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Published: Verve Magazine, March 2014
Photograph by Toranj Kavyon

Theatre personality, Bollywood actress and American television star Poorna Jagannathan is passionate, driven and well on her way to achieving her own definition of success

Poorna Jagannathan for Verve Magazine

“I’m sick of hearing myself talk about things I’d love to do. I’m trying to just shut up and actually do them.”

And she has gone ahead and done exactly that. Poorna Jagannathan, 41, best known locally for her irreverent role in Delhi Belly (2011) and her character role in last year’s Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewani, juggles working in America and India while also being a mother to her seven-year-old son. “Straddling two continents and living a gypsy lifestyle isn’t easy, but I am drawn to excellent writing and for now, it’s still coming out of the States for me. And raising a child when both parents are working is like a dance where everyone has two left feet!”

Jagannathan was born in Tunisia, grew up in various parts of the world, before calling America home. The American television and film actor begins shooting for HBO’s new series, Criminal Justice, opposite Robert De Niro this summer. But closest to her heart is the critically acclaimed human-rights-theatre-project Nirbhaya, which is a play she has initiated, produced and is acting in. The gang rape in Delhi left her with an unnerving feeling of complicity – reminding her about the times she remained silent about the sexual violence she had dealt with. She felt it is silence that sustains a culture of violence and unaccountability.

Five women (including Jagannathan) come forward to talk about their own personal experience with sexual violence. The hope is that by them breaking their silence, the audience members will too. The play premiered abroad where it won the 2013 Amnesty International award, including several others. It was also listed by The Guardian’s critics as one of the ‘best plays of 2013’. Leaning on crowd funding for their India run, Nirbhaya tours Mumbai (Tata Theatre, 17-20), Delhi (FICCI Auditorium, 22-25) and Bengaluru (Rangshankara, 26-30) this month. “Producing Nirbhaya was a complete paradigm shift. I stopped waiting for something or someone to come along and change things. It’s also when I stopped talking about wanting to do something and actually did it – that was hugely liberating.”

She’s constantly looking to be the voice of dissent. Jagannathan has added a new dimension to the Bollywood red carpet look, and that’s because she likes character in everything that she wears or does. She treasures her wedding ring, which is her mother’s old, traditional South Indian, U-shaped ring. Her sense of humour serves her well as she navigates the Indian film industry, and she admires people who play the ‘David vs. Goliath’ game. “It takes a lot to go up against the system here.”