Is this a new era for Indian actresses?

With the success of shows like 'Never Have I Ever' and 'Indian Matchmaking', streaming giants of the Western world are becoming more and more invested in telling stories with diverse leads and lasting forms of representation
Is this a new era for Indian actresses?

India makes more films and sells more tickets than any other country. Worth 140 billion Indian Rupees (Dhs6.8 billion), it is the largest film industry in the world, making it one of the biggest potential prizes for streaming giants like Netflix, Disney, and Amazon. But when it comes to the representation of female Indian actresses in mainstream media, these figures aren't even remotely as big. 

27% of the UAE’s population are Indian, and in America the Indian population is growing at a rate of 69.37% per decade, making it one of the fastest growing ethnic groups – but still no one was telling their stories. Still, no mass streaming platform was highlighting how non-white actors could lead lucrative and widely appealing roles. 

“Only one actor of Indian heritage has ever won an Academy Award for best actor: Ben Kingsley,” says Celina Jaitly-Haag star of No Entry, Golmaal Returns, and Seasons Greetings, some of the highest-grossing films in the Indian film industry. “Since the beginning of cinema our Asian culture is only represented through stereotypes. There is an enormous opportunity for Hollywood to explore ethnic diversities and reach a new, globalised market.”

Only one percent of lead roles in Hollywood go to Asian actors. Yup, a measly one percent. But as the conversation begins to shift, coupled with the pandemic provoking a boom for streaming platforms, it seems that the Western world is becoming more invested than ever in telling stories with diverse leads.

In 2016, Netflix launched in India, followed by Amazon Prime in 2017. Fast-forward another 18 months and in early 2019 Mindy Kaling signed an exclusive, long-term deal with Warner Bros. Television Group where she was set to spearhead a world of diversity.

Her first body of work hit Netflix at the beginning of this year. “Never Have I Ever is offering a story virtually absent from American screens until now,” Mindy Kaling tells Cosmo ME. “Any Indian-American will tell you how it's hard to find out their identity in many different ways. I wished so badly we had a Hindu temple like my friends had churches. The most important thing for people like me, is to create work about people of colour and to keep making those shows. Now, networks and streaming platforms are ready to take risks on unconventional stories because there is such a need for this content.”

Never Have I Ever is a coming of age comedy-drama starring American-Indian Maitreyi Ramakrishnan, who plays an an overachieving high school sophomore (a character partly based on Mindy) making her way through the complicated life of a modern-day, first generation Indian high-school student in the US. In its first four weeks on Netflix, the series raked in 40 million views, putting it on par with Steve Carrel’s new show. Its success has demonstrated with ease how a diverse casting can work for hit programming.

“We are blown away by how many people have seen the show around the world, and the response we have gotten,” Mindy continues. “We are telling a specific and personal story about a modern Indian-American teenage girl and her family. Devi’s [played by Maitreyi] story is relatable to everyone, as she has many different obsessions that felt real to me: she wanted to get good grades as much as she wanted to have a boyfriend. We're hoping that in a larger way, Indian kids who watch us will be like, 'Oh, my God, I did that, too.”

“It’s amazing that this story is about a first generation Indian girl in the Western world, because that’s the story of a lot of people,” Maitreyi tells Cosmo on our self-isolation video series Just the Zoom of Us. “And the idea that the first generation Indian girl was the main character was wild and awesome to see. I think that’s actually one of the reasons the series did so well.”

Four months on and another Netflix Original with a full Indian cast aired and soared straight into the top 10, where it sat proudly for months. Indian Matchmaking, the eight-part docu-series hosted by Sima Taparia showed the ins and outs of arranged marriages in Asian culture, and has been the talk of social media and all my Whatsapp groups since its release.

So we’ve got two new shows, both led by female Indian protagonists, sat in the equivalent of Netflix’s best-seller list? Could this mean, then, that multiculturalism on mass streaming platforms is snowballing into a movement?

The success of Never Have I Ever and Indian Matchmaking is no mean feat in an entertainment landscape where star power and household names often carry a project. Both shows are classic in their formats, but are filmed through the aperture of a very specific lens. By highlighting these people’s’ little-known and underrepresented lives, we are perpetuating the growing recognition that there is a universality in this very specific first generation and expat Indian experience. 

But are things shifting permanently? Are the days of Indian actresses only appearing in Bollywood films known for their big dance numbers no more? Well, not quite. But as a new wave of stories – and subsequent successes – arrive, Hollywood is moving toward more lasting forms of representation. It’s up to the Indian-American power players, like Mindy Kaling, working behind the scenes to ensure that their community, so long ignored or tokenized, isn’t treated as a fad. And it’s up to us - the viewers and consumers -, to ask for, and engage with, the change. 

“The last decade has seen more Indian-cast films released than ever before,” adds Celina Jaitly-Haag. “Big streaming platforms have been a great blessing in exposing Indian actresses, but are we actually seeing systematic change, or is Hollywood just appealing to diverse audiences through casting? Although the industry is changing in front of the camera, the decision makers behind the camera are the real stakeholders. They’re the ones who need to change their modus operandi, because they are the ones who largely dictate whose stories get told.”

As we continue to invest in telling stories with more diverse leads, we continue to challenge the sustained and systemic problems surrounding a lack of multicultural on-screen, and usher in a golden age for new, relatable and inclusive content. Diversity hiring, casting and storytelling should not be a token gesture, but rather an integral part of the authentic creative process.