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To Bollywood And Back: In Conversation With Poorna Jagannathan

To Bollywood And Back: In Conversation With Poorna Jagannathan

August 10, 2011

We speak to the New York-based actress that made a sparkling debut with the smash hit Delhi Belly.

Love it or hate it, Delhi Belly not only struck gold at the box office but also struck a chord with the Indian youth that identified with the frankness of this comedy of errors.

While the buoyant "bromance" of the male characters gave the film it's scatological punch, the female leads of Delhi Belly were simply not to be left behind.

We speak to Poorna Jagannathan, the New York-based actress who played the spunky  "other woman," Maneka, in Delhi Belly.

You’ve had a very cosmopolitan upbringing, we hear. What's the country count?

My father was an Indian diplomat so it meant every three years, we moved to a different city. I was born in Tunisia, but grew up in Ireland, Argentina, Pakistan, Brazil and the States. I did do my last years of high school from India so thankfully have some sense of the country.

Here's a tough one - how do you define home?

Great question and the answer is very amorphous. The one thing I wanted to do is raise my son in one place for a good amount of years so he could have “roots”. In my head, “roots” is knowing where you want to grow old. But sure enough, I’m raising my son a gypsy as well. That said, New York City is the closest thing to home. I express myself the most freely here, learn the most about myself here and am surrounded by people who didn’t belong somewhere else.

How did get you into the arts?

My sister, Sharada, would write plays and she’d cast me in them (never the lead role, mind you - always some sidekick or the other). Then from the first grade on, I moved to Pakistan and was lucky enough to go to a wildly creative school. I learnt how to paint, stitch, write poetry, debate, you name it. I realized that only when I was engaged with something artistic could I actually concentrate for long periods of time.

When did your acting career take off?

I started acting pretty recently actually. I used to be in advertising and although I had a great job, it was getting harder and harder for me to get up in the morning. There was this hilarious time when I was so apathetic about my job, that my boss called me in to make sure I wasn’t doing drugs (I wasn’t, although that wouldn’t have been a bad idea to survive that time.) And at the same time, I’d be in these long, intensive acting classes (some would run for 6 hours over the weekend) and I would go to class and the class would be over before I knew it – I was so present that time flew. So I took a risk – it made no sense to quit my financially stable, expense accountable, international jet-setting job but I did. I decided to follow my heart and deal with the consequences.

The golden question – how did you land the role in Delhi Belly?

I was in India for a wedding and met up with my old friend Arjun Bhasin because I desperately needed a blouse. At that time, Arjun was doing costumes for Delhi Belly and while we were taking his dog for a walk on Carter Road he suddenly said, “I think I may have something for you”. He called Jim, the producer, and set up an audition. Serendipity really. I had a great audition because the writing sparkled off the page. The character felt tailor made, and the fact that I have a full on afro actually worked in my favor for the first time EVER.

Delhi Belly has polarized audiences. How would you react to this split?

I think everyone knew the film was going to be polarizing – you either love it or hate it (or hate it like you love it). That it was actually so fiercely loved and became an instant cult classic was what was beautifully surprising.

The two female leads in Delhi Belly are progressive and independent. Your character knew what she wanted, didn't really care about what others thought of her but most importantly wasn't vilified for this. What do you think is the state of the female lead in Hindi films today?

It absolutely has shifted. I think writers like Anurag Kashyap, Akshat Verma andare creating female characters who are very strong and unaplogetic yet very real and relatable. I'm not sure what ties this new breed of female characters together except when I see them, they're familiar: they're not unidimensional portrayals of the girl next door nor are they omni-powerful action figures. They're just girls navigating through life in their own unique way.

So what’s next for you?

Although DB did gang busters in India, it wasn’t hugely viewed here. Which means I’m back in NYC, back to the drawing board: going in for doctor roles. Again. That said, there’s been a couple of interesting scripts that have come my way from India, so lets see what happens there.

Let's end with a good old rapid fire: One classic film you would have loved to act in?

Thelma and Louise.

If you were to indulge in one dancing-around-the-trees song, which would it be?

I don’t know, but hopefully it would involve a midget.

Most awkward experience during shooting Delhi Belly?

Kissing in the burka. It was SO freaking hot that day.

Favorite food?


Favorite country in the world?

Tie between Mexico and Brazil.

Your favorite film this year (besides Delhi Belly)?

Honestly, the movie that last blew my mind was District 9. And that was a while back.

Dream director to work with?

Woody Allen.

Photo courtesy of Amyn Hooda.

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  • Susan Weiss
    Susan Weiss
    18.08.11 07:35 PM
    Great interview. Very creative questions and answers!

    Pulkit Datta: can you send a message to Poorna for me?

    I am in NYC this weekend just in case!
  • Pulkit Datta
    Pulkit Datta
    16.08.11 07:39 AM
    Thanks, Deepa! You should definitely check out the film. Would love to know what you think.
  • Deepa
    13.08.11 12:00 PM
    Loved reading it...haven't seen the movie but have heard a lot abt it... would love to see it.
    Good wishes for Poorna and nice interview Pulkit:)
  • Pulkit
    13.08.11 08:24 AM
    Thanks, Barkha and Umesh!

    Yes, I hope she does more films too.
  • umesh derebail
    umesh derebail
    13.08.11 06:54 AM
    A very well scripted interview with Poorna Jagnathan. I hope we get to see her more in Bollywood films.
  • Barkha Dhar
    Barkha Dhar
    13.08.11 02:08 AM
    A great piece. Personally, loved Poorna's role in the movie. Enjoyed it much.
    Barkha Dhar

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