Poorna Jagannathan: Finding agency in Hollywood

Poorna Jagannathan, who will soon be seen in the final season of Never Have I Ever, on celebrating South Asian excellence at the Oscars, and her new projects

Updated - March 30, 2023 02:10 pm IST

Published - March 30, 2023 11:52 am IST

Poorna Jagannathan attends the 2023 Vanity Fair Oscar Party in Beverly Hills

Poorna Jagannathan attends the 2023 Vanity Fair Oscar Party in Beverly Hills | Photo Credit: Getty Images

This month, Poorna Jagannathan attended a Hollywood party, held a few days before the Oscar ceremony. But there was one difference. The party was hosted at Paramount Pictures Studio by a group of South Asians — actors, content creators and even activists. The invitation came from Priyanka Chopra, Anjula Acharia (who manages Chopra’s career in Hollywood), Mindy Kaling, Kumail Nanjiani, Kal Penn, Aziz Ansari, Bela Bajaria (Netflix’s chief content officer) and even Nobel laureate Malala Yousafzai.

Poorna Jagannathan and Malala Yousafzai

Poorna Jagannathan and Malala Yousafzai | Photo Credit: @poornagraphy

Poorna Jagannathan with Sendhil Ramamurthy, designer-TV host Tan France, Priyanka Chopra and Simone Ashley

Poorna Jagannathan with Sendhil Ramamurthy, designer-TV host Tan France, Priyanka Chopra and Simone Ashley | Photo Credit: @poornagraphy

The invitation referred to the party as South Asian Excellence at the Oscars. But for Jagannathan, it was a lot more than just the celebration of three Indian films (RRR, The Elephant Whisperers, and All That Breathes) that had been nominated for the Academy Awards, and a Pakistani film, Joyland, that was shortlisted for the Best International Film.

“It was one of the best parties that I have ever been to,” Jagannathan says, as she talks about her fellow South Asian actors who were present there. “We all know each other’s journeys intimately. We have all been in the same rooms together, been rejected, struggled and felt hopeless. But that night was a celebration of people having stuck it through, pursuing their dreams and passions.” And she adds, “All these years, there were amazing individual efforts — what Mindy or M. Night Shyamalan or Jay Chandrasekhar were doing. Now you could see the community leveraging its power. The South Asian Oscar party was the power of the collective.”

Poorna Jagannathan with her South Asian peers, including Freida Pinto, musician Anoushka Shankar, singer-songwriter Siddhartha Khosla, Sendhil Ramamurthy, Esha Gupta, Anjali Bhimani, Sarayu Blue, and Hannah Simone

Poorna Jagannathan with her South Asian peers, including Freida Pinto, musician Anoushka Shankar, singer-songwriter Siddhartha Khosla, Sendhil Ramamurthy, Esha Gupta, Anjali Bhimani, Sarayu Blue, and Hannah Simone | Photo Credit: @poornagraphy

Poorna Jagannathan with Ram Charan

Poorna Jagannathan with Ram Charan | Photo Credit: @poornagraphy

Poorna Jagannathan with actor Sendhil Ramamurthy and actor-producer Mindy Kaling

Poorna Jagannathan with actor Sendhil Ramamurthy and actor-producer Mindy Kaling | Photo Credit: @poornagraphy

She describes the celebration as “borderless”, with Indian, Pakistani, Nepali, and Sri Lankan artists supporting each other “not just at the Oscars, but during Diwali, Eid and everything in between”.

South Asian perspectives

Currently Jagannathan, 50, can be seen on the hit Netflix series Never Have I Ever where she plays Dr. Nalini Vishwakumar, an immigrant woman and a mother of a teenager. The fourth and final season of the show will stream on Netflix in June. She has been acting for 15 years, playing smaller supporting roles in Hollywood productions, two significant Bollywood appearances in Delhi Belly and Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewani. But there were also times of struggle. She tried quitting acting a couple of times.

Watch | In conversation with Richa Moorjani and Poorna Jagannathan from ‘Never Have I Ever’

Poorna Jagannathan as Nalini Vishwakumar in ‘Never Have I Ever’

Poorna Jagannathan as Nalini Vishwakumar in ‘Never Have I Ever’ | Photo Credit: Courtesy: Netflix

Then things changed. She got her big break — playing Riz Ahmed’s mother in the critically-acclaimed HBO show The Night Of (2016), that placed a working-class Pakistani-American family from Jackson Heights, New York, in the centre of the plot. It was based on the British show Criminal Justice where the main characters were played by white actors. But HBO’s executives thought the time was right to narrate the same story from a South Asian family’s point of view. (Jagannathan’s husband was played by the well-known Iranian actor Payman Maadi).

John Turturro, Payman Maadi, and Poorna Jagannathan in a still from ‘The Night Of’

John Turturro, Payman Maadi, and Poorna Jagannathan in a still from ‘The Night Of’ | Photo Credit: Special arrangement

The Night Of won five Primetime Emmys. And a few years later came Never Have I Ever. Jagannathan attributes the success of the teen-comedy to its creators Lang Fisher and Mindy Kaling. “Mindy has been producing, writing for a long time, and she’s a prolific creator of colour,” she says. “She has garnered enough respect in the business that people want to take risks on her. Earlier projects with actors of colour were never greenlit. I have been part of so many projects and pilots that never saw the light of day. Suddenly that rope has loosened a little bit. New players like Netflix and other streaming services can afford a lot more creativity and taking risks than regular television networks could.”

In playing the role of Nalini Vishwakumar, Jagannathan brought references to her mother, as well as how she mothers her own son who will soon be off to college. But what stood out for her was how the South Asian actors on Never Have I Ever felt they owned the show. “Working on Hollywood projects, there was a feeling of being a guest,” she says. “I would always be walking on to other people’s sets. With Never Have I Ever there was such a sense of home, of ownership. We had so much input on set décor, what we ate, what we said. There was open communication that Mindy and Lang encouraged throughout the process and kind of relied on all of us as experts. No other role has allowed my full experience of myself to be explored on a set.”

A still from ‘Never Have I Ever’

A still from ‘Never Have I Ever’

Breaking the framework

Moving on after Never Have I Ever, Jagannathan recently worked on the pilot of a show called Deli Boys. Indian-American Nisha Ganatra directed the episode, which narrates the story of a Pakistani family that has a chain of delis but they are also running a drug cartel. Until now, South Asian projects worked within the framework of the model minority. Deli Boys is the opposite of those values. “It’s drug business, corruption and greed,” Jagannathan says. “It’s Succession meets The Hangover.”

Poorna Jagannathan attends the ‘Celebrating South Asian Women In Media And Entertainment’ at Top Pics Studio in Los Angeles

Poorna Jagannathan attends the ‘Celebrating South Asian Women In Media And Entertainment’ at Top Pics Studio in Los Angeles | Photo Credit: Getty Images

In July we will see her playing a villain in an Adam Sandler comedy called The Outlaws. And then there is a prime project that she is currently shooting. It is a film called Wolves, directed by Jon Watts (Spider-Man: No Way Home and Spider-Man: Far From Home) with George Clooney, Brad Pitt and Amy Ryan. “But I can’t talk about it,” Jagannathan says with a smile.

The writer is a film festival programmer and author

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