fateful night of 22 April 1993. The night that witnessed black teenager Stephen Lawrence brutally murdered in a racially motivated attack as he waited for a bus. The night that cemented my fear, that the colour of my skin does matter. The same night that confirmed my indifference as a British Asian in the United Kingdom — were we really united? Fast forward to May 25 2020, the murder of African-American George Floyd by a white policeman was the turning point for British Asian author and my lovely friend, Shweta Aggarwal to finally break her silence and narrate her story of colourism, in her new book, “The Black Rose.” 

Aggarwal’s gripping memoir emits so many emotions; that of an awakening, a voice that has been suppressed for years, filled with anger, mistrust and guilt. But most importantly, “The Black Rose” successfully disrupts the narrative that consistently allows society to box someone as indifferent based on a visibility factor. For Shweta, this factor was the colour of her skin. The injustices she consistently endured via some family members and fellow South Asian peers throughout her life, was as a result of her skin tone failing to qualify as ‘acceptable’, or as she often quotes in her book, not ranking high enough on the ‘fairometer.’ Whether she was in India, Japan or London, the scale was never too far behind. 

[Read Related: Liam Neeson’s Week of Rage is Every Person of Colour’s Truth]

Within the first chapter, she recalls as a child in India, the distinct lack of subtlety displayed by certain family members through direct taunts of her duskier appearance in comparison to her parents. She realised that she wasn’t in complete isolation from this prejudice, as her maternal aunt and uncle were also harshly nicknamed on the basis of their skin colour — Kaali (black) and Savla (wheatish). Aggarwal was left mortified by what many South Asians sadly still continue to casually exercise. Echoing similar incidents within my social proximity, it’s infuriating witnessing the recipients of such remarks surrender to laughing at themselves too. 

Except it isn’t funny. Born into a culture where conversations on religion, caste and hierarchy in India are still so prominent, the comparison of Aggarwal’s skin colour being as dark as that of the domestic help (often from poorer families), prematurely planted seeds in her mind that she simply didn’t belong with her family, especially  when she was sent to boarding school. Her lack of self-worth coupled with these taunts, gave her a whole new vocabulary for the letter B, that grew in parallel with the ongoing prejudice and anxiety. B for blackie, beggar’s child, bedwetter! Not funny, but derogatory. Post her book launch that Brown Girl Magazine attended, she tells me,

I personally feel we are way behind when it comes to understanding the importance of mental health. Name-calling was normalised and if you objected, you were ridiculed further with remarks such as ‘So sensitive! Can’t you take a joke?’ Body and colour shaming can lead to a feeling of inadequacy in the victim, which can further lead to depression and much worse mental illnesses.

During the 1984 Hindu Sikh riots in India, where over 3000 Sikhs lost their lives, Aggarwal recollects the frightening moment when she and her classmates fled into hiding to escape the violence during a school trip. As a means to save all the students from harm, the Sikh boys were forced to remove their turbans and long hair — their visible identities stripped to keep them alive. Yet, ironically, even in this horrifying situation, Aggarwal felt least at risk, attributing this self-assurance to her darker appearance. 

The crux of her self-loathe was the love-hate relationship she formed with skin whitening creams. The birth of Fair and Lovely, India’s most renown brand (now known as Glow and Lovely following a backlash) was notorious for selling the damaging message that fairer skin equated to a happier and fulfilling life. For it was fairer skin women that would qualify for marriage — clearly their only sole purpose! 

Tactfully using famous fair-skinned Bollywood actresses in television ads and posters, their so-called perfection would scream out to vulnerable young girls. (Men were targeted much later on, but the importance seemed less). Akin to the wretched beach body posters plastered on every corner in January — because apparently bikinis only look good on a certain body type —  the damaging message remains the same. Social acceptance comes at a cost, and that cost is to look a certain way. 

[Read Related: Dear Priyanka Chopra, Endorsing Colorism and Discrimination is not ok. It Never was and Never Will Be]

It’s an extension of the dated methods imposed on women from the womb, where mothers are lectured on drinking milk with saffron to ensure the baby is fair, traditional matrimonial sites asking women to specify skin colour, and women being told to stay out of the sun. These socially ingrained views are eventually developed into modern day methods in the form of cleverly marketed consumables. Aggarwal admits, 

Most people only use the cream on their face just as I did. At that time, I didn’t even think about the rest of the body. I felt that if the face becomes fairer, that will be enough for acceptance. My mum noticed the difference for sure and I was lighter by the time I met my husband, Amit. I must admit the addiction is a combination of three factors: the justification in your own head, the strong marketing message that ONLY fair is beautiful, and the ‘compliments’ from those around you. 

I admired Shweta’s honesty on admitting what essentially was a dangerous obsession that she remained faithful to throughout her teenage and adult life. A ritual that, whilst prompted gradual results in her appearance, was never going to eliminate the insecurities she felt within herself. Moments of joy with her husband and children on holidays abroad, would be broken up by the need to ‘fix’ any damage the sun may have inflicted i.e. reverse her tan. The booming tanning industry in U.K., her now home, and admiration of her ‘sun-kissed’ look by Brits initially surprised Aggarwal — as if her colour had now gained acceptance. 

But who are we seeking acceptance from? A society that is still deep rooted in patriarchy forcing women even now to adhere to dated rites of passage that holds no relevance? Or a society that seeks to point out one’s indifference because of how they look — their skin, their religious attire, their weight? Or a society that passes judgement on a woman’s self-worth, and continues to abuse that same woman behind closed doors under the eyes of Goddess Kali? Aggarwarl goes on to explain,

The more damaging perceptions of colourism, are that ‘fair is rich’, ‘fair is successful’ and ‘fair is better educated’. Essentially, ‘fair is supreme’ in every sense. And if that’s the case, where does that leave dark-skinned people? In Ukraine, for example black and brown people were discriminated against and  not given a fair chance to save their lives. Is it fair to be denied a basic human right — survival — based on your colour? 

I personally was curious to know from my family what the definition of prejudice in the Hindi vocabulary is and how it is/was applied to in India. “Pakshappat” (taking sides) or “poorva dhaarna”, were the closest pure Hindi definitions known to my cousin, yet rarely used. However, my dad stated that “hum bedh bhau nahin hai” was the common term used to state amongst family and friends when someone was not biased and believed in equality. Somehow, colourism never really came under that category. A sentiment echoed by some of my Chinese and black friends . Even in parts of China and Africa, the belief that darker skin is perceived as inferior, is accredited to stereotyping certain groups of people as manual labourers working under the sun, and therefore of a lower class or caste. Does Shweta believe we can change this attitude?  

A couple of my aunts are still reluctant to help me with my mission. One even said ‘it’s pointless fighting it’, while one said, ‘everyone has the right to define beauty for themselves and being fairer is what beauty is for some.’ The problem with this is that people then start to look down on people who aren’t. Colourism, casteism and classism divide people, creating more unrest in society. If we continue to aspire to be fairer, we’re still encouraging white skin privilege, and encouraging colonial values. The more we allow ourselves to succumb to these social constructs, the more enslaved we feel internally. Melanin is crucial for protecting our skin against the harmful radiation of the sun. Feel blessed that you have it and wear it with pride! 

I wonder how we can dare to walk shoulder to shoulder with our black friends in the Black Lives Matter movement, if we refuse to face up to our own biases against colour? We seek equality in the U.K., but deny our deep-rooted prejudice, whilst a white privileged man lectures the world on the difference between racism and unconscious bias (yes Prince Harry, I’m looking at you!). “The Black Rose” has paved a way for many more voices to speak out against the damaging impact of colourism, and in my view, rightly belongs under the definition of prejudice in the collective South Asian vocabulary.

“The Black Rose” is available to purchase on Amazon.


Photo Courtesy: Shweta Aggarwal

By Sejal Sehmi

Brown Girl Magazine’s U.K. Editor Sejal Sehmi is an IT consultant by day, whose passion for writing stemmed from challenging … Read more ›

‘What’s Love Got To Do With It’: A Modern-day Exploration of Love Across Cultures

What's Love Got To Do With It

It is the strength of both British and South Asian cinema that every few years, and with increasing regularity, a film comes along that is able to successfully and thoughtfully bridge the highs and lows of both cultures. With the recognisable cross-cultural DNA of films like “Bend it Like Beckham”, “Bride and Prejudice and others before it, Shekhar Kapur brings to the silver screen an honest and comedic representation of East meets West with “What’s Love Got To Do With It” — an exploration of love and marriage across international norms. 

[Read Related: Joyland: A Film Rising Above Unacceptability With a Story of Acceptance]

Written and produced by Jemima Khan, the film draws from elements of her own experience of marrying then-Pakistani cricket star and now ex-Prime Minister, Imran Khan, and relocating to the country for 10 years.

“Particularly in the West, Pakistanis would quite often be seen as terrorists, fanatics and backwards,” says Khan, as she reminisces about her time spent in Pakistan over Zoom. “My experience of living in Pakistan was very colourful, vibrant, and fun. I always felt like the rom-com side of Pakistan was more surprising than anything else.”

 A film not just about the heart, but with a lot of heart of its own, “What’s Love Got To Do With It” touches on South Asian families, culture, individuality, and marriages in the 21st century. Set in the UK and Pakistan, this is a feel-good and fun story about childhood best friends and neighbours, Zoe and Kazim, AKA Kaz. And as the narrative unfolds, new light is shone on their friendship and questions are asked about the cultural norms and practices we have grown to accept.

It isn’t your usual ‘boy-meets-girl’ tale. On the contrary, they’ve known each other forever; the fabric of their lives intertwined. Kaz is a British-Pakistani doctor of “marriageable” age, opting for an “assisted” marriage set in motion by his own desire rather than parental duress. 

“I think we’ve replaced the term “arranged” with “assisted” because South Asian parents now trust their kids more to make the right decision for themselves,” said Shahzad Latif, sitting next to Lily James, who nods in agreement. “It’s still a process. Some parents may have more confidence in their kids than others, but we’re getting there.”

Zoe – played by Lily James – is a professional documentary maker living on an inexplicably fancy houseboat (bit of a stretch for somebody having difficulty funding projects, but, at this point, a crucial ingredient for London rom-coms). As a white British woman, her method of finding love isn’t one that involves parents or family.

“It was a no-brainer for me to be part of the script,” says a smiling James in response to whether any culture shocks were encountered during filming and table reads. “Pakistani culture is so rich and colourful, and it was important for me to showcase this side of the country. So no, no culture shocks per se, just more singing and dancing in comparison to British culture!”

Zoe’s camera is the vehicle through which the film examines Kaz’s “contractual love”, as she trawls dating apps while following her best friend down the assisted aisle.

What's Love Got To Do With It
Emma Thompson, who plays the role of Zoe’s mother in the film, with Shabana Azmi.

Emma Thompson’s Cath plays the comedic matriarch to Zoe, eager to witness the conclusion of her daughter’s swiping days by being with someone suitable. She’s found a family in Shabana Azmi’s Aisha Khan – a more layered mum — one that is embracing both tradition and modernity. It would be fair to say that Azmi successfully sells cinema-goers on the difficulty of that struggle.

“Today’s society is slowly coming to terms with providing children the space they rightfully require and deserve to make decisions,” says Azmi, reflecting on how scripts and films have evolved over time. “Gone are the days when parents would blackmail their children into marrying the first person they come across. Just because they are their kids doesn’t mean they are actually children. They are adults with views and minds of their own.”

Kaz is then introduced to Maimoona (Sajal Aly); a shy introvert from Pakistan, unsure about the idea of moving permanently to London. She’s dealing with internal battles of her own; battles between personal desires and societal expectations.

“Maimoona may not have verbally said much, but her face said everything,” explains Aly, looking beautiful and radiant as ever. “She is torn between what she wants and what society silently shoves down at her and eventually, she goes with what the latter expects.”

The film navigates between London and a fabricated Lahore filmed in the suburbs of the British capital; a feat that comes as testament to the film’s production design. Kaz and Zoe’s jaunts across Lahore, backdropped by its magnificent architecture, set the stage for Pakistani music legends to shine, including the mesmerising voice of Rahet Fateh Ali Khan. 

What's Love Got To Do With It
Pakistani actress Sajal Aly plays Maimoona — torn between her own desires and society’s expectations.

And if this wasn’t enough, Nitin Sawhney and Naughty Boy add further melody to the film’s music, as they talk about their experience of creating appropriate tunes such as the foot-thumping “Mahi Sona”. 

“It was a great process and experience to create an appropriate language and expression of music which added elements and flavours to the film,” says the duo enthusiastically. “It’s also an ode to our South Asian heritage.”

Even though the tone of “What’s Love Got To Do With It” is distinctly feel-good, the film thoughtfully explores the unconventional ways that relationships may be built, and what multiculturalism can teach one another. Is it, in fact, more sensible to be practical about relationships? Is it possible to learn to love the person we’re with? Is love really the only ingredient needed for a successful marriage? Why was Kaz’s sister shunned for marrying outside of their culture? And do Western relationships draw more on the ideas of assisted partnerships than we realise?

A clever reference is drawn from the moment Prince Charles shattered many royal dreamers’ hearts with his dismissive “whatever in love means” comment upon his engagement to Princess Diana, thus proving that these notions may be closer to home in the West than one might believe.

James and Latif are a charismatic pair, with Zoe married to her independence and Kaz gently questioning her prejudices. The film is also a vivid demonstration of British talent, with Asim Chaudhry playing a hilarious yet questionable rishta uncle, comic duo Ben Ashenden and Alex Owen appearing as a pair of TV commissioners with a briefcase of ridiculous ideas, and Nikkita Chadha as the confrontational Baby — the film’s feisty rebel, in love with dancing. 

[Read Related: Ms. Marvel’s Iman Vellani and Mohan Kapur Talk Cultural Pride, Hollywood and Brown Representation]

“It’s incredible to be part of such a diverse and stellar cast,” smiles Chadha animatedly, while sipping on tea at Soho House in London. “My character is defiant and nonconformist — perfectly conflicting with the name “Baby “. I’m really excited for everyone to watch the film.”

Divorce is still stigmatised in South Asia — a theme often carefully avoided in desi films and television. Khan gently addresses it as a twist in the film – with a reminder that be it love or assisted marriage — amicable and mutual separations are a possibility.

As a complete package, “What’s Love Got To Do With It” deftly wraps up all the emotions associated with love and family in its joyful, musical, and vibrant 109-minute runtime. With its cast, music and direction, this classic rom-com is set to make you laugh, cry and, even more importantly, make you think about the multi-dimensional nature of love within and across cultures. The film is now showing in cinemas worldwide, and we highly recommend it.

Photos Courtesy: Studiocanal/Working Title

This piece is written by Brown Girl writer Queenie Shaikh in collaboration with Marium Abid

Desk bound by day and travel bound all other times – Queenie thrives on her weekly dose of biryani and chilli paneer. She recently released her first book called The Poor Londoner, which talks about comical expat experiences people face worldwide. With degrees in Journalism and Creative Writing, her work and research on gender inequality in the travel industry is taught in universities across the globe. Her travels and everyday fails can be found on Instagram (@thepoorlondoner) and YouTube (The Poor Londoner).

Originally from Karachi, Pakistan and now blended into the hustle-bustle of London, Marium is a trainee technology consultant, by day and sometime also night, and also finishing her bachelors in Digital Innovation. In the midst of striving to be someone, she enjoys dreaming about the impossible (impossible according to desi standards and sometime Harry Potter impossible as well), and writing about them. She enjoys baking, decorating things and a cup of chai!

Op-Ed: An Open Letter to President Biden in Light of Prime Minister Modi’s Visit to the States

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s state visit
The following open letter is written by Hindus for Human Rights, an organization advocating for pluralism, civil and human rights in South Asia and North America, rooted in the values of Hindu faith: shanti (peace), nyaya (justice) and satya (truth). They provide a Hindu voice of resistance to caste, Hindutva (Hindu nationalism), racism, and all forms of bigotry and oppression.

Dear President Biden,

As Indian-Americans, human rights organizations, and concerned allies, we are writing to urge you to engage publicly and meaningfully to push back against the Indian government’s escalating attacks on human rights and democracy, especially ahead of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s state visit to the United States.

Despite objective evidence that India’s democracy is under critical attack, you have not spoken out about this crisis. In early 2023, Indian authorities conducted retaliatory raids on the BBC’s Delhi and Mumbai offices for releasing a documentary about Prime Minister Modi. The week before the Summit for Democracy, the Indian government made three successive attacks on Indian democracy. First, the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party expelled Rahul Gandhi from Parliament. Second, the Indian government shut the internet down in Punjab, severely impacting the rights for Sikhs to peacefully organize and protest. And third, the Indian Supreme Court ruled that Indians can be found guilty by association for terrorism. And yet, not one representative from the Biden Administration said anything about even one of these developments. Instead, while Islamophobic violence gripped India in late March, you invited Prime Minister Modi to speak at the Summit for Democracy. Mr. Modi visits DC at a time when the state of Manipur has experienced heavy communal and anti-Christian violence after Modi’s ruling party pushed an initiative to undermine Indigenous rights in the state.

Even when confronted with questions by Indian reporters about human rights in India, your administration has only had private two-way conversations about how both of our governments can always improve. Quite frankly, we find it unacceptable to see such equivocation on Indian democracy from an administration that has been strident in its defense of American democracy and the rule of law. 

India is one of the fastest autocratizing nations in the world, mostly thanks to the current government. Freedom House has rated India as a “partly-free” country for the past three years, and has blamed Prime Minister Modi’s government for a rise in discriminatory policies, including persecution against Muslims and caste-based violence against Dalit and Adivasi communities; harassment of civil society, protestors, academia and the media, and the targeting of political opponents. It has also rated Indian-administered Kashmir as “not free,” citing violations of human, civil, and political rights after the Modi government revoked the territory’s autonomous status. In Reporters Without Borders press freedom ranking, India has dropped to 161 out of 180 countries in 2023. India has appeared in the Committee to Protect Journalists’ Impunity Indexwhich examines accountability for unsolved journalists’ murders — every year for the past 15 years and currently ranks in 11th place worldwide. According to PEN America’s Freedom to Write Index, in 2022, India was one of the top 10 countries that jailed writers globally. The Varieties of Democracy Institute characterizes India as an “electoral autocracy” and blames India’s descent into autocracy on Prime Minister Modi. And the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum has said India has been one of the top 15 countries at risk for a mass atrocity event every year since 2017, which reflects the toxicity of Indian politics under Modi. 

Given the magnitude of this crisis, we ask you to engage directly with Indian-American and human rights civil society leaders to explore solutions to address India’s human rights crisis. We also ask you to employ the tools at your disposal to ensure that the Indian government cannot attack Indians’ human rights with impunity. As the 2022 Bureau for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor report details, several government individuals have committed human rights violations that, under U.S. law, would qualify them to be sanctioned under the Global Magnitsky Act. Indian security forces that have engaged in human rights violations should have security assistance rescinded, under the Foreign Assistance Act of 1961. 

Finally, we urge you to publicly call on the Indian government to honor its commitments to human rights, including calling on Prime Minister Modi and his cabinet to halt the use of anti-terror laws to arbitrarily detain political critics. You can publicly denounce the rising numbers of political prisoners and the weaponization of the rule of law in India to shut down criticism. Even if you are not willing to personally criticize the Prime Minister, you have ample opportunity to criticize the Indian government’s misuse of public trust and public institutions to consolidate power and undermine the will of the Indian people.

As President of the United States of America, you hold a unique position to lead the fight against authoritarianism. Prime Minister Modi will listen to you when you speak. But he and his allies will only change if you take a stand publicly. We urge you to listen to those of us who care about India and ensure that one man cannot steal the futures and the rights of our loved ones in India.

— Signed by countless organizations and individuals leading the charge (linked here).