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When people ask Poorna Jagannathan what kind of roles she’d like to play, she can never come up with an answer. She says it’s hard for her, as a brown woman jostling for space in art, to “centre herself”. “It’s so hard to imagine yourself as the centre of the story,” the star of Never Have I Ever says over a night-time Zoom call from Maine, sitting in a shuttered room aglow with the light from a table lamp.
The 48-year-old actor was born in Tunisia to an Indian diplomat father and grew up all over the world — in Pakistan, Ireland, India, Brazil and Argentina. “You’re always bitching about the fact that no one else is imagining you as the centre of the story, but the truth is that you’re so marginalised and so on the fringes, that it’s hard for you to think of yourself that way.”
And she’s not entirely off the mark. Hollywood doesn’t have a stellar reputation for portraying authentic stories about brown people without lampooning or stereotyping their immigrant experience. But Mindy Kaling’s Never Have I Ever changed things for the actor whose play Nirbhaya was The New York Times Critics’ Pick. Never Have I Ever, a coming-of-age high school comedy series created by Kaling and Lang Fisher, dropped its second season on Netflix last month to solid reviews.
It follows the life of bright-but-headstrong teen Devi, played by Maitreyi Ramakrishnan. Jagannathan is her overbearing mother, Tamil-American dermatologist Dr Nalini Vishwakumar, who finds herself struggling to connect with her daughter after the death of her husband. She’s the very image of the disciplinarian immigrant mother — keeping an eagle eye on her daughter’s grades and romantic life (or lack thereof ) and a tight grip on her own longings for love, lust and roots.
Like most truly diverse stories being told in Hollywood right now, Never Have I Ever is an “inside job”, says the actor, who had a starring role in the 2016 HBO crime drama The Night Of, as well as breakthrough performances in TheBlacklist, Better Call Saul and Big Little Lies. “Who has agency is changing slowly in Hollywood,” she continues.
“Who is writing these stories is changing. And it’s very recent. So when you see Never Have I Ever, Master of None, Crazy Rich Asians, they’re not written by white people. They’re written by us, right?” True to her Indian culinary roots, Jagannathan has a food reference handy. “The diversity on screen feels like the pulp of a mango… the characters are messy, and they’re fleshy, and it’s hard to get a grip on them.”
It’s because, she says, right from the writers’ room to production and costume, from the different shades of brown feminism down to even the authenticity of the food served on screen, the diversity on the show runs deep. “There’s diversity at every point,” she says. “It’s not diversity that comes at the end where the cast is diverse — the writers’ room is bursting with diversity… We have amazing trans actors on the show and you know, there’s no reference to their sexuality. They’re just transacting ownership. I’m a single mom, but I’m living with four generations of women in a traditional family. There’s just so many types of diversity and so many types of sexuality that are portrayed.”
A lot on the show is relatable for Jagannathan, especially the “kind of weird strictness” with which all Indian children grow up. Jagannathan’s fine arts degree, a stint in advertising and her world view all combine to position her in a unique place in cinema right now — and it reflects in the roles she plays.
The actor and producer collaborated with South African playwright Yael Farber to create a powerful play called Nirbhaya (The Fearless One), a pseudonym used by the media for the victim of a brutal sexual assault and murder in Delhi in December 2012 — a crime that led to India changing its rape laws (the definition of rape was amended to include other forms of penetration). The aftermath of the gruesome crime was an early flag-bearer of the country’s first #MeToo movement, because it brought young people onto the streets to demand greater accountability.
The play won an Amnesty International award. Jagannathan, who was sexually assaulted at the age of nine — something she’s spoken about in the past — was feted for a performance that evoked a visceral reaction from her audience. It united them in a common sisterhood of grief and rage — a theme she explores in her new show as well.
“The show is a fantastic anatomy of grief,” says Jagannathan. “I think the second season deals with how it looks when you’ve lost someone, and you are moving forward without necessarily moving on. It creates a unique bond between Nalini and her mother-in-law, the women separated by a generational gap and yet united by their loneliness.” Jagannathan burst onto the movie scene in India with a small role as an irreverent journalist in the 2011 comedy Delhi Belly.
With her anglicised accent, angular face, a mop of corkscrew hair and dark skin, she immediately broke the popular mould of what leading women were expected to look like in Bollywood. Jagannathan is keenly aware of the added responsibility women artists, especially those of colour, bear in shaping opinions about politics in South Asia — where violence against women is high and the burden often lies on their shoulders to speak up.
As a survivor, she knew that every woman would have a story when she sought to break the cycle of silence about sexual violence through Nirbhaya. When Nirbhaya opened in Mumbai, people in the 1,000-seat theatre stood in line and came to the microphone one by one to tell their own story of sexual violence.
“And it was the power of shifting shame from survivor on to the perpetrator where it rightly belongs,” says Jagannathan, “I feel the Indian #MeToo movement was the eruption of anger from a country where there is no justice for stuff like sexual violence. I mean it just seems like we are left to be eaten by the wolves all the time. You know, when we speak up, it’s such a shift. And I love the ferocity of the #MeToo movement in India.
“We are taught to obey authority. It’s ‘ungodly’ to voice a contrarian opinion. We’re just not used to people speaking up, and we’re not used to women speaking up. How much evidence do you need to understand the nature of sexual violence?” And part of taking the power back is also finding the artistic freedom to tell one’s own stories. “Freedom is an opportunity to create as an actor,” she says, “The streaming platforms have opened up different places to tell your stories — and therefore, different stories are being told.” It’s about time.