The Fierceness of Poorna Jagannathan

We talked to the star about starting her acting career in her 30s, playing fearless women, and why she almost said no to ‘Never Have I Ever.’

Snigdha Sur

August 8, 2022

The Fierceness of Poorna Jagannathan
Poorna Jagannathan as Nalini Vishwakumar in 'Never Have I Ever' Season 3, Episode 3 (Netflix)

“Kamala, what is your boyfriend doing here when your future husband is here?” a surprised Nalini asks when she walks in on her niece. 

“How did you know I had a boyfriend?” Kamala responds.

“It’s pretty obvious,” Nalini counters. “All the sneaking around. All the whispered phone calls. I also saw him fall off the roof a couple of mornings ago.”

This quick scene in the first season of Netflix’s hit show Never Have I Ever perfectly encapsulates actor Poorna Jagannathan’s wit. Jagannathan took over our screens as Nalini Vishwakumar, a widowed dermatologist raising both her teenage daughter Devi (Maitreyi Ramakrishnan) and her niece and graduate student Kamala (Richa Moorjani) in California. Nalini is equal parts terrifying and strict as she is understanding and thoughtful. And Jagannathan as Nalini has imbued the character with quick-tempoed humor, incredible fashion, and vulnerable moments that stay with you long after the scene has ended. 

“When I saw the portrayals [of South Asian women] on film and television, they were really disappointing,” Jagannathan told me, “and didn’t come close to the experience of who I was or who the women in my family or the women I’ve been surrounded by my entire life [are].”

Jagannathan reflected on how South Asian women experience joy, grief, struggle, success, and everything in between — but rarely do on-screen portrayals cover this range or nuance. “I just felt like nothing is ever captured for a South Asian family and definitely not an immigrant mom.” Today, whether she is playing the gutsy journalist Menaka in Delhi Belly (2011), Riz Ahmed’s grieving mother in The Night Of (2016), the “Muslim Erin Brockovich” in Ramy (2019), Nalini in Never Have I Ever — or producing a play, “Nirbhaya,” about the horrifying 2012 Delhi rape case — Jagannathan has fought to center strong, fierce female characters.