/ Archie Panjabi

Archie Panjabi

Aug 08, 2013

A Mighty Heart and Other Fine Attributes

This may not be obvious, but Archie Panjabi is a girly girl. The part Bombayite, part British 30-year-old actress grudgingly explains her manly moniker–one she humorously regretted a few times in her early career. Her real name is Archana–she chose the short version to avoid confusion…but ran straight into it when casting directors expected a guy to audition. “If you are trying to break into such a western world, one of the things you need to do is be memorable,” she says. “My agent changed it when I got the Screen Actor’s Guild card, so I stuck with it. Maybe in 10 years I’ll change it back, when people can learn how to pronounce Archana!”

Eight years ago, Archie charmed us with her memorable Bollywood broomstick homage to the music of the classic film Pakeezah whilst sweeping up fish bones in rubber rain boots in the cult favourite East is East. “You know it’s on Youtube now?” laughs Archie. “It was really strange to see this little girl break out into a dance in the middle of an English film.”

At 30, Archie has certainly survived snickers that plague Indian actresses from the crossover genre by pegging them as one hit wonders. “I like to think my work isn’t stereotyped because there’s always some edge, something unexpected about my characters.”

Her latest film, A Mighty Heart (starring alongside Angelina Jolie), is based on Mariane Pearl’s bestselling memoir about her husband, murdered Wall Street Journal writer Daniel Pearl. Archie plays the role of Asra Nomani, an Indian-American journalist and author, and close friend of Daniel. She shares her home with dad-to-be and six-month pregnant Mariane in Karachi, before he embarks on his fateful assignment. Asra spearheads the search efforts to find her colleague and provides sisterly support for the ever-hopeful wife.

In the face of a demoralizing tale, Archie sneaks in a note of hope. “At a time when there is such a huge anti-American sentiment in the air, it’s incredible that you can gather a group of people with no religious, cultural or ethnic boundaries, and totally unite to find Danny. Humans are sticking together for the common good. Watching how Mariane dealt with this shows us there is still goodness in the world. She didn’t become consumed with bitterness or hatred, but rather, was dignified.”

There are moments when the ripeness of an actress and essentials of a role just happen to coincide. Archie herself has experienced some post 9/11 prejudice: “It was in North England. After leaving a play with a group of friends, we got chased down the street being called ‘terrorists’! Initially, I was upset for being made to feel like a foreigner in my own country but then realized that was just their way of dealing with what happened.”

It was this empathetic chemistry with Angelina that helped both actresses gather up shards of such fractured lives and share their saga through a prism of optimism. “There was just a magical click in what we believe is probably because we are both Geminis. Through becoming Asra, I found it’s good to be opinionated and good not to be worried about that Indian voice in our head that questions what we are doing.”

From the original soccer mad tomboy, Meena, in East is East (1999) to the razor-tongued, shopping-centric stewardess, Pinky, in Bend it Like Beckham (2002), Archie’s versatility in acting is clear. But, only recently has Archie begun taking on substantial film roles. Amidst her plentiful television work, she’s worked with Ralph Fiennes as his British diplomat wife in the Oscar-winning film The Constant Gardener (2005).

“Archie is smart and sensitive enough as an actress to make anything fly, comedy or drama, and that is an unusual talent,” says Sir Ridley Scott, director of A Good Year (2006), in which she plays a mischievously snarky assistant to Russell Crowe. Having reached an enviable level of popularity, she’s genuinely bemused by fanfare, such as rumours about getting her legs insured. “I don’t think I’m that interesting a person to have my life shared with the public. But no, they aren’t!” As fate would bring it, her latest role as Asra received a standing ovation at Cannes, before she accepted the Chopard trophy for her breakout performance.

Archie has a flawless knack for turning the ordinary into the extraordinary. Born in West London, she grew up impersonating people as the family jokester, knowing she’d be an actress someday. “I was fascinated by people who weren’t easy to pigeonhole, so acting came naturally.” After having had some schooling in Mumbai and receiving a college degree from England, Archie now makes the world her stage. She says she’s eager to grow through films of all genres, not just the artful independents of Europe, the banal blockbusters of Hollywood or the high kitsch of Bollywood.

“Oh, why not dance around in a Bollywood film someday?” she giggles. “I look at each film with a completely different set of spectacles. When I watch American films, I often analyze because I’ll know the cast or director. I love Bollywood, because it’s escapism for me. I don’t know anyone there, so I can sit back and enjoy the film.”

What’s the next big project for Archie, we ask? “Who knows about tomorrow? One thing I’ve learned is you can never have a plan. Life is very much dependent on your choice but also very much on luck.”



Newsletter Sign Up

Subscribe to our FREE newsletter for all of the latest news, articles, and videos delivered directly to your inbox each day!

  • PLEASE NOTE: Some of the contents of the newsletter may not be suitable for minors.

    Join A Community That Cares About What Matters To You!

    We Fearlessly Celebrate Our

    Desi Identity!