‘Why I turned down the role of Nadia in Bodyguard’
‘Why I turned down the role of Nadia in Bodyguard’
Anjli Mohindra wowed critics in the series finale of Bodyguard as terrorist mastermind Nadia Ali. But despite rave reviews, the 28-year-old initially declined the role in Jed Mercurio’s smash-hit series.
But reaction to the series climax was decidedly mixed on Twitter and across the media, with some accusing Mercurio of feeding an established Islamophobic narrative by making Nadia comply to two tired tropes – the cowed, downtrodden Muslim housewife and the vengeful Islamic terrorist.
Tabasam Begum of Gal-Dem magazine called the series finale “lazy Islamophobia at its worst”, while The Guardian’s Tasnim Nazeer said she was “exhausted by the continual misrepresentation of Muslim women.”
Actor Anjli Mohindra, who was praised by critics for reconciling the two sides of the duplicitous Nadia in the series, was also in two minds about the potential risks of being typecast in the role – which saw her initially turn down playing Nadia.
“At first, I didn’t want to audition for the part,” she explained to RadioTimes.com. “I turned it down, but my agent urged me to have a rethink. She said that this is a Jed Mercurio show and there will be more to what is currently on the page.
“When I learned that Nadia was one cog in a bigger terror network with several non-Muslims at the heart of it, I felt that this would expose what I have felt to be true – that, however inadvertently, there are complicated situations in which Western governments and their power systems can prop up terrorism. It’s something we can no longer ignore. In the show, I felt that this steered the blame in other directions when you step back and look at the bigger picture.”
Mohindra, who started acting as a teenager and landed her first major role in Doctor Who spin-off, Sarah Jane Adventures, is no stranger to being typecast in her career. She speaks at length about having to avoid particular roles when she was younger because they were “completely two-dimensional.”
“I was born and raised in England but the least English I’ve ever felt is when I first started auditioning as an actor,” she said. “The roles written for my casting breakdown felt nothing like me, and like two dimensional clichés; repressed young women who wanted to defy their oppressive parents by not becoming doctors and dentists. Or not being allowed to marry a lover of choice. I’m not saying these things don’t happen but they don’t define a whole ethnic group.
“The characters in previous roles had drives and motivations you couldn’t understand because they were just purely plot devices.”
But the 28-year-old had her head turned by Mercurio’s stellar script, and fleshed out Nadia’s own backstory as she prepared to take the role to help her understand her character’s motivation.
She previously raised eyebrows when she was quoted as calling the process of playing Nadia “empowering” – something Mohindra now says has been taken out of context.
“I meant that, solely from a female perspective, it is empowering to reveal that you are stronger and more capable than an initial judgement,” she explained. “Nadia has so many layers to her. As an actor you create backstory of what the writer has given you and create a through line, you have to do that with any job.
“I’ve done research into what certain persecuted ethnic groups go through, who are constantly villainized. I think someone like Nadia has been. In my personal backstory for her, I imagined that horrific things had happened to her family, and she is who she is because she’s trying to avenge them and seek some sort of justice in heart.
“I really don’t think it’s as cut and dried as this person wants to do bad things to people. I really believe in that struggle in the first episode, of what’s right in her heart and what is right as a human being. There’s a real fight between her heart and her mind.
“Of course, I have to see the difference in that [backstory] not being aired to the viewers.”
However, Mohindra does believe that if she was at the helm of the team that made Bodyguard, she would have gone into greater depth in exploring why Nadia chose to do what she does in the show.
“I have total respect for the creative choices of Jed Mercurio and everybody involved,” she said. “But if I was to write it again now I would personally explore those things. I think it would provide a huge benefit for people to understand why. We understood why the shooter, Andy Apsted, tried to assassinate Julia in the early episodes. And I think you can understand where somebody who is trying to carry out inhumane actions like Nadia does – if you understand where that comes from, you humanise them even further. I think if there was time in the script that was something I would have really pushed for.
“I would have loved it if he could have touched upon that more in the script but I’m not a script writer, or a creator, just an actor there to deliver what’s on the page.”
The big reveal prompted a visceral – and split –reaction from viewers on Twitter.
Way to revert to the hackneyed racist stereotype with the Nadia character, #Bodyguard. What an utter disappointment!
Finding it disheartening that Jed Mercurio, who is a hero of mine, struggles to recognise how harmful Nadia's storyline was in Bodyguard. I also wonder if the BBC asked themselves at any point who they were helping or hurting? Or were the ratings more important?
You’re latching onto the wrong message. I understood the real message of Nadia’s story arc. Yes, she’s a terrorist (which I condone), but she’s also an engineer, a feminist and a leader. #Bodyguard also showed that terrorism was not exclusive to Muslims so it was not islamophobic
But while Mohindra does understand why some people would not be happy with the villain of this piece being a Muslim woman, she believes it is important that popular dramas can facilitate these discussions.
“I can completely see on a personal level how any negative portrayals of Muslim characters can be reductive and potentially harmful,” she said. “But regardless whether I took this role on or not, this show was going to be created, and the character of Nadia was going to be played. I could see the potential conversation that would come off the back of it. I thought if I could be a part of this and be present in the debates and conversations that emerge from the show, then we can keep pushing things forward and developing the way certain characters are being perceived in real life and in the media.”
And Mohindra also acknowledges that, on the whole, roles for Asian actors are now starting to move away from the clichés many viewers have come to recognise – thanks to the emergence of new non-Caucasian writers and talent breaking into the industry.
“I think roles are changing and there are fantastic writers who aren’t white, who are representative of certain minorities who are creating roles and pushing conversations in creative spaces,” she said. “They are changing a lot of ways that these characters are being written.
“But when you’re an actor, your hands are tired. You’re just there to bring the role to life.”
However, Mohindra adds that as her profile grows within the industry, she’s hoping her voice will carry greater clout when it comes to a fairer representation of Asian characters on screen.
“It’s only when you get to a certain level that your voice is heard in creative spaces with regards to work you haven’t written yourself,” she said. “I hope as I develop as an actor, I’ll be more involved in the creative process of certain characters.”
With hopes high for a second series of Bodyguard, fans are desperate to see more from DS Budd and the other cast of characters that made the show so captivating.
But for Mohindra, she believes Nadia’s story arc is finished.
“I would return if I was asked, but I don’t feel Nadia has any more of a journey to explore,” she said. “If I was asked I would hope there would be an exploration of how Nadia came to be so intent on her very heartless mission – what happened to her to become who she is.”
Nonetheless, this may not be the end of Mohindra’s partnership with Mercurio, as she teases she’d be more than up for a role in Line of Duty.
“I would consider it, actually. I’m a huge fan of Line of Duty, ever since I saw the first episode in 2012!” she laughed. “I would very much like the opportunity, if it came about. I think Jed has expressed interest in a potential collaboration of that sort. I think a real solid opportunity is yet to come.
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