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DI Ray creator Maya Sondhi: 'ITV series is my Prime Suspect'

DI Rachita Ray is "my Helen Mirren," says the series creator and Line of Duty star.

Big RT Interview: Maya Sondhi
Published: Monday, 2nd May 2022 at 9:00 am
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Maya Sondhi learnt that her crime thriller DI Ray had been commissioned on the same day she gave birth to her youngest daughter. 

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“I look at my daughter, my youngest, who’s two. And she was born on the day that I got the script commission from Polly [Hill, Head of Drama] at ITV.” Looking at her now-toddler, Sodhi explains, reminds her that “this show is as old as she is. So it's quite exciting to just get it out and kind of give it its birth, into public life”. 

Line of Duty fans will recognise Sondhi at once: both an actress and a screenwriter, she memorably played PC Maneet Bindra, who had her throat slit in the season 5 premiere, bleeding out on a jetty before the credits rolled. 

Sondhi admits she knew, well in advance, the identity of mysterious AC-12 mole “H”, who was revealed in the white-knuckle season 6 finale. “I've got people on the inside, obviously,” she tells RadioTimes.com.

“I knew while they were filming that [sixth] series, because obviously I wasn't in that series; but I've got contacts,” before she quips: “But don't tell Jed, he'll kill me! I never told anyone, but…”

‘Jed’ is Jed Mercurio, the creator of Line of Duty and other hit dramas like Bodyguard. Despite killing off Sondhi’s on-screen character, behind-the-scenes he encouraged her writing, going on to executive-produce her first drama commission, the upcoming DI Ray.

Maya Sondhi plays PC Maneet Bindra in Line of Duty
Maya Sondhi played PC Maneet Bindra in Line of Duty BBC

The four-part series has all the hallmarks of a Jed Mercurio drama, with plenty of cliffhangers, twists, and a rising body count to keep viewers glued to their armchairs. 

“Obviously, working with Jed, you have to do the whole twists. Because he really is keen on making sure people are hooked. They need to keep watching, keep watching, keep watching.”

But at its heart, Sondhi explains, the series is about its central character, DI Rachita Ray, whose journey begins when a murder case forces her to confront her own, personal struggle to reconcile both her British identity and her South Asian heritage. 

Given the importance of the show’s titular lead (“She’s pretty much in every scene”), Sondhi was delighted when ITV cast Parminder Nagra, who first rose to fame as the lead in Bend It Like Beckham. 

“That was such a special film for me and many other people,” Sondhi says. “I thought, ‘That's a British-Asian female lead. This is amazing’. I didn't see that enough as a kid. And, you know, it was very inspiring. And I feel like this is a perfect circle now: I get grown-up Parminder as my heroine, my Helen Mirren, my Prime Suspect.”

DI Ray episode 1
Parminder Nagra plays DI Rachita Ray in DI Ray ITV

Set in Birmingham (where Sondhi was born), the show’s first episode hands Rachita a plum promotion into the Homicide department, which she’s initially over-the-moon about - even willing to overlook the department’s initial blunder, when she’s handed a lanyard belonging to a completely different person of South Asian heritage.

However, Rachita soon learns she's been brought in to head up a ‘CSH’: meaning, a 'Culturally Specific Homicide'. Not only that, but she must grapple with other team members’ assumptions about both herself, and the case. 

“The show is peppered with these kinds of, well, these microaggressions: everyday racism, everyday sexism, everyday assumptions,” Sondhi explains. When we first meet Rachita, she’s just been mistaken for a supermarket worker. Later, when she wins an award at work, a white colleague asks her where she’s from. Leicester, she supplies - before she’s asked, pointedly: "What's your heritage?" 

“You don't want to bash people over the head when you talk about race and identity,” Sondhi says. “You just want to gently explore things, to see how other people respond to stuff and how other people are feeling.

"Also, all of these things are very real to me… If you ask anybody, any person of colour, [the question they have] probably been asked more times than they can count on their fingers is, ‘Where are you from?.. No, I mean, where are you from-from?’”

Sodhi hopes that people of colour will see their experience reflected on-screen, while other viewers may realise that they’re guilty of asking those exact questions: “People going, ‘Oh, God, I've asked that. That's a bit embarrassing. Well, now I'm seeing it from the other side’.” 

DI Ray
DI Rachita Ray in episode 1 of DI Ray ITV

Many of the on-screen moments of “everyday racism” are lifted straight from Sondhi’s own experiences, or else those of friends and family, she explains.

“All of it is either from me, friends, [or] family. In episode three, Tony tells her [Rachita] about an experience when he went to pick up his son from football, and people brought out a different brown kid - the wrong brown kid. And that's a direct thing that happened to my mate. And when she told me, I said, ‘Can I write that into the script?’”

Sondhi believes some people may cry “PC brigade”, given that the series directly addresses everyday racism.

“There'll always be other people going, ‘Oh, PC brigade’, or, ‘You can't say anything these days’. But it's too easy to say that.”

"[Those types of attitudes can make people of colour] feel like they're kicking up a fuss… or playing the race card, or getting too sensitive. It's not fair to do that to people, you know. So I feel like this is kind of a gentle way of sort of showing it.”

Although she was too busy with the scripts to star in DI Ray, Sondi took great delight in casting her former Line of Duty cast-mates, Ryan McKen (who plays Navin Kapoor) and Maanuv Thiara (who plays PS Tony Khatri), in her own series. 

Thiara actually played her on-screen cousin in Line of Duty, she explains. “I met these guys, and I thought, ‘Oh, my God, they're from my end. These are the up and coming new lot. I'm so excited by this, I want to write something and put them in it’. And lo and behold, I managed to have both of them in it.”

DI Ray
Maanuv Thiara plays PS Tony Khatri in DI Ray ITV

During filming, Jed Mercurio was the “more serious” executive, Sondhi says, joking: “I was kind of more the, ‘brings samosas, have a little bit of a laugh, make some tea, go home again’ exec. I wanted to be more of a cheerleading exec.”

As a multi-hyphenate performer, Sondhi’s real strength is writing dialogue, although she found it easier to write for younger characters or Rachita than for the white, ‘top brass’ officers in the series (“To put myself in the place of a white, straight, middle-aged, middle-class man is probably the hardest one [to write for],” she laughs).

But her time on Line of Duty helped her tune into the distinctive, ‘police procedural patter’ required for a drama like DI Ray.

“My ear is tuned into - because my last on-screen acting job was Line of Duty, so obviously, that was still very much present in my head. And so that must have helped in some way. And just kind of trusting that procedural stuff can be interesting. Even the very, very heavy police stuff, there's a way to do it to engage people.” 

Jed Mercurio told her that she’d be surprised that viewers “actually do find procedural stuff more interesting than you think,” including the nitty-gritty details or terminology. 

“I mean, I had to trust him on that one, because I wasn't sure,” she adds. 

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What does Sondhi hope viewers will come away with after watching DI Ray? “I hope that they'll have been entertained by the ‘PC’, thrillery-type side of things,” she begins. “I also hope that people have a think; whether it's thinking, ‘Oh, gosh, I'm not alone. This happens to a lot of people.’ Or, ‘Oh, my goodness, I have done that to people. Maybe I'll just be a bit more mindful next time’.

"Wherever you're coming from, I just hope that there will be a connection with it: an emotional connection with it. Because I think often, with police procedurals and thrillers, you're not emotionally invested, because it is so much about the plot and the twists. I hope with this, you feel [Rachita’s] journey and you feel everything that she's going through, and you root with her. And you go with her, I hope.”

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DI Ray will debut on ITV on Monday 2nd May 2022. For more to watch, check out more of our Drama coverage or visit our TV Guide to see what’s on tonight. 

The latest issue of Radio Times magazine is on sale now – subscribe now and get the next 12 issues for only £1. For more from the biggest stars in TV, listen to the Radio Times podcast with Jane Garvey.

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