‘People of colour need visions of characters that are interesting, vulnerable, violent, sexy…everything. We need to see it all. A lot of people don’t have hope, in this country and around the world. There’s a massive divide between the rich and poor, between London and the rest of England, between Muslim people and everybody else. There’s a perceptional divide and that’s why this role, and all the characters in this show, are important. To explain that we aren’t that disconnected’.
Amara moves forward and places her arms on the table. Her voice gets louder, more defined and in this moment, she is calm. I find myself nodding uncontrollably as she speaks, unable to look away from her as she articulates with her body.
She’s right, when you think back to any depictions of Muslim people in films, TV or any form of storytelling, they are almost always the victims of Western propaganda. Find a South Asian (mostly male) actor, and you’ll see they’ve played a terrorist, cab driver or shop keeper at some point in their career and every time, each of these characters are name-less.
Amara’s aware of this, (‘I’ve played a Rita twice’), but she’s very specific on the roles she’d like to play.
‘It’s nice if my character isn’t called Jane Brown, who could just be anyone. If you have a blank page, it’s hard to be creative - you can write just anything for them. I want to work with writers who have thought things through. The show creator has to have a driving vision and me as a creative artist, can then add Amara to that. If the show makes you feel like you’ve specifically been picked out at that moment, that’s what good writing does. That’s what I’m looking for’.
I refer back to one of the Rita’s she’s played: it was her first role in a feature film, Wes Anderson’s The Darjeeling Limited. She plays a train stewardess alongside Jason Schwartzman, Adrien Brody (‘He’s so hot!’ she suddenly declares when I mention him) and Owen Wilson. She stands out in the film, not only as Jason Schwartzman’s fling, but also an interesting and seemingly complex character. Getting a role like that is no easy feat, especially since Wes Anderson, like many directors, simply recast those they have previously worked with.
‘I was at drama school, signed with an agent, was auditioning and this was one of the first auditions that came along. I had a bunch of other theatre auditions, but because I signed with a really good agent, I managed to get the role…it’s really cool’, she gushes, looking directly at me. She knew the importance of her quick breakthrough but refuses to be intimidated by it.
The waiter interrupts us with tea and latte’s and Amara compliments the biscotti’s we’re eating. He tells us their name loosely translates as ‘The Kiss of a Lady’ and walks away grinning. Amara looks at me and bursts out laughing. I feel like I’m sitting with a friend I haven’t seen in years. She talks to me about my tattoos, holidays, my boyfriend, and she isn’t just talking for the sake of it, she listens to me and asks more; delves deeper. I forget I’m interviewing her. I snap back and derail the conversation to her new show ‘The Night Of’, in which Amara plays Chandra, a junior associate. She works alongside a peculiar criminal defence lawyer, Jack Stone (played by John Turturro) and together, they work to help Naz (Riz Ahmed) fight a murder charge. This American-Muslim is charged with murder, despite his protests of innocence and almost like clockwork he is questioned about any affiliations with presumed organisations in Pakistan.
The Night Of is not only a crime drama, but one that discusses the political discourse of having a Muslim on trial, while an Indian woman represents him and opens its arms to the reality of how victim blaming can lead to self-fulfilling profiling.
‘(With Chandra) we see a woman of colour, front and center. Leaving me aside, how important is that for the vision of creative people such as writers and also everyone watching? When I read the script and saw the character, I instantly knew she meant a lot’.
Having an Indian woman on screen, in a prominent role, discussing racial profiling, having sexual desires, having powerful and important stage presence, isn’t important just for me, I slowly realised (no matter how much I convinced myself she was created just to appeal to me).
‘If there was a non race specific part and somebody wanted me to play it, I would ask the writer and director to re-write the part with me in mind, because then they can tap into what I can bring to the role. I want to be sucked in, like in The Night Of - that’s how we need to feel. I can tell by how you’re speaking, you have a huge investment in it; it’s lovely that you’re taking it personally. It’s reflective it speaks directly to you, how beautiful is that?’
It’s this kind of story that needs to be told, for Muslim men, women and all people of colour who are under represented or stereotyped. As a British Indian I felt an intense connection to Chandra when she spoke in Hindi to Naz’s parents (played by Peyman Moaadi and Poorna Jagannathan). It was something I’ve never felt when watching an English-spoken show. Amara nods her head as I say this and sits back slightly; a big smile crosses her face.
‘The fact that Chandra bothered to speak in Hindi to his parents was very important. She could have just spoken in English. In my experience, when I’ve met European people and I say a few words in their language, there’s an immediate bonding and it’s really important to know how powerful that is’.
Amara moved her hands softly, looked up at the sky and laughed as she said this. I imagined what it was like for her to work alongside Riz Ahmed, someone who shared this connection in this very particular way. ‘On the note of connections’, our familiarity is making me brave, ‘what was it like making out with absolute babe, Riz?’
We both blush very suddenly and then in a moment of collective confusion, find ourselves considering why. South Asian men, in American or British TV/film, are not commonly portrayed as sexual beings. We have Raj in Big Bang Theory, who plays an awkward Indian boy, quite literally unable to speak to women; Tom Haverford in Parks & Recreation briefly dated ‘exotic’ Ann who we see very clearly shuddering and grimacing when discussing him; and Apu from The Simpsons who is a staple for racist jokes. They tend to be comic relief, never the desire. There are obviously anomalies to this, but this stereotyping usually comes down to lazy writing. ‘Have you seen what Kunal Nayyar looks like when he isn’t styled for that role in Big Bang Theory? He’s so good looking!’ Amara exclaims in energetic approval and disappointment. ‘Women, though, are exotic placements for aesthetics’.
I had just finished watching the first 7 episodes of The Night Of and was invested, quite deeply, into the characters. Episode 7 has a turning point, in many of the characters, but one thing really stuck with me.
‘So, tell me why your character Chandra feels the need to have a relationship with Naz? Especially since he’s turning, so quickly, into a bad boy? Chandra seems too humble and focused, don’t you think?’
Amara waits and contemplates this.
‘She’s very exposed; there’s a lot of adrenaline and fear. When you’re so scared out of your mind, it fuses you to people, very quickly and I felt like there was an element of that. I feel like their affection has been growing for a long time’. I ask her about whether the cultural similarities help in this romantic connection between the characters. ‘If you can bother to talk to my parents and they like you, yeah, of course, you would be interested in them. You’d think that person was a trustworthy and a decent human being rather than everybody else, who seems to either act like robots or animals’.
Amara’s agent comes up to us for the third time, striking her watch gently and asking us if we’re nearly done. ‘We can talk forever!’ I exclaim, realising I’ve probably bonded with myself and she was simply doing her job. She turns to me:
‘We’ve put the world to rights today’
She smiles and hugs me. I walked away realising not only did I have one of the most interesting conversations to date, it was with someone I truly looked up to.