We the Heroes: A Look at South Asian Representation in Western Media

south asian representation

by Miranda Deebrah

“Representation matters.”

This is a motto I steadfastly maintain in my day to day life. For as long as I can remember, since my childhood days in the little Guyanese village, I grew up in and even now as I navigate life in the bustling city of New York, I have been looking for representations of myself in the world around me.

Whether it was on television and in movies, in books and art, in music and on the stage, in positions of authority and prominence, basically in any kind of media I consumed, I sought out reflections of South Asians that showcased us in all our complexities. In my immediate surroundings, it wasn’t too hard to find them. I saw myself first and foremost in the people around me, be they family and friends or those in my community, and I was always reminded of my ancestral Indian roots in the Bollywood movies and music that were stapled parts of my upbringing.

But when I stepped outside of the bubble of my Indo-centric lifestyle, especially after migrating to America and being bombarded by the media of the Western world, I seldom saw any representations of our people, and, unfortunately, none at all for those like me who belonged to the Indo-Caribbean diaspora. It became clear to me very quickly that I was an outsider here, further emphasized as I often found that I was the only South Asian in any given space or social situation. More times than I can count, I felt like I was some kind of anomaly amongst everyone else. Such was the case that I wholeheartedly rejoiced when, once in a blue moon, I saw other brown girls like me. Consequently, the younger me back then felt very much alone, especially during those early years of transitioning to life in the U.S. so far away from home.

Having these experiences ignited a passion in me to seek out representation for the South Asian community, particularly for South Asian women, because I knew we existed and I knew we were valuable members of society. I knew this and yet I didn’t see it accurately reflected in the world around me. Where were the others like me? Did the world acknowledge us and our contributions? Did we have a place at the table here? Did we matter? Did I matter? These questions constantly occupied my thoughts. I knew that we did, in fact, matter but why did it seem like others didn’t know that?

For too long we have been the background characters in other people’s stories, but I think it is overdue for our stories to be told and our voices to be heard as well. In the stories commonly told, we are too often painted as the sidekick, the token brown friend, the punchline of a joke, but ever so rarely are we the hero. In telling our stories, however, we get to have our say and speak our truths. In our stories, we are the heroes.

Looking back at the history of South Asian representation in popular Western media, primarily in film and television for at least the last three to five decades, there hardly seems to be an abundance of it that can easily be recalled. When representation was present, most times they were heavily stereotyped and reduced us to just a few basic all-encompassing ideas based on assumptions made by those in charge. It goes without saying that those in charge were white. South Asians were generally treated as a monolith as though we could all be categorized as the same across the board and not surprisingly, many stereotypes used were dehumanizing. Sometimes South Asians didn’t even get the opportunity to portray themselves and what we got was someone in brownface simply pretending to be one of us. Offensive doesn’t begin to cover it.

Nowadays, certain stereotypes still persist when it comes to our presence in media. How many times do we see portrayals where heavy “fresh off the boat” accents are employed? Think Raj in “The Big Bang Theory.” How many times do we see South Asian women shown being subservient to their husbands with her numerous children nearby? Think Manjula, Apu’s wife on “The Simpsons.” How many times do South Asians appear as cab drivers or shop owners? Think … oh just about anything a brown person may have appeared in briefly.

apu[Photo Source: Wikia]

While it may be true that many South Asians do have accents and have large families and own shops, it must be acknowledged that this is not all there is to us. And we are also not all doctors, lawyers, engineers, the usual. We are people with lives and experiences so varied and diverse that it’s a disservice to not think of us beyond these ideas.

As for South Asians being at the helm of telling their own stories and in respected positions of authority when it comes to what content is produced, that doesn’t seem to have been done much until recently with the rise of personalities like Mindy Kaling and Aziz Ansari. And while this is so exciting to see, it isn’t as prevalent as it could be, given that there are so many of us who are capable of taking on those senior leadership roles and making sure that the best and most authentic content is created and distributed.

To be certain, there has definitely been an increase in visibility in recent years, there’s no denying that. And it hasn’t all been negative. There have actually been really decent, well-rounded and complex presentations of South Asian people in films and shows such as “Mississippi Masala” (1992), “Bend It Like Beckham” (2002), and “Indian Summers” (2015), which delve deeper into the multi-dimensional lives of the characters presented that we can relate to and appreciate.

Mississippi_masala[Photo Source: Wikipedia]

The existence of works like these is encouraging and I think we can certainly do with more like them. It just takes some thinking outside the box and outside the confines of what we are used to seeing in order to represent the true experiences of our peoples and show that we are so much more beyond the mold that has been previously imagined for us.

Currently, with shows like “Quantico” and “Second Chance” debuting in the last year with South Asians front and center as the leads, we can see significant strides being made for our community in the western world where we don’t fall into tired traditional roles but have branched out into new and exciting arenas that haven’t been explored yet. Beyond the film industry, we are seeing those like Miss America 2014 Nina Davuluri and Top Chef’s Padma Lakshmi serve as powerful voices for South Asians, who younger generations can look up to and say “I can be like that one day.” These are all steps in the right direction that are to be commended.

Nina Davuluri, Saris to Suits[Photo Courtesy of Nina Davaluri]

And yet, I still think we could do so much more. The fact of the matter, at least from my perspective, is that we still have some ways to go and we haven’t come as far as we might think. I mean, when we’ve got Priyanka Chopra and Dev Patel as the sole representatives of South Asians on stage at something as highly publicized as the Oscars back in February, what does that say about our presence? It says to me that it is still a novelty for us to exist in certain spaces. Needless to say, it shouldn’t be this way.


When speaking to non-South Asians, I found that most generally think we are further along than we are and it just goes to show that for those who are already heavily represented, the reality of the situation is not as clear or as accurate, so they probably can’t wholly understand the full impact of what it’s like for us to see ourselves slowly become more visible in society. On the other hand, when I speak to fellow South Asians, I learned that for many, it is a genuine surprise to them when they see our people rise to prominence or appear in anything at all. More so, it is thrilling and brings great pride to our community. That we react with surprise at all is telling of how much more progress there is to be made going forward.

Even as a Guyanese, I don’t know many well-known Indo-Caribbean figures apart from Shakira Baksh Caine. The word “Guyanese” itself is, in my experience, usually foreign to people, one some have never even heard of until I mention it. So on this end of the spectrum, I would like for more people to be aware of Guyanese like myself and the rich blend of cultures we have that are such a vital and lasting part of our lives.

[Read Related: The Indo-Caribbean Experience: Now and Then]

When we don’t see ourselves reflected back at us in a variety of ways which do not fit the expectations set for South Asians, it can deter us from pursuing so many things. Particularly in the arts, we are not always encouraged to take up careers in various artistic fields such as writing, directing, acting, music, comedy, theatre, and more. So it is incredibly important for us to see representatives like us in these fields who inspire us to become involved in them because we have so much to offer.

So how do we move forward and further increase visibility? Simple, it is up to us to demand more. We should be demanding better for our community and I don’t think it is a bad thing to want better for ourselves and others. No progress was ever made by people sitting back and waiting for it to happen. So we have to demand it and be a part of helping to create lasting change.

We have to be the ones that question the way we are portrayed in media and ask if it is advancing the South Asian community. We, as the ones in charge of our respective truths and narratives, have to make sure that we ourselves are not perpetuating negative stereotypes and instead work to uplift our community. We have to challenge the status quo and negativity therein that exists and demand that we be seen as more than the joke, or side character, or support team. We have to demand equal opportunities so that we can be given a chance to be the hero too. We have to seek out a better future where children can see people like them in prominent positions in the world and believe that someday their dreams can also come true. And it is important that we stand in solidarity with each other, which is harder than it sounds, but we can try and hope for the best in the future.

The good news is that it is already happening, slowly but surely, and it is worthy of celebration. I see those of my generation demanding more, producing their own content and proudly showcasing it. Being in the age of digital media allows us to easily create and share our work, our art and our stories with the world in a way that was once not possible and it is helping to propel us forward.

So, yes. Representation matters. It allows us to see ourselves as valuable members of the wider global community and assures us that we, too, belong to this world. It inspires us when we see our people proudly standing tall in a society that often overlooks us. It drives us to go after the things we think of as impossible dreams and pursue that which we otherwise wouldn’t. It lets us know that our lives and experiences matter and make a difference somehow. It affirms that we are important.

We are important. And we are heroes.

Miranda headshotMiranda Deebrah is an Indo-Guyanese writer and storyteller based in New York. Proud of her roots and heritage, she is an advocate for South Asian voices not yet heard and the stories not yet told. She is passionate about the arts and their ability to create change in the world and hopes to make her own contributions through her work. Her interests include traveling, reading biographies, spending evenings at the theatre, reenacting choreography from Lady Gaga’s music videos, taking flying trapeze lessons, and making all kinds of magic happen.

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 ›

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 ›

Op-Ed: Has Mindy Kaling Become a Scapegoat for the South Asian Diaspora?

Mindy Kaling

Over the past few weeks we’ve all seen Mindy Kaling shoulder the blame for misrepresenting the South Asian diaspora in her work. I want to expose us to the flip side. She’s not “Indian enough” for some in our communities and “not American enough” for mainstream television and media. But I don’t know a single South Asian living abroad who doesn’t feel this dissonance. We’re a generation born to parents who strived to stay connected to their homeland but knew they had to assimilate to survive. Many of us got lost in the mix. I definitely did. And from the looks of it, Kaling did too. 

I feel like I’ve oscillated between these two extremes all my life. I’ve had moments of code-switching — performing as a white version of myself, melting into the groups around me. And moments of being a “coconut” (or an “oreo” depending on where you come from) — suddenly donning an accent as if Hindi was my first language. It wasn’t conscious. It also wasn’t fully unconscious.  

It wasn’t until I watched Netflix’s “Never Have I Ever” as a 35-year-old mother of two that I realized what teenage Ambika was up against. Still wearing tank tops in secret, while girls my age had moved on to the midriff-baring trend of the early 2000s. Not thinking it was okay to explore my sexuality. Not seeing that sometimes I knew what was better for me than my parents did. Not understanding that it was okay to expand my romantic interests beyond the few Indian boys I knew. And then I rewatched “The Mindy Project” while on maternity leave with my second kid. And I ate it up.

I rewound dialogue as Dr. Lahiri got engaged, left a man who lost his drive, fell in love with the unexpectedly handsome curmudgeon, got pregnant, learned to mother, and found a new version of herself. She addressed her pregnant body insecurities on-screen (in “What to Expect When You’re Expanding — brilliant!). She grappled with her ambitions in the face of motherhood. She owned who she was when most of us were taught not to. She dated outside of her race. Her audacity and levity gave me so much oomph at a time when I needed it the most.

Art comes from lived experience. And when individuals reflect their life back to the masses through art, it’s a tenuous balance. Comedians in particular have to toe a fine line between hyperbole and reality, having the paradoxical job of speaking the truth (the dark truth, often), and simultaneously making people laugh.

Comedian Anjelah Johnson-Reyes, when interviewed on NPR’s “Code Switch,” says: 

Even though I didn’t speak Spanish — my parents don’t speak Spanish — early in my career when I would portray my parents in a bit, they would have an accent. They would speak in broken English. Any time I would talk about my mom, it was like, ‘ay, mija.’ My mom doesn’t call me ‘mija.’ My mom will leave me a voice message and be like, ‘hey, girl!’ She talks like me. You know what I mean?

This is the inherent paradox that exists in Velma as well. Kaling, as she often does, takes her own experiences as a young Indian girl growing up against the backdrop of white America, and amplifies them. And now, Kaling is a grown, Indian woman whose career is evolving against the backdrop of an America, too.

Critics across different racial groups frequently talk about “the representation trap.” Even if a minority group is represented in a piece of art, literature, film, or television, the manifestation of that group is still filtered through the white gaze. In Ismail Muhammed’s New York Times piece “Can Black Literature Escape the Representation Trap,” he says: 

Our current problem isn’t an insufficient amount of Black representation in literature but a surfeit of it. And in many cases that means simply another marketing opportunity, a way to sell familiar images of Blackness to as broad an audience as possible.

The debate about whether minority artists properly represent their cohort is marred with capitalism and white supremacy. When so many industries are gate-kept by the typical, euro-centric, generationally rich man, is there really any way to be wholly true to our experience? 

[Read Related: ‘Late Night’ Review: Mindy Kaling & Nisha Ganatra Hilariously Expose Diversity Issues in Hollywood & Comedy]

Let’s not forget that many of us (or maybe all of us?) came up in a society that devalues women, and horrifically devalues people of color. Let’s not forget that the majority of executives across every field still don’t look like us (if by chance you’ve forgotten, read this piece by Ruchika Tulshyan). Let’s not forget that when people are introduced to something foreign and unknown to them, their default is to reject it (again, if you’ve forgotten, read about “the mere exposure effect” and racism).

I’m unsure how Kaling has inherited the immense responsibility of representing all of the South Asian American diaspora? And is then being criticized for her representation of it. Third-generation South Asians are very different from second-generation, who are very different from first-generation. Our identities and how we fit into American culture, mainstream media, and business, are still forming as we speak. We are not a monolith.

And plenty of men have done exactly what Kaling is being criticized for, without anywhere near the same level of criticism. All men I (hopefully, we) love.

Riz Ahmed has taken on roles in which his race isn’t the central focus. Hasan Minaj doesn’t get criticized when he uses stereotypical accents to represent South Asians or for using politics as a launch pad for his content. We don’t hate on Kumail Nanjiani when he suddenly gets a six-pack, even though he also once played a nerd. I loved when Aziz Ansari went to Italy to make pasta and didn’t make it Indian.

Why are we tearing down one of the only women in America who is working to showcase South Asian culture and people? Because she uses humor and caricature? Because she’s not putting herself in the mindset of the type of Indian person who has learned to thrive at the intersection of their upbringing and their environment? Newsflash: that person doesn’t exist! 

It’s not on Kaling to represent every dimension of this diaspora. She’s done her job.

I’m a proud, second-generation, Indian American woman, married to an Indian American man, with two Indian American children. I was nerdy just like Kaling. I had arm hair just like Devi. I pined after white boys in my teen years just like Bela from the HBO Max’s “Sex Lives of College Girls,” too. And Kaling is an absolute inspiration to me. 

I see a South Asian woman who chose to have children on her own. Whose career, post-children, skyrocketed. Who committed herself and her craft to tackle the most deep-rooted stigmas of South Asian culture — mental health, sex, and interracial relationships — while still honoring the way it manifested in her life. 

It’s now our job to get out into the world and dimensionalize our cohort. Show the world what us supposed “ABCDs” have grown up and done; who we’ve become and what we’ve accomplished. 

It’s what I’m trying to do. It’s what I’m trying to fight for when I’m told things like “maybe tone down the diversity angle in your writing, we don’t want publishers to think they’re just buying a diversity book.”

We still exist in a house of cards. Why are we kicking the building blocks of our own home?

I’ll leave you with this quote from Kaling herself: 

People get scared when you try to do something, especially when it looks like you’re succeeding. People do not get scared when you’re failing. It calms them. But when you’re winning, it makes them feel like they’re losing or, worse yet, that maybe they should’ve tried to do something too, but now it’s too late. And since they didn’t, they want to stop you. You can’t let them.

I hope this woman never gets discouraged. We need her in more ways than one.


The opinions expressed by the writer of this piece, and those providing comments thereon (collectively, the “Writers”), are theirs alone and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Brown Girl Magazine, Inc., or any of its employees, directors, officers, affiliates, or assigns (collectively, “BGM”). BGM is not responsible for the accuracy of any of the information supplied by the Writers. It is not the intention of Brown Girl Magazine to malign any religion, ethnic group, club, organization, company, or individual. If you have a complaint about this content, please email us at Staff@browngirlmagazine.com. This post is subject to our Terms of Use and Privacy Policy. If you’d like to submit a guest post, please follow the guidelines we’ve set forth here.
By Ambika Gautam Pai

Ambika Gautam Pai is the Chief Strategy Officer at full-service advertising agency Mekanism and a mom of two. She's a … Read more ›

The Poetry Film Breaking Genres and National Borders

“After so Long” is a poetry film created for Simha’s EP, which is streaming on Spotify, Apple Music and Amazon Music. The poem was collaboratively written by Simha, a U.S. native, and Jae, who is based in India, during the 2020 lockdown. “After so Long” was recited by Simha and their parents. In 2022, I directed and produced the film through my studio, Star Hopper. “After so Long” premiered on Nowness Asia in March 2022.

This film is a worldwide collaboration among trans and queer south-Asian artists from the United States, India and Canada. It was recorded, shot and filmed during the lockdown of 2020 and 2021.

[Read Related: Poetry That Reflects the Fire Inside]

[Read Related: A Bengali Muslim Boy’s Poetic Journey Through Himself]

After So Long (English Translation)

Awake at 10 am but out of bed at noon,
I want to be here where I lose myself in these sheets
Glancing through half-shut eyes
At the gold pressing past my window
The glimmer remarks on the ledge of my bed
But the voices are so loud
Like dust collecting in the corner of my room
I am unaware to why I’m still here
With the chilling doubt of the breeze…
I’m swept into lucidity After so long

Mil rahi hoon mein aaj iske saang barso baad,
(Today, I’ll be meeting them after so long)
Koi paata nahi diya tune
(But with no destination sight,)
Kya karu?
(What should I do?)
Kaha jau?
(Where should I go?)
Shayad agar mein chalne lagoon,
(Perhaps, if I keep walking)
Inn yaadon ki safar mein
(Down this road of memories)
Mujhe samajh mein ayega,
(I will find out)
Yeh rasta kahaan jayega,
(Where this road leads)
Inn aari tedhi pakadandiyon pe baarte hi jaana hai,
(Through the twists and turns of this winding roads, I must keep going on)
Mujhe mil na hain aaj uske saath,
(I wish to meet them today)
Barso baad.
(After so long)

I feel like I’m retracing my footsteps
From these concrete stretches
To broken cement walls
Chips and cracks forge their way for new designs
I see the old abandoned buildings
That once held the warmth of bodies
Now just hold memories
Supporting the nature’s resilience
In vines and moss
After so long

Dhoondli shishe mein jaaga leli hai
(These isty mirrors have offered refuge)
Bikhri hui laatao ne,
(To these scattered vines)
Zameen pe uchi ghaas pe
(Amidst the tall grass stretching from the ground)
Lehrati kamsan kaliyaa
(The swaying little buds)
Bheeni bheeni khushboo bikhereti
(Spreading honeysuckle scent through the air)
Phir wahi mausam,
(I lose myself in reminiscing, the same season)
Wahi dil,
(The same heart)
Baarso baad.
(After so long)
Phir bhi mein chal rahi hoon aaj
(Still, I keep carrying on today)
Khudko khudse milane ke liye
(In the pursuit of my higher self)
Inn galiyo se guzarna hain aaj
(I must pass through these streets today)
Chaalte chaale jaana hai aaj
(I must keep going on today)
Kabhi hum milenge kisi mor paar
(Someday, we’ll meet again, somewhere on this road)
barso baad
(After so long)
Kabhi hum milenge kisi mor pe
(Someday, we’ll meet again, somewhere on this road)
barso baad
(After so long)

[Read Related: How to Follow Your Heart, Even When it’s Hard]


Poem by Simha & Jae
Produced by Star Hopper Studios
Directed by Varsha Panikar
Cinematography and grading by Tanmay Chowdhary
Editing by Asawari Jagushte
Featuring Vaishakh Sudhakaran
Music Production by Simha
Hindi editing by Rama Garimella
Recited by Simha, Rama Garimella, Annaji Garimella
English Translation by Nhylar

The opinions expressed by the guest writer/blogger and those providing comments are theirs alone and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Brown Girl Magazine, Inc., or any employee thereof. Brown Girl Magazine is not responsible for the accuracy of any of the information supplied by the guest writer/bloggers. This work is the opinion of the blogger. It is not the intention of Brown Girl Magazine to malign any religion, ethnic group, club, organization, company, or individual. If you’d like to submit a guest post, please follow the guidelines we’ve set forth here.
By Varsha Panikar

Varsha Panikar (they/he) is a filmmaker, writer and multi-disciplinary artist from India. They are the co-founder of Star Hopper, a … Read more ›