Parminder Nagra became a household name when she headlined as a football-obsessed, culturally conflicted British Indian teenager in hit film Bend It Like Beckham. Twenty years on, she’s taking the lead role in a new Midlands-set crime drama from the makers of Line of Duty, about a British Indian detective facing her own identity crisis while investigating a homicide.
Produced by Line of Duty creator Jed Mercurio and written by Maya Sodhi, who played PC Bindra in the acclaimed crime drama, the four-part DI Ray stars Parminder as Birmingham police officer Rachita Ray, who finally achieves her dream of working in homicide after being commended for bravery.
However, she is struggling to reconcile her British identity and South Asian heritage at home and at work, experiencing casual racism on a regular basis and wondering whether her promotion is merely a token gesture because the case, the murder of an Asian man, is deemed ‘culturally specific’.
We caught up with ER star Parminder at her home in Los Angeles to find out more…
What attracted you to this role, Parminder?
"An Indian lead in a prime time British series – I don't think that’s been seen very often. And the fact that Jed [Mercurio] was producing, Maya [Sondhi] was writing, it was being filmed in Birmingham, where my family lives, and I was allowed to keep my Leicester accent – that ticked all the boxes!"
What is your character DI Rachita Ray like?
"Rachita’s trying to figure out where she sits with everything: in her relationship, in her work, and where she wants to be career-wise. So there are a lot of question marks over her life! But she’s strong, tenacious and persistent."
How is the issue of racism addressed in DI Ray?
"There are undertones of cultural racism within her workplace, but it’s really subtly woven into the script and I don’t feel like we’re banging viewers over the head with it."
How is DI Ray affected by the sexism and racism she faces?
"She’s really persistent in her work, despite what her male colleagues think of her being promoted. But at the same time she wonders: Why did I really get this job? Because I just ticked a box? It all comes back to your own self-worth and what you believe in."
How much of an issue does race continue to be in the acting profession?
"When you look at something like Bridgerton, and you've got Indian actresses playing roles, it immediately gets politicised and they are asked questions about it. But the star of the show really is Bridgerton!"
DI Ray writer Maya Sondhi appeared in Line of Duty. Are you a fan, and would you like to appear in it?
"I'm a huge fan of Line of Duty – I love that show! Maybe there could be a crossover in which DI Ray becomes a corrupt cop?!"
As a first-generation British Indian, what do you make of the prejudice DI Ray is confronting?
"I related to those moments when she's been given the ‘side eye’ and how she’s spoken to in a particular way. There have been a lot of times personally for me where somebody has said something [with a racist overtone], and I'm more than likely just to excuse it away."
You’ve played a lot of doctors, notably Neela in [US medical series] ER. How did you enjoy being a police officer?
"The thing I found hardest was reading out car licence plate numbers [using the military phonetic alphabet] - ‘Yankee, Bravo,’ and so on. That took me way longer than some of the longer speeches!"
How was it being near your family while back filming in the Midlands?
"That was a huge appeal because I got to go home. Mum would cook me meals and make me tea and, although I’m in my 40s, I got to feel like a little girl again!"
This year is the 20th anniversary of your breakthrough role in Bend it Like Beckham, alongside Kiera Knightley. How do you look back on that film?
I love that it's still so relatable, and thought of so fondly. The fact that it did so well globally, with an Indian family at the core of it, was amazing. All teenagers go through that coming-of-age experience, wondering: ‘What does it mean to find my place in the world? What am I passionate about? I don't think that's ever going to go away."
DI Ray will air on Monday, May to Thursday, May 5 at 9 pm and will be available on the ITV Hub.
Ian writes about TV and film for TV Times, What’s on TV and TV & Satellite Week magazines. He co-hosts the weekly TV streaming podcast, Bingewatch.
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