My first major role on an award-winning, crowd-rousing, primetime British television show, Bodyguard, as the suicide-bomber Nadia, became a national talking point on the portrayal of South Asian women on screen. To be the poster person of this timely moment of discourse felt terrifying. It made me question my internal GPS: what was my own position in this global conversation on representation?
I did what actors do – I humanised the character before me. But the bigger picture was that the industry was ready for a shift; no longer was the terrorist trope only frustrating for us brown folk, it had become a wider issue.
As reductive as it feels, for many South Asian actors of my generation, playing stereotypes had become a rite of passage: you held your breath and got on with it. Then, once you’d scaled the ladder high enough to be taken seriously, you could use your platform for change. You could even be brave enough, or naive enough, to take matters into your own hands by building your own offshoot ladder while simultaneously clambering – joining the small but tenacious pool of ethnic minority creatives tackling representation from the front.
Eager to tell more South Asian stories, I began screenwriting a few years ago and am working on my first series. Trying to repurpose obstacles into vaulting poles has become my new strategy, and this is exactly what the subject of my upcoming writing project, Princess Sophia Duleep Singh, did 100 years ago. As the daughter of the last Maharajah of Punjab, and goddaughter of Queen Victoria, Sophia’s life was nothing short of extraordinary: her actions so bold and anarchic that the press were urged to keep them under wraps lest it cause a royal scandal and tarnish the British crown.
One might have understood their need for positive optics after refusing to return the north Indian kingdom to its Punjabi king. The East India Company had been circling Punjab for decades, and, on the death of Sophia’s grandfather, King Ranjit, it had seized its opportunity. It posed as a friend, offering to help protect the young King Duleep from external threats, and then forced him and his mother, the formidable Jindan Kaur, into exile in Britain, separating him from everything he knew.
My father proudly worked for the British army as a budget manager in the UK and Germany, but years later was held at gunpoint in an attempted robbery. “Go home” was spat at him. The injustice of my dad spending decades working for his country only to be told he didn’t belong, boiled my blood. It’s been on something of a gentle simmer since. Princess Sophia’s father went through the wringer himself. His former kingdom brought a chunk of wealth to the British empire, yet in Britain, a country he was kept in against his will, he was labelled an ineligible bachelor. Though women defied convention to flirt with him, no noble family would accept his proposal of marriage – he was regarded as coming from an inferior race.
The royal office refused Duleep’s re-entry into India, fearful that his presence might spark an insurrection. Feeling trapped, he turned his attention to fashioning his British countryside home into a Moghul palace. Sophia grew up with leopards prowling in pens below her bedroom window and Indian hunting hawks falling from the sky due to the cold. Duleep eventually died alone in Paris.
From the debris of her father’s defalcated dynasty (a Game of Thrones-esque story in itself), Sophia channelled her fury into becoming the patron saint of the underdog. She built shelters for neglected migrant workers, treated wounded Indian soldiers (more than a million of whom fought for Britain in the First World War), and battled for the advancement of women both British and Indian.
While her sister Catherine and her partner, Lina, hid Jewish children from the Nazis and her other sister, Bamba, trained to become one of the first female doctors, Sophia was busy in London throwing herself at the prime minister’s car, smacking a “Votes for Women” poster on to his windscreen. It’s no wonder Winston Churchill labelled Sophia “a dangerous woman”. For many South Asians, seeing the brilliant Sharma sisters lighting up our screens in Bridgerton has been thrilling. Those who cry “woke!” may call it unnecessary “diversity” casting, but the truth is the Duleep-Singhs were out there in their silken skirts making major moves.
Statues are being felled as my generation hungers for the truth; the time has never felt riper for stories like Sophia’s. We’ve had flying nannies with magical handbags, talking cars and time-travelling doctors. I almost can’t believe there was a real-life British Indian heroine who did incredible things in the face of adversity. Her story might have been lost were it not for trailblazing Anita Anand, whose “Punjab-(ra)dar” homed in on a sepia photograph of Sophia, prompting years-long research that she compiled into her book, Sophia: Princess, Suffragette, Revolutionary. On Friday, Sophia will be officially commemorated with a blue plaque, at her former home Faraday House, opposite Hampton Court Palace in London.
Sophia features on Anand and William Dalrymple’s podcast Empire (with its millions of downloads) and with mainstream successes of books such as Sathnam Sanghera’s Empireland it’s clear there is an appetite beyond South Asians for this story. Throw in the fact that the Koh-i-noor diamond (formerly in the possession of Sophia’s forefathers) has made global news, with many calling for the world’s most valuable diamond to be returned to India after the death of Queen Elizabeth II: Sophia’s story is a veritable goldmine.
From Never Have I Ever and Ms Marvel to Wedding Season, there’s been an exciting shift. The world’s first brown female superhero and stories that centre Indian characters are hugely important steps for South Asian kids the world over to feel seen and to know that the opportunities afforded their white counterparts are within their reach too. As Marian Wright Edelman said, “you can’t be what you can’t see”. Even if some of these shows are for audiences that the navigation system would flag as “American”, I feel hopeful that the waves will lap the industry here too. Let’s pole-vault our way into the reality we’re hungry for: game-changing South Asian women at the fore and cue the lights up on the incredible Princess Sophia Duleep Singh.
Anjli Mohindra is an actor and writer
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