Anjli Mohindra: "Do you remember when we had that crazy revolution of having women leading things?"

Abby Robinson
·13-min read
Photo credit: NurPhoto - Getty Images
Photo credit: NurPhoto - Getty Images

From Digital Spy

To celebrate Women's History Month and International Women's Day, we've launched Screen Sisters, a collection of conversations with women both in front of and behind the camera about what it means to be a woman working in television.

As well as recognising their contribution to the industry, the series will also examine how far television has progressed, and how much further it still has to go.

Next up, we're speaking to Anjli Mohindra.

Anjli Mohindra is an actor with ambitions that extend beyond the lens.

"I had an awakening in my 20s when I was like, 'God, this isn't representative of the real world," she says. 'This is really crap. I'm probably never going to be the central protagonist of a show.' And while I still think that a lot of the time now, the industry keeps surprising us so much that I am still holding out hope.

"I write too. My writing journey has only just begun, but I'm going to make sure that there are non-white, female leads in shows, whether it's me playing them or not. I'm going to do my absolute best to either be in the writers' room, or to be heading up a show so that happens. That's a solemn promise I made to myself."

Conversations about representation within the arts have ebbed and flowed since time immemorial, but there has been a renewed vigour in addressing racial inequality following the death of African American George Floyd. It was just one of a number of acts of violence carried out against the Black community by the authorities and members of the public last year that reopened old wounds, sparking global outrage and protests, with many vowing to be better and do more.

The television industry is no exception and once again, its shortcomings are under the spotlight.

Photo credit: David Parry - Shutterstock
Photo credit: David Parry - Shutterstock

"I'm an Indian woman," says Anjli, who you'll recognise from a number of British dramas including Dark Heart, Bancroft, Wild Bill and Jed Mercurio's Bodyguard. "And I've got some Indian male friends who just have a different – it's a different world for them.

"I look at my role models of [South Asian] women and there's not loads out there. There are people I look up to, like Indira Varma and Thusitha Jayasundera and Meera Syal. But to recap men, there's loads. There's Himesh Patel. There's Dev Patel. There's Nabhaan Rizwan. There's Riz Ahmed. Sacha Dhawan, my boyfriend.

"There are different green lights for them. They can be number one on the call sheet. They're the centre of the story. They are very much the protagonist, whereas you don't get a lot of female protagonists of colour."

Photo credit: David M. Benett - Getty Images
Photo credit: David M. Benett - Getty Images

Cast your eye over Anjli's CV and, though extensive, it was her role on kids' TV show The Sarah Jane Adventures, a Doctor Who spinoff created by Russell T Davies that remains her most sizeable to date.

She was "late 17, about to turn 18" when she bagged the part of Rani, which saw her battling nefarious alien forces alongside investigative journalist Sarah Jane (Elisabeth Sladen) and her friends Luke (Tommy Knight) and Clyde (Daniel Anthony).

The importance of a character like Rani for not only girls but boys, too cannot be overstated. She's intelligent, intrepid and resolute, confident in herself and her choices – traits that have predominantly been reserved for men.

"She's not that sweet, eyelash-batting female character at all," says Anjli. "She had balls. And for a kid's TV show, I just think that's what made her and the show so interesting."

'You have to see it to believe it' is a phrase that is creaking under the weight of its own cliché, but when Rani entered the frame it was a seismic moment.

Photo credit: Danny Martindale - Getty Images
Photo credit: Danny Martindale - Getty Images

Navigating teendom can feel a bit like being sent out into battle without the correct equipment, or any protection at all. For young women in particular, that sense of exposure, which is so often hinged on a negative relationship with their appearance, can be crippling. And as we've seen with countless famous women, stardom can exacerbate that. Your body becomes a source of public debate, used as target practice by professional bullies in the media and those who are happy to indulge free of charge.

Was that a struggle Anjli wrestled with as she entered womanhood while on television?

She tells us that there was a moment of calm before the "Instagram revolution", and that kept her insulated from that acute pressure.

"It's gotten harder," she admits. "I think I was so much more confident physically until I reached my mid-20s. As much as I want to believe that every day you get stronger – you do, in so many ways – but I think with body image, it's a rollercoaster ride for women. It changes with your menstrual cycle. It changes with age. It changes with what's hot on telly. There's loads of teen dramas and then you can get into your mid-to-late twenties and there's not so much about. Because for you to play a serious police officer, you need to look a certain age, and suddenly you're like, 'I need to age up.' And then you hit 30 and you're like, 'No, I need to look younger. God, I need to look after my skin.'

"And then I've had jobs where they hand you a costume and it's a size six, and you're definitely a size eight or size 10. You kind of protest a little bit and then you realise that this isn't a conversation. Sometimes it's women in those positions. I work with loads of incredible costume designers who are so not like that. But I've worked with a few that unfortunately view the world in a slightly different, old-fashioned way. And then you go home and I'm doing 50 press-ups and my boyfriend's like, 'Someone's put you in a costume. It's too tight, isn't it?'

"It gets into your brain, and you don't realise it's happened until you come out of it, and you're like, 'God, I did starve myself for a few weeks just then, didn't I?'"

Photo credit: ITV
Photo credit: ITV

During her time on The Sarah Jane Adventures, Anjli didn't register that it was a rarity for someone who looked like her to be cast in a leading role, which was both a product of her youth and the support network that she has always had around her.

"With my mum being so "can do" – she just has an attitude where nothing is impossible – her mantra of "Why not?" made me not realise how biased and prejudiced the world and the industry could be," she says. "I don't think I questioned how fortunate I was as a female and a person of colour to be leading a show.

"If I was to get a job like that – or when I get jobs like that now – I'm like, 'Thank God, thank God, thank God. What incredibly intelligent writing. This is amazing. I can't believe they're doing this. Thank God they're pushing boundaries."

But as quickly as those thoughts come, Anjli checks herself.

"It isn't pushing boundaries. It should just be second nature.

"I'm one of the loudest members of the Russell T Davies appreciation society. There should be statues of that man. He's a living legend. I didn't appreciate what he created with The Sarah Jane Adventures because I was too young. I had a real false sense of security after leaving that job because of just how brilliantly intelligent and inclusive he is."

Photo credit: CBBC - BBC
Photo credit: CBBC - BBC

But it's not just about representation, but authentic representation, portraying people and communities as they actually are and not as someone's idea of them, which can so often feed into harmful tropes and generalisations.

The aforementioned Bodyguard did receive criticism. The political thriller followed Game of Thrones' Richard Madden as David Budd, a former soldier-turned-protection-officer for Keeley Hawes' Home Secretary.

Anjli's character, bomb-making terrorist Nadia Ali, was lambasted by some for perpetuating Islamophobic stereotypes.

When we first meet her, she's presented as the downtrodden, subservient Muslim woman, pinned under the thumb of her husband. But in the finale, it's revealed that Nadia is the mastermind, a cold Jihadi hellbent on destruction.

It should be noted that there were a record number of attacks and abusive incidents inflicted on the Muslim community in 2017, the year before the show aired. According to Tell Mama, an organisation fighting against anti-Muslim hate, there had been a 26% increase, with 1,201 verified reports submitted.

And that only accounts for the people who chose to speak out. Others will have endured their trauma in silence.

Photo credit: BBC
Photo credit: BBC

"It was much more complicated than it first appeared, or than a lot of female characters can be," says Anjli as we discuss the moment we learn about Nadia's true nature. "Sometimes they're just one note and there's nothing hidden about them, particularly supporting female roles. They're just quite 2D. I think the character of Nadia came with its own sort of – what's the right word? There are loads of things about Nadia as a character that I think would justify who she was. She had more layers than you'd first see on a page, which was what was so enticing about playing her.

Would she accept the part if it was offered to her now?

"I've turned other jobs down like it. But I think that gets used quite a lot as a soundbite, like, 'I would never do…' Whenever I talk about Bodyguard, whatever I say becomes a "thing". I think it's complicated. The interesting, new way of looking at how terrorism and terror cells can work was what was so interesting about that. And Nadia wasn't the only cog in the machine. At points in the show we suspected the home secretary. There were other non-Muslim, white contingents to the plot, which is something I don't think we hear about very often.

"But we started filming that four years ago. The world has changed, and the roles available to women have changed, and the conversations around perpetuating Islamophobic narratives have completely changed.

"I was a different actor, a different person. We were in a different industry. Everything shifts all the time. Everything has moved on."

Photo credit: BBC/World Productions/Sophie Mutevelian
Photo credit: BBC/World Productions/Sophie Mutevelian

Bodyguard was a supremely successful series. It was reported in 2018 that it was the fifth most-watched TV show since 2010, with more than 14 million people tuning into the finale in the week after it aired. And there have been calls for a second season, which Mercurio has suggested could happen in the future.

The same can't be said for another of Anjli's projects, Wild Bill, which was cancelled after just one outing.

The police procedural starred The West Wing's Rob Lowe as the titular Bill, a chief constable drafted to the East Lincolnshire Police force in the UK from the States to shake up proceedings.

The reviews were lukewarm at best, and while there are numerous schools of thought as to why it just didn't capture the public's imagination, one of the problems was undoubtedly Bill. He was the least interesting aspect of the show and yet, he was its focus. Whereas the female characters – Anjli's forthright deputy chief constable, Bronwyn James' sharp-witted detective, Angela Griffin's dogged local journalist and Rachael Stirling's charismatic crown court judge – were its greatest asset and could have comfortably sustained the action without him.

A sudden burst of energy hits me down the phone when I share my theory.

"I think 90% of the things that I book... that happens all the time. Women are there just to dress — not "dress the set". That's really not fair. But just to dress the story, to give it some female energy. It's really frustrating."

Photo credit: Patrick Smith, ITV
Photo credit: Patrick Smith, ITV

But throughout our conversation, Anjli keeps coming back to "hope", buoyed by the plethora of brilliant women who are making some Serious Moves.

"Shows like Killing Eve and The Bridge – I'm trying to think of all the amazing female-led stuff that changes things. Unforgotten with Nicola Walker, or The Split. There's a whole roster of leading women. I think people have gone, 'Oh my God, you can still get six million viewers for a female-led show. This is a thing. We can do this.' Women of colour in Sex Education – it's like, 'Oh, this is a thing. People love this. This is great.'

"There's definitely been a change. I hope it's not just a fad. I hope it's not the "in thing" and then the pendulum swings, like in politics, and in 30 or 40 years' time we're like, 'Do you remember when we had that crazy revolution of having women leading things?'

"I hope that this is here to stay."

Quickfire Q&A

Which woman do you admire, either on screen or behind the scenes?

"Sally Wainwright (Gentleman Jack, Happy Valley, Last Tango in Halifax, Scott & Bailey). She's just extremely talented. Can I say three? Emerald Fennell (director, writer and producer of Promising Young Woman, writer and executive producer on Killing Eve, The Crown, Call the Midwife) and Thusitha Jayasundera (Doctor Foster, The Bill, Holby City). She's such a stunning actress and an incredible human being."

Do you have a favourite female TV character?

"I think it's got to be – and I haven't watched it for a while, and I need to watch more of it – The lead character in The Bridge. Saga Norén, played by Sofia Helin. I'm obsessed. I'm obsessed by her."

Do you have a favourite female showrunner?

"You know what? In five years' time we'll be like, 'I can't choose! There are so many!" But now, there's not loads, is there? I'm thinking of Phoebe Waller-Bridge. I have to say Lucy Prebble. I read her play The Effect at the beginning of lockdown. I was like, 'How is this woman so talented?' There's I Hate Suzie, and then Succession. I know she doesn't show-run, [she wrote an episode]. But she's just amazing."

Is there a particular ground-breaking moment that has placed women front and centre that really sticks in your mind?

"This is really cringe but I absolutely bawled my eyes out when I watched the female Ghostbusters. I just felt so happy. I was so excited. I love that film. I didn't hear anybody waxing lyrical about it like I did. But I really loved it."

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