‘The Best way Possible’: Simone Ashley on her Whirlwind ‘Bridgerton’ Success and Celebrating South Asian Excellence

“Bridgerton” season two was the talk of the town when it launched in late March, breaking Netflix rating records for an English-language series, in its first week of viewing.

We expected nothing less than a phenomenal response from audiences worldwide to Shondaland’s slow-burn romance between the ‘Ton’s latest member, Kate Sharma (played by Simone Ashley) and Anthony Bridgerton (Jonathan Bailey), with Ashley’s portrayal of a quick-witted, sharp brown woman juggling love and duty to family and her own feelings for the Viscount especially celebrated by the South Asian community.

The 27-year-old Surrey-born actress, who grew up in a small, ‘musical household,’ began her career in “Wolfblood” and “Broadchurch” as well as the 2019 family adventure film “Pokémon Detective Pikachu,” while her breakthrough role was as Olivia Hanan in the comedy series “Sex Education” before landing a lead part in the hit period drama.

[Read Related: In Conversation With Charithra Chandran: the Youngest Sharma to Join ‘Bridgerton’ as This Season’s Diamond]

With the multiple premiere events, the MET Gala, a recent Forbes 30 Under 30 feature in European entertainment, we recently had the opportunity to virtually connect with her to discuss the success of the show, the overwhelming support from the South Asian community and what it means to play Kate Sharma.

 

View this post on Instagram

 

A post shared by Simone Ashley (@simoneasshley)

How are you feeling right now after the incredible response to season two?

Oh, just deeply proud, deeply grateful. There’s one thing to spend nearly the whole of last year in rehearsals, work on the series and film together with the cast. It’s another thing for them to be passed over, shared with the world and receive such warm, positive feedback. It was one of the best years of my life. I had such a fun time and learned so much. It’s incredible.

How do you feel about breaking that glass ceiling and being the brown representation everyone has celebrated seeing, with such an outpour of support from the community?

All positive. I’ve learned so much about myself, from working with Charithra (who plays younger sibling Edwina) and just more about how we can keep opening a space and opportunities for even more South Indian and South Asian artists. It was one thing for me to get the role and then do this job but now I understand the power that it has, the effect it has on what we see on screen, the industry and what it means to people. I just hope it continues this way.

We saw you celebrate ‘South Asian excellence’ with others from the community. How was that? Just being together and celebrating representation?

I am rarely in my life left speechless and overwhelmed. I think I am always quite good at saying something or putting feelings into words, at least most of the time but I was really overwhelmed in the best way possible. That room was just filled with such love, such pride. Everyone was just so lovely. I felt so safe. That space felt like family and we were all connected. It’s all deeply rooted in that sense.

I’m so proud and happy we made that happen. I sat with Lilly Singh, who was a joy to be around. She’s so lovely, smart and has such great energy. I also spoke with the cast from “Never Have I Ever” — I never thought that would ever happen. To this day, I’m left a little bit speechless in the best way possible.

 

View this post on Instagram

 

A post shared by Lilly Singh (@lilly)

What was that expectation while auditioning for “Bridgerton” and how did you feel when you got that final call back?

I was filming two things; a movie and “Sex Education” Season Three at that time, so I was couch surfing around London because I was living in LA and it was the pandemic. I was living out a suitcase in London and really, really out of my head.

When the audition happened within a space of like, ten days, I didn’t really have to overthink anything. I just went with my instincts for the character and jumped into it. I didn’t look at how big the show was or what I was getting into because I was so focused on the character of Kate and her relationships with Anthony and Edwina.

I just clicked with her, loved the writing and what introducing Kate brought to the script. When I got the call, it was such a whirlwind. I didn’t have a moment to process anything at all. It was very strange, in the best way possible.

How did you feel playing Kate? Would you say you’re similar to her or are you like another character in the season?

Yes, I do think I’m a lot like Kate but there were also many things that I wouldn’t say I empathise with personally, like how she is the older sister, while I’m the younger sibling in my family.

What I loved is she really knows herself and also has so much room to grow. We see when we first meet her that she’s incredibly focused, brave and not performative. She’s very much blending into the background because she’s not there to find a husband. She’s there to put Edwina on stage, help protect her and push her off into this marriage market.

So, we meet Kate and she’s very muted, very observed. We see moments of her where she’s kind of chuckling to herself or rolling her eyes because she is not willing to share with others and be a part of this community. But then she’s kind of forced to and I feel like that comes from Anthony because he’s such a family man. I think that had an effect on Kate, where he just didn’t give up on her. He didn’t push her away or walk away. Maybe it was an unconscious thing that encouraged her to surrender and let down her guard, let people in, need people, that sense of community and family, which I’m really excited to explore in Season Three.

 

View this post on Instagram

 

A post shared by Simone Ashley (@simoneasshley)

How was your relationship off-screen with Jonathan Bailey and your fellow Sharmas?

It was perfect casting. The cast and crew are so incredible, wonderful and generous people. It truly is an ensemble piece. Everyone carried that show. Working with Johnny; we have an incredible chemistry together and I learned so much from him. It was one of the best years ever filming with everyone; Johnny, Shelley and the whole cast and crew. I am just really grateful for that experience.

And finally, what’s the one thing you would say to brown women out there wanting to get into acting?

Just do it. Why wouldn’t you? It never stopped me. I never ever, ever had an inkling of doubt in my life that the colour of my skin would stop me from achieving my dreams. I don’t know if that comes from a sense of naivety but from a very young age, I was always such a big dreamer. I really, really propelled myself into this with no shade of doubt.

So, in any industry, for any Indian woman, just do it. There’s nothing stopping you. Saying yes is such a powerful word and really does help (bring) opportunity. It’s worked for me in that sense, so I really hope I can continue that mindset throughout the rest of my career and life.

[Read Related: British South Asian Priya Davdra Talks Diversity and Representation as BBC Eastender’s First Muslim Queer Female Character]

Ashley’s words left me thinking there is no doubt that representation is still an ugly issue in the entertainment world. It remains a problem across all industries and cannot be solved by simply, ‘believing in yourself.’ After all, we don’t know everyone’s stories and the battles they are facing.

Yet Ashley’s conviction in her dreams and not allowing the colour of her skin to get in the way of her future made me smile. I felt a strange sense of excitement and pride. I was over the moon to see her and Charithra Chandran play the leads in one of Netflix’s biggest shows. I know this resonated with so many South Asians around me. It was ‘one of us’ on-screen and remains a huge deal to the community.

 

View this post on Instagram

 

A post shared by Bridgerton (@bridgertonnetflix)

In a world where we are seeing more brown faces on screen than ever before, I think it’s commendable to see and hear a dark-skinned Tamil heritage actress so unapologetically confident in what they want and all they can achieve.

Ashley was right. Maybe not in every sense but she does share the intelligence and powerful persona we see exude from Kate’s character. I can’t wait to see her flourish in season three and her future endeavours.

Photo courtesy of Liam Daniel/Netflix.

Avatar photo
By Anushka Suharu

Anushka Suharu is a British Indian journalist, with a Masters in Interactive Journalism (City, University of London) and a BA … Read more ›

‘Life of Pi:’ A Story of Survival and Magical Imagination

Life of Pi

“Don’t bully me with your kindness,” says Pi Patel (Hiran Abeysekera) to Lulu Chen (Kirstin Louie), from the Canadian embassy who is visiting Pi in his hospital room in Mexico. Pi was the sole survivor of a cargo ship traveling from Pondicherry, India, en route to Canada. His family and the animals from his zoo from back home all passed away, and Pi turned up after being stranded for 227 days at sea. 

[Read Related: Vishal-Shekhar Invite You to ‘Come Fall In Love’ with The DDLJ Musical at The Old Globe]

In this scene from the “Life of Pi,” that recently won in three categories at the Tony Awards, Pi’s sanity is being questioned as his account of what transpired at sea is too…fantastical. His vivid imagination and inspired attention to detail seem like a story a child would share. The character Lulu, from the embassy, is trying to gently nudge him into telling her the more ‘truthful’ account of what happened —one that doesn’t include a carnivorous tiger, a cannibalistic island, and a horrific Frenchman. Pi finally tells her to stop patronizing him. To stop bullying him with her perceived kindness. To actually listen to what he is saying.

Life of Pi
On Sunday June 13, the “Life of Pi” won three @thetonyawards in Best Scenic Design in a Play, Best Sound Design of a Play, and Best Lighting Design in a Play.

It is this one line from the show that has become one of the most surprising and thoughtful lines I have encountered in all the art I have consumed in 2023 thus far. In fact, surprising and thoughtful are words that I would use to describe the overall musical itself. Directed by Max Webster, and adapted by the playwright Lolita Chakrabarti from Yann Martel’s Booker Prize-winning novel, “Life of Pi” is so enchanting, charming, and fantastical that with every beat of the show, I would hear gasps emanating from the crowd. The 24 cast members, many of whom were puppeteers, brought the different animals to life as we switched between the two timelines of Pi recounting his life at sea, in the hospital room, and Pi living out his life at sea. 

Dreamlike to the audience and a nightmare to Pi, the scenes depicting his challenging, lonely, and magical time at sea beautifully depicted the magical realism of the novel. The choreography of the different cast members puppeteering the animals added a sense of whimsy and movement that lent itself to Pi’s childlike imagination. The lighting, the sound, the set, and the actors all came together to create a musical that is like almost being in a drug-induced trip — the set moves seamlessly from the hospital room to the boat, and back to the hospital room, and then the boat; sometimes both at the same time. You can feel the waves when Pi is on the water and see the little fish moving about. It’s as though you are with Pi throughout his journey — you feel scared when he is attacked, you feel inspired when he is in bliss, and you feel pain when he longs for his family. 

Life of Pi
Directed by Max Webster and adapted by the playwright Lolita Chakrabarti from Yann Martel’s Booker Prize-winning novel, “Life of Pi” has received rave reviews throughout its run in New York City.

The biggest marvel, though, is Richard Parker. The puppeteering behind this character is excellent — he is at once menacing, vulnerable, scared, and strong. The transformation of Parker is such that he starts out as such a grand animal and when we see him finally arrive on the island, he looks so frail and thin. You root for him as much as you root for Pi. And Pi himself is the heart of the musical. Abeysekera imbues Pi with so much confidence, playfulness, wit, and fear, that it makes you believe his stories and his relationship with the relentless tiger. 

When Pi tells Lulu to not bully him with her kindness, he is telling her to not shatter his perception of the world he has lived; either it be real or constructed. Pi eventually shares with Lulu and Mr. Okamoto (Daisuke Tsuji), a representative from the Japanese Ministry of Transport, a version of events that is devoid of animals but one that is darker as it depicts human beings in their primal, selfish states. He then asks them, “Which story is better?” Lulu and Mr. Okamoto are speechless, as is the audience. In the end, it’s not about the story they believe but the one he believes. For the one he believes is the one he lived. And no one can bully him into thinking otherwise.

Photos Courtesy: Box Office Guru/PR

By Nimarta Narang

Born and raised in Bangkok, Thailand, Nimarta grew up devouring Hindi movies, coming-of-age novels and one too many psychology textbooks. … 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!

Anita Verma-Lallian Talks Camelback Productions and the Need for Greater South Asian Representation

Camelback Productions

Award-winning commercial real estate and land consultant in Arizona, Anita Verma-Lallian, is venturing into the world of entertainment with her newfound production house, Camelback Productions, making her the first South Asian female in the state to do so. Verma-Lallian is a woman used to paving her own way, and now she’s committed to doing it for future generations.

[Read Related: Anita Verma-Lallian Launches Arizona’s First South Asian-owned Film Production and Entertainment Company ]

Through her production company, she aims to contribute towards greater South Asian representation in mainstream media with a focus on storytelling that’s relevant to the community. In a conversation with Brown Girl Magazine, the real estate maven spoke about what inspired her to shift from investing in land to investing in creative dreams.

Tell us more about Camelback Productions and what your hopes are for the company?

The intention is to help communities that are not being represented in the media. As you know, there are a lot more streamers looking for content so that presents an interesting opportunity for people to tell stories that are otherwise not being told.

For us it’s important to tell these stories that aren’t being told, and tell them in the way that we want them to be told. With South Asians, for instance, the roles typically given are stereotypical. There are only four or five roles we are playing repeatedly. I want to show the South Asian community and culture in a different way. 

You come from a business and investor background. I am curious to know what catapulted your interest towards establishing a production company?

Good question. There were a few things that inspired my interest. I was looking to diversify the different opportunities we offered our investors. We’ve done a lot of real estate, so we were overall looking for different investment opportunities.  And then, at the time when I started exploring this, the real estate market was in this wait-and-see for many people. 

Everyone was sitting on the sidelines waiting to see what happens next. There was a slowdown at the end of 2022 which is when I started looking into this more. Film seemed like it was kind of recession-proof and not really tied to what’s happening in the economy, which I thought was refreshing and exciting.

Also, overall, I observed what was happening in the industry with there being a push to see more South Asians in the media. The timing felt right, and I think we’re moving in the right direction.

What kind of content are you looking to create?

Good stories and good quality scripts. We are looking at all types of content — movies, docu-series, comedy shows, and reality shows. We’re open to anything that has a good message. 

On a personal level, what hits home for you with this production company?

Growing up I always loved film and TV. We watched a lot of Bollywood movies because that’s what we related to and I always loved that. But I did feel there wasn’t a lot of representation of people that looked like me. Being able to change that — especially after having kids, and a daughter who wants to go into film — is important for. It’s a contribution for future generations. It’s important to me that as they grow up, they see people that look just like them.  

Is there a significance to the name Camelback?

Yes! Camelback Mountain is a very iconic mountain in Phoenix. It’s one of the most famous hikes we have here and a relatively challenging one.

The significance is being able to overcome challenges and barriers. I have a nice view of Camelback Mountain and it’s something I look at every day, when I’m stressed and overwhelmed. It has a very calming and grounding presence.

To me the mountains signify being grounded and not being able to be moved by external factors. That’s what I want this production company to be!

What would you advise people interested in entering the entertainment industry?

The best advice I would give someone is to align yourself with people that you know are experts in the industry; that have a good track record. Learn from as many people as you can. I learn as much as I can, talk to as many people as I can, and I study different things to understand what was and wasn’t successful.

Photo Credit: Claudia Johnstone

By Rasha Goel

Rasha Goel is a 2X Emmy-nominated television host/producer and international correspondent. Her talent has led to opportunities such as giving … Read more ›