Poorna Jagannathan is coming home – sort of. The Indian-American actress plays one of the main characters in the mini-series The Night Of, which went on air in the United States of America on July 10 and will be broadcast in India on Star World Premiere from July 13 at 10pm. Academy Award winner Steve Zaillian’s adaptation of the celebrated British crime series Criminal Justice is about a Pakistan-American man who is falsely implicated in a murder.
Riz Ahmed plays Naz Khan, a college student who borrows his father’s taxi on his way to a party he intends to gate-crash and picks up a woman along the way. Riz wakes up after a night of hard partying next to the woman’s corpse. The eight-part series examines Naz’s attempts to prove his innocence and the impact of the case on his parents, played by Jagannathan and Iranian-American actor Peyman Moaadi (A Separation). John Turturro plays Naz’s lawyer Jack Stone.
Although Jagannathan is best known among Indian moviegoers as the kinky-haired journalist who steals Imran Khan’s heart in Delhi Belly (2011), the American actress has had a long run in film, television and theatre. She has appeared in several American TV shows and produced and appeared in the acclaimed stage production Nirbhaya in 2013. In an email interview, Jagannathan discusses her involvement with The Night Of and the significance of Priyanka Chopra landing a role in the Quantico show.
‘The Night Of’ has finally gone on air after a three-year delay. How did you deal with the waiting?
The story of how this series survived is a sordid crime story in and of itself. We were halfway through the pilot and got hit hard by Hurricane Sandy, which brought production to a standstill. Finally, when the pilot was done, HBO actually passed on the project. Then the show was shopped around and finally, HBO got back into the ring and green lit it. But soon after, [James] Gandolfini (part of the original cast) had a massive heart attack and died. One of these factors alone is enough to put a show 6 feet under. But Steve Zaillian, the writer and director, is one of the most bullish men I’ve met – which made it a challenging shoot but also ensured the show got made and its artistic integrity was never compromised.
Tell us about the character you play in the show.
I play Safar Khan, Naz’s mother. Naz is played by Riz Ahmed who I literally can’t say enough great things about. The parents’ journey and how the crime affects them, the family and the community is one of the parallel story lines. She’s a beautiful character and her journey through this series is heartbreaking. She goes from believing her son is innocent and that all this is a mistake, to having her doubts about him as the evidence against him keeps mounting.
‘The Night Of’ looks at the American justice system at a time when the country’s law enforcers are under fire. The original show was about a British family, while the American version follows a Pakistani-American family.
The fact that the family is South Asian and not Caucasian is actually a vital distinction and takes the adaptation into very original territory right from the get-go. Naz’s deep desire to go to a super-cool party is heightened because he’s a nerdy South Asian kid, and as we nerdy South Asian kids can attest to, those chances don’t come by often. While walking, the guy going past him asks him if he left his bombs at home and that interaction soaks off a conflict. At each moment and as the series progresses, the Islamaphobia is constantly part of the narrative – sometimes simmering right below the surface, sometimes devastatingly overt.
The show couldn’t be coming out at a better time: Adnan Syed’s case is on everyone’s minds since the Serial podcast and there are so many parallels to The Night Of, it’s uncanny. And Aziz Ansari’s Master of None puts a South Asian lead on the map, as it will Riz Ahmed, I’m sure.
It’s a very honest look at the criminal justice system. And it becomes clear there are no winners. It’s especially poignant for this show to run now, as we more closely examine who our judicial and law-enforcement systems are set up for.
American television is possibly in its best ever phase. What do you make of the medium?
I feel like it’s a new medium, actually. Shows on Netflix and Amazon are radically diverse, more intimate and certainly more creative. I’m binging on The Americans and Transparent right now, and haven’t spent so much time awake since I had a newborn. I feel inspired to create something in this new medium. The old medium – full of execs and studio heads – felt impenetrable but the new model emerging is the wild West and it’s exciting.
How did you break into the American television industry?
One of my favorite quotes is, “You practice and practice until you get lucky.” I was doing a lot of theater in NYC – tiny venues and very random parts. I had a fulltime job in advertising and would do theater in the evenings and was lucky enough to meet both my manager and agent in the audiences. My first TV audition was for Law & Order – it was one of their first big parts for a South Asian woman and I booked it. After your first gig, things become a little easier. Acting is a game of snakes and ladders and if you’re a woman of colour, let’s just say there are a whole lot more snakes in the game. There’s a lot of stereotyping, there’s such a limited number of roles available to ethnic actors, which is why Priyanka Chopra’s leading role in Quantico is actually such a big deal.
You’ve been away from Indian cinema since ‘Delhi Belly’. Is there any work that will bring you back to Mumbai?
If I come across another script written as well as Delhi Belly, I’d be on a plane in an instant. There are so many great directors I’m dying to work with, like Vishal Bhardwaj and Ashim Ahluwalia. But right now, there’s nothing in the works.
What else are you working on?
I have a couple of releases this year. I have The Circle, which was directed by the genius James Ponsoldt. Growing up Smith, directed by Frank Lotito, is a movie I’m extraordinarily proud of and then there’s Daisy Winters and Carrie Pillby due out very soon.
What prompts you to choose a movie, show or play?
Usually the writing is what draws me into a project. Creating Nirbhaya was different – that play came out of a deep desire to break the silence on sexual violence. It was a time when the streets of India rose and everyone said, “Enough is enough.” The play was part of that wave of protest. The experience of creating a play with Yael Farber that reflected the turmoil of our times was an incredible experience. It’s hard to go back to theater after doing something like that.
Are you also looking at helming your own projects?
I think about it all the time. The trap you fall into as an actor is that you can wait your life away. It'll happen soon.