Life

“What starring in Bodyguard taught me about self-acceptance”

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Anjli Mohindra
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Following that dramatic Bodyguard finale, actress Anjli Mohindra writes a personal account on what the show has meant for her

“You’re fit… for an Asian.”

I was 16. It was the first ‘compliment’ I’d ever received from a boy. And I’ll remember the moment forever because I’d been trying to, for the past five years, eradicate all traces of my ethnicity. One method included elbowing my mum in Asda if she spoke in Punjabi lest a school peer be in the vicinity and my cover be blown. I just wanted to fit in – especially after a stint at an Armed Forces School (my dad worked in the British Army) where I was the only ethnic minority kid out of 2000 and people recoiled at the smell of my Indian packed lunch.

I felt ugly. I started suffering from anxiety. And I wished I was white. 

Anjli as Nadia in Bodyguard 

Fast-forward about 10 years and everything’s come full circle: my skin colour has become a national talking point because I played an Islamic suicide bomber in the most-watched TV drama in over a decade.

It’s strange: when I trained at the Television Workshop in Nottingham, my skin colour made little difference and for a while I honestly forgot about it. I played a Lewd Caucasian Mother, a Spanish Maid and countless ‘rude-girl’ teenagers. But, when I got my first agent a decade ago, it was as if someone had stuck the ‘Fit for an Asian’ sticker on my forehead again. I was encouraged to put ‘White’ as my ethnicity on Spotlight, the acting database, because it was the only way to get in the casting room for parts to which I felt closest; your average British Adolescent.

I did manage to avoid some rather typecast roles back then and got my first regular part in the CBBC Doctor Who spinoff The Sarah Jane Adventures, written by Russell T Davies. My character was Indian but it wasn’t her defining trait, and Russell writes cultural-inclusivity into his scripts so brilliantly that there were subtle nods to her ethnicity without any of the associated clichés.

But, when I was first invited to audition for Nadia in Bodyguard, my response was simple: “I can’t do it”. I know I shouldn’t judge - I’m an actor and that involves breathing life into and humanising a character on the page - but I didn’t want to perpetuate the seemingly Islamophobic narrative (something which, when the first episode aired, viewers accused the show of doing).

However, as my agent pointed out to me, you never know what’s coming with a Jed Mecurio show. Once I clocked the end game, I thought to myself ‘this feels closer to the truth’. These terror groups are funded, organised, even - however inadvertently - radicalised by people of power in the West. Being constantly excluded, alienated and persecuted can push people to extremes. Anyone (Muslim or otherwise) can be driven to inhumane actions if they’re constantly vilified and dehumanised.

And THAT’s what made me sign for the part. This character felt real – she wasn’t a plot device. I was able to give her a personal backstory which I then felt compelled to bring to life. The role wasn’t black or white (or even brown) - it was multi-layered and complex. Just like life. 

Richard Madden and Keely Hawes in Bodyguard

Richard Madden and Keeley Hawes in Bodyguard 

And the response to the show has been overwhelming – it’s wonderful getting positive feedback from friends and overhearing strangers talk about it on the bus. Jed writes stories that grip you, play with your emotions and deliver the unexpected – the stuff of great TV drama - which has also opened up some much-needed debate.

For example - the gender-authenticity uproar on social media that followed the first episode of Bodyguard revealed just how far we have to go in our battle of dismantling tropes. “I’m all for gender equality in the police but so far the operational commander, sniper and explosives expert are all women. What an utter load of bollocks”, complained one Twitter user. I’d say this only supports the fact that it’s about time we help challenge this. It certainly didn’t feel contrived during filming and (as the creator has said on his casting choices), actors were chosen -irrespective of their gender- because they were ‘the best person for the job’.

Anjli as headstrong Josie Chancellor

Which brings me to my next role: Josie Chancellor, a head-strong detective in ITV’s Dark Heart. When I took the job I was given the opportunity to change my character’s name to reflect my heritage, but I was foolishly afraid of making too much noise about being the “ethnic” in the room in case someone raised the intruder alarm. In hindsight I wish I’d changed it- I now see my responsibility to wedge the door open for the other minority artists behind me. If we’re aiming to tell realistic stories about modern Britain, then we have to celebrate its multiculturalism and our differences in order to ease down the barriers and reveal our similarities as humans - all striving for exactly the same things in life; survival and love.

Things in the entertainment industry are changing a lot. Some incredible casting directors - Kelly Hendry, Andy Morgan, Andy Pryor and Kate Rhodes James to name but a few are starting inclusivity conversations and fighting our corner before we even make the longlist. I see new drama school graduates proudly owning their ethnicity and it fills me with elation. Whilst I can’t ignore the pang of sadness I feel at not having done the same ten years ago, it’s definitely time for the embarrassed lunchbox kid to stand up and embrace who she is- British and Indian, and proud.

Bodyguard is on BBC iPlayer

Pictures: Montana Lowery, BBC pictures