When the lead actor and producer of the television miniseries, The Night Of, James Gandolfini (The Sopranos) passed away after a heart attack in 2013, everybody was certain that the show wouldn’t make it.
Robert De Niro stepped in to take his place eventually, but had to drop the project. If it wasn’t for the persistent efforts of the cast and producers, The Night Of would have been left on the back-burner, never getting the chance to become the runaway hit show of 2016.
As the finale of the show was aired last night on Star World Premiere HD, fans finally had answers to the million and one conspiracy theories around its end. A riveting crime drama, The Night Of has managed, within eight episodes, to gather a manic fan following. The cast is stellar, featuring acclaimed actor and rapper Riz Ahmed (Nightcrawler, Jason Bourne), Golden Globe nominee John Turturro (Barton Fink), Peyman Moaadi (A Separation) and perhaps the most interesting, actor Poorna Jagannathan.
Jagannathan shot to fame in India after she appeared in the irreverent comedy Delhi Belly as the feisty Menaka, scooping up awards for a breakthrough performance. In 2013, she produced and acted in the play Nirbhaya by director Yael Farber, a haunting story based on the Delhi gang-rape in 2012. In interviews about the play, which was hailed as “One of the most powerful pieces of theatre you’ll ever see” by The Telegraph, Jagannathan broke the silence about her own sexual assault at the age of nine. To see an actress talk about her own experience with abuse, thus, empowering other women to reclaim their identities and strength, is heartening to say the least.
In America though, Jagannathan has been a popular television actress, appearing in shows like House of Cards, Law & Order and Royal Pains. Her role as Riz’s mother Safar Khan in The Night Of is bound to get her a whole lot of attention as she portrays a harried mother, unsure of her son’s innocence with disconcerting subtlety.
When asked about what it was like to be part of such a stellar, ensemble cast, Jagannathan states forthrightly, “There’s a level of trust that I had in my castmates that I’ve never experienced before. Peyman Moaadi is actually my favourite actor in the whole world and to be cast opposite him was like winning the lottery. At any given time, there were three Oscar or Emmy winners in the room and to be part of this project was intimidating and inspiring on so many levels.”
At first, it seems strange that Jagannathan was chosen to play the mother of an actor barely a decade younger than her. There is a certain amount of ageism in the industry that seems to be levelled at female actors alone and it’s a constant battle to stay relevant, despite their talent and the experience they’ve accrued.
We asked her if this sort of ageism irks her and she’s quick to put it in context. “Of course it does. Usually. But this project, I couldn’t be prouder to play Riz’s mom. He’s hugely talented and one of the most amazing human beings I’ve met. In the script, I’m the mom to a 23-year-old, which is completely plausible. And as soon as I got the material, I felt complete ownership over it.”
What’s interesting is how The Night Of was able to create a drama that depicts how a crime reverberates with everyone in contact with it, that too taking into account that the supposed criminal is Muslim. If there was ever a time for pop culture to deal with America’s issues with Islamophobia, this is probably it.
“Although the central story line is that of Riz going through the criminal justice system, the subplot of the simmering Islamophobia that affects us all is heart-breaking and very potent.”
Jagannathan says there aren’t any Bollywood movies on the backburner for her currently, explaining exactly what she looks for in a role.
“I would much rather have a small role in a great script than a big role in a mediocre script. I think that’s what happened in Bollywood. I was offered these huge parts in films where the script was weak. I want to be part of great, epic stories: life is too short for nonsensical storylines,” she says bluntly.
The writer is a freelance journalist