Closing the Gap for South Asian Representation on Screen

Increasing on-screen representation of historically excluded populations remains a directional North Star for the media industry, and progress is being made. That progress, however, is measured using a very general lens. While the U.S. is home to a growing richness of many identity groups, it takes more than just broad strokes to shift on-screen representation to capture our diverse stories and cultures on screen.

How people identify and perceive themselves is of the utmost personal importance, second only to how people see themselves in the world around them—including in media. General ethnic and multicultural labels are unable to convey the uniqueness of each individual, yet the deep richness of our population remains categorized by a handful of broad, generalized terms, such as White, Black and Asian American.

The downside of representation and inclusion through these generalized terms is that it inhibits people from seeing their true selves reflected in the world around them. In the 2020-2021 TV season, for example, on-screen Asian and Pacific Islander talent had a 2.9% of screen across broadcast television. People who identify as Southeast Asian, however, saw far less of themselves when they tuned in.

South Asians are, however, increasing their prominence in Hollywood, with Kingo debuting as the first South Asian superhero in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and Indian-born Anupam Tripathi delivering a breakout performance in Netflix’s Squid Game. For South Asian men, their increasing portrayals in TV and film have brought their share of screen in line with their share of the U.S. population (2.3%). The same cannot be said for South Asian women, whose share of screen stands at just 0.3%—despite progress in recent years by stars like Mindy Kaling, YouTuber turned late-night talk show host Lilly Singh, Never Have I Ever’s Maitreyi Ramakrishnan, and Avantika Vandanapu, who most recently starred in the 2021 Disney Channel original movie Spin.

Importantly, representation isn’t just about being involved or included. True representation involves accurate portrayals–not generalistic stereotypes. For South Asians, many on-screen portrayals have focused on specific character types, such as nerds, cabbies and convenience store managers like The Simpsons’ Apu. That’s why it’s important to understand how audiences see the characters and roles they engage with on TV and in film—to assess whether representation strides are being made in tandem with those associated with inclusion.

News and reality are the most inclusive genres across the top 10 most inclusive programs for South Asians, highlighting a significant shortage across the wide range of other genres, especially those depicting everyday life—topics that would help break stereotypes and appear more authentic. For example, superhero Kingo in Marvel’s Eternals lives on earth as a Bollywood star, but the movie drew criticism from netizens claiming the film’s Bollywood dance sequence was outdated and shouldn’t have featured English lyrics.

Opening more doors to talent behind the camera is one way to ensure that more stories are told with authenticity. Writer/director Urvashi Pathania, who won the 2021 APA Visionaries Short Film Competition for her film Unmothered, said “I decided to make this film because I didn’t want to play into the South Asian stereotypes. So often, South Asian diaspora films portraying India can veer on poverty porn and I didn’t want to tell a story that didn’t feel authentically mine.”

Avoiding stereotypes is on the path toward the North Star. In a recent interview, casting director, producer and podcast host Keertana Sastry discussed how diversity and authenticity can be accurately portrayed by simply casting South Asian/Asian/BIPOC people for roles. In that way, she says you’re simply “adding a cultural lens without really having to bring it up. Automatically, you are telling a story that becomes universally relatable, because specificity is relatable.”

As the ease of casting representative talent meets the themes of real life stories, these portrayals on-screen will more accurately illustrate the rich lives of the diverse audience—making them feel seen.

For additional insights, download our recent Being seen on screen report.