In a 2006 episode of the long-running television series Law and Order, Poorna Jagannathan played a character named “Dr Sikh”. The name, as bizarre as, say, “Ms Buddhist”, is an indication of the tendency of the American entertainment industry to reduce non-white characters to non-entities simply by refusing to give them proper names.
Jagannathan’s latest role charts the distance she has travelled since then. Jagannathan has joined the cast of the second season of the acclaimed HBO series Big Little Lies, which is being shown in India on Hotstar and will be premiered in September on Star World. Jagannathan’s character has a real name, Katie Richmond, and a back story. “She is hired by Nicole Kidman’s character to fight her custody battle,” Jagannathan told Scroll.in during a recent visit to Mumbai.
Katie is introduced in the fifth episode, Kill Me. “I’m about credibility,” Katie reminds her client Celeste (Nicole Kidman) in velvety but firm tones. “So when I speak, judges listen.”
American showbiz is tuning in too, giving roles of importance to and greenlighting the television shows and movies of such South Asian-origin talent as Jagannathan, Mindy Kaling, Kumail Nanjiani, Aziz Ansari and Hasan Minhaj. “Every year it changes – it’s spectacular, and you can see the growth, from playing Dr Sikh to a character who has not even been written as brown,” Jagannathan observed.
Big Little Lies is among the shows that has reintroduced Jagannathan to Indian viewers, who best remember her for Delhi Belly (2011). Among the shows that are available in India and highlight Jagannathan’s talent for playing complicated and empathy-driven characters are The Night Of (2016), Gypsy (2017) and Better Call Saul (2018).
In The Night Of, the American version of the 2008 British miniseries Criminal Justice, Jagannathan is Safar, the Pakistani-American mother of college student Nasir (Riz Ahmed), who is accused of murdering a woman. Safar and her husband, Salim (Payman Maadi), are driven to financial ruin through Nasir’s legal defence, and Safar must also confront the horrible truth that her son might just be a murderer.
Jagannathan cites The Night Of as the show that turned her career around. “It was well done and well received, and the offers shifted dramatically,” the 46-year-old actor said. And yet, things might have been different if Delhi Belly had gone down as anticipated.
For many Indians, Jagannathan is still the kinky-curled and boho chic-dressing journalist Menaka from the cult Hindi comedy Delhi Belly, which was written by Akshat Verma and directed by Abhinay Deo. Menaka gets involved with Tashi (Imran Khan) and becomes embroiled in the attempts of Tashi and his friends to get rid of a stash of diamonds that belongs to a gangster.
Tashi is smitten by the effortlessly cool Menaka (it’s not hard to see why). Menaka’s achievements include the sequence in which she simulates sex with Tashi in order to escape from a difficult situation. Jagannathan should have been in more Hindi films after Delhi Belly, but that didn’t quite happen.
Jagannathan had relocated from the US to Mumbai with her husband and son to pursue an acting career here around the time of the production of Delhi Belly in 2011. “When I moved here with Delhi Belly, it was with the promise of that kind of cinema emerging here, but the movie was the first in that genre and the last,” she observed. “Sometimes, India doesn’t reward its brave. Wait, you did something new and original and you made money? Fuck you.”
She recalls being made “bizarre offers” for parts and given plagiarised scripts. “I started googling some of the lines and chunks of the scripts, and that would show me where the scripts were from.” Apart from a small role in the romance Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewani in 2013, she hasn’t been in any Hindi films since.
“Doing work should take a lot out of me, it should exhaust me, it should stress me out, it should pull me into another world, and if that’s not happening…,” she said. That role was for The Night Of, created by Richard Price and Steven Zaillian. Jagannathan filmed her portions by travelling from Mumbai to America, and she eventually moved to Los Angeles in 2015.
“I want to do something awesome that would change the landscape, change a point of view,” she said about the kind of work that interests her. “I need to imagine doing PR for the film and having awesome conversations as well as feel embarrassed by doing PR.”
Bollywood isn’t unfinished business for Jagannathan. “I am really hot and heavy into this web situation,” she said. “It’s a space I can make for myself. I think it’s the wild, wild web, and that’s exciting.”
She isn’t finished with India. In between filming for The Night Of, Jagannathan produced and starred in Yael Farber’s stage production Nirbhaya, which was inspired by the 2012 Delhi gang-rape to tell stories of sexual violence against women. The acclaimed play had a three-year run, during which it picked up the Amnesty International Award in 2013.
Nirbhaya came before the global awareness about sexual assault that came to be known as MeToo. “There is such a history to the stories, so much trauma, so much healing that needs to happen,” Jagannathan observed. “Nirbhaya explores that story, of what happens when sexual violence crosses your path.”
MeToo has been transformative in personal and professional ways, she added. “I don’t think the MeToo movement can be measured by how many men we have put in jail, how many men have lost their jobs, how many people in power will not return to power,” she said. “Its power comes from the massive shift in mindset that has happened for men and women. I can feel it in every moment – an intense sense of belonging in this world. We are talking about boundaries, respecting boundaries, just walking through the world in a much more empowered way.”
Among the roles for which Jagannathan has pushed the boundaries of what is expected of female characters is the web series Ramy. The Hulu show, which was renewed for a second season in May, has been co-created by and stars Egyptian-American comedian Ramy Youssef. Ramy “explores the challenges of what it’s like being caught between an Egyptian community that thinks life is a moral test, and a Millennial generation that thinks life has no consequence”, the synopsis notes. Jagannathan plays Salma, a woman who gets romantically entangled with Ramy.
Some of Jagannathan’s roles can best be described as wrenching, but that’s just how she likes it. “I don’t want to keep distance from my work,” she said. “The more claustrophobic the project, the better for me.”
She likes to research her roles, and for Big Little Lies, she visited family courts. “There is a strong stereotype about lawyers and it comes from TV and is fed by criminal case lawyers – very bulldog-y, very masculine, very aggressive,” she said. “But when I went down to the family court, it was completely opposite of the stereotype – softer, nurturing, I saw lawyers taking care of the kids, and approaching things from a much more compassionate and therapeutic point of view. That is what I brought to the audition and the character. Katie is not aggressive, and she is ultimately blindsided by what the evidence suggests.”
The “lack of drama” at he real-life family courts and the fact that despite the “high stakes, everyone is so damn nice” leached into her character, Katie. “I don’t like playing the TV version of stuff,” Jagannathan said. “My first and foremost my love is watching documentaries. It is the truth unadorned, and that is much more powerful than a cinematic version. It’s also the kind of acting style I am drawn to. The projects that I attract are looking for that, and I find those projects really interesting. Melodramatic, and over the top – not that it’s bad, but it’s not the currency I deal with usually. I like my performances to be simpler and closer to the truth.”
For The Night Of too, Jagannathan sat in on criminal court proceedings, involving Spanish-speaking clients. “My character Safar, although she speaks English, things are flying past her,” Jagannathan said. “I wanted to see how things land for someone who isn’t a native speaker. I am a mom, and at the end of the day, a lot of my connection to material like this or even Big Little Lies comes from my relationship with motherhood.”
One upcoming role that will explore a lesser-seen side of Jagannathan is Mindy Kaling’s upcoming Netflix show about Devi, a first-generation Indian-American teenager. Devi will be played by newcomer Maitreyi Ramakrishnan, and Jagannathan portrays her mother, Nalini Krishnan.
“I love that project – it’s an outrageous comedy, and I haven’t done those,” Jagannathan said. “Delhi Belly was a comedy, but you didn’t have to play the joke, it happened to you.”
Jagannathan drew on her own Tamil heritage for the role. The daughter of a diplomat, Jagannathan was born in Tunisia and educated in the United States. Nalini Krishnan evokes a familiar figure – the Indian mother who uses casual threats of violence in her speech to bring her naughty children back on the straight and narrow.
Nalini too is prone to such declarations as, I will beat you up so badly that your bones will be pulverised and then I will hang you over the clothesline. “Nalini is a regular South Indian strict mom who is trying to make sure her daughter is uncorrupted by America,” Jagannathan said. “When I was reading it, I felt, this is just me.”
Production on the 10-episode series will begin over the next few weeks, and when it is eventually shown in India, it will be yet another reminder of how far Jagannathan has travelled from her “Dr Sikh” days. She is also appearing in the upcoming TV shows Defending Jacob and Messiah, and has acted in the American indie Share. “We are creating our own stories, and the perceptions are shifting, it’s coming from a bunch of people of colour,” Jagannathan said. “To get an insider story, we need to write them, and we now have an army of people doing that.”