"I honestly just didn't see myself playing a romantic lead."
The casting of Ambika Mod as Emma in Netflix’s One Day could have a wider effect on South Asian actresses as it could open doors for them to be cast in more lead roles in Western shows.
Based on David Nicholls’ novel of the same name, One Day follows Emma and Dexter’s will-they-won’t-they romance over 20 years on the same day – July 15.
The 2011 film adaptation saw Anne Hathaway bring Emma to life.
But the Netflix series adaptation provided a surprise as it did not star a Hollywood-bound white actress. Instead, it was rising star Ambika Mod who was cast as Emma.
Typically, Hollywood has rarely made space for South Asian women as charming heroines.
Western media usually depicts South Asian women as book-smart supporting characters and helping white protagonists.
The thought that South Asian women do not belong in romantic roles spreads through an entire generation, including Ambika.
During an interview on Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour, she told Anita Rani that she did not see herself as Emma.
Ambika said: “I honestly just didn’t see myself playing a romantic lead.
“You don’t see a lot of brown women on screen being the romantic lead. You never see women like that, in that position.”
Ambika spent weeks settling into Emma’s shoes and immersing herself in the role, despite playing a white book character.
For many South Asians, Bend It Like Beckham was a classic as it saw Jess (Parminder Nagra) get a scholarship in the United States.
Stars like Mindy Kaling have been a trailblazer when it comes to South Asian women in Western media.
She went from playing Kelly Kapoor in The Office to having lead roles in several projects like The Mindy Project.
In fact, the Netflix series Mindy produced, Never Have I Ever, saw Devi (Maitreyi Ramakrishnan) embrace her leading-lady power as she navigated a high-school love triangle throughout four seasons.
Meanwhile, the second season of Bridgerton garnered attention when Simone Ashley and Charithra Chandran were cast as the Sharma sisters.
Like Emma, Simone’s character Kate is described as “pale and blonde” in the book series.
Fortunately, Simone and Charithra’s casting was a success, receiving positive reactions from fans and critics.
In 2024, Avantika Vandanapu made her mark as Karen Smith in the new musical version of Mean Girls. Amanda Seyfried portrayed the role in the 2004 cult classic.
But one of the biggest instances is Priyanka Chopra in the Amazon Prime Video series Citadel.
This indicates that the tide is gradually turning.
And Ambika Mod’s casting highlights that the trend of South Asians in roles traditionally given to white women is here to stay.
Although there is an increase in TV shows and films celebrating South Asian lives, industry figures must become aware that there is a vast landscape of South Asian heroines waiting for their moment.
The Indian subcontinent is made up of nearly two billion people and across the world, there are millions of South Asian heritage people.
Each has their own mix of cultures, languages and upbringings.
One day, South Asian girls might imagine themselves in any role and break free of the stereotypes that have remained for years.