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Kaur Nagra (Punjabi: ਪਰਮਿੰਦਰ ਕੌਰ ਨਾਗਰਾ) (born October 5, 1975 in
Leicester, England) is a British actress of Indian descent.
Birth and upbringing
was born to Sikh parents who immigrated to England from the Punjab
region of northern India in the late 1960s. Affectionately known as
"Mindi," her full name means "supreme goddess, princess of snakes."
Her family background was decidedly working class. Her father, Sucha,
a factory worker, is believed to have separated from her mother,
Nashuter, a packer in a factory, when Parminder was a child.
Parminder, her two younger brothers, and her younger sister were
raised in a small terrace house in the Belgrave district of
Leicester by her mother and stepfather, who worked as a bookkeeper
at a cousin's transport company.
At the age of seven, Nagra suffered a burn that resulted in the scar
shown in her 2002 breakout role in the internationally acclaimed
film Bend It Like Beckham. While preparing a meal, a gas stove set
her trousers alight. She was taken into the bathroom by an uncle and
immersed in cold water. However, when the trouser fabric was
removed, it took skin with it, resulting in a large scar on her
Nagra attended Northfield House Primary School in Leicester. And it
was at her comprehensive school, Soar Valley College, where she
played viola in the youth orchestra and also appeared in her first
In 1991, at the age of 16, Nagra took a job as an usher at the
Leicester Haymarket Theatre, ostensibly to watch and learn from the
local talent. Her former boss recalls her as brilliant, polite, and
very sweet, but also that she was quiet, giving no hints as to her
future rise to stardom. In her late teens, Nagra was shown a
photograph of a potential husband, but she resisted attempts by her
parents to arrange a marriage for her. This small incident was more
fodder for the media than a pivotal event in her young life, as her
mother quickly dropped the idea.
"Falling into acting"
after leaving school, and only a few months after sitting her
A-levels, Nagra was approached by Jez Simons, her former drama
instructor, about becoming part of Hathi Productions, a leading
Leicester-based British Asian theatre company, for which he served
as the artistic director. She accepted and was cast as a chorus
member in the 1994 musical Nimai presented at the Leicester
Haymarket. Only a week into rehearsals, she was plucked from the
chorus to take the place of the lead actress who had dropped out.
Simons recalls that Nagra, while a good singer and actress, had an
intangible quality that raised her above other actresses and that
led him to select her as the new lead. Nagra sometimes describes
herself as having "fallen into" acting due to this unexpected turn
The London years
she turned 20, Nagra had left Leicester for London, forgoing
university to pursue a theatrical career and her childhood dreams of
becoming an actress. After selling her prized viola, she found
herself living alone in Peckham, south London, employed in a
stocktaking job and struggling to find theatrical work.
Nagra’s first London theatrical job came in 1994 when she was cast
as the Princess in Sleeping Beauty, a Christmas-time pantomime
production at the Theatre Royal Stratford East. Although most
critics seemed rather unimpressed with the show, Nagra’s performance
is notable in that she was a woman of colour portraying a
traditionally white character.
After Sleeping Beauty, Nagra worked with small Asian theatre
companies such as Tara Arts and Tamasha. The roles marked the first
of many early career opportunities in theatre that led eventually to
the radio and television appearances that also defined her career
throughout most of the 1990s.
In 1996, Nagra took a small part in Fair Ladies at a Game of Poem
Cards, written by Chikamatsu Monzaemon and performed at Cottesloe,
Royal National Theatre. It was there that she met Irish actor Kieran
Creggan, with whom she later moved into a flat in Kennington, south
London. Their relationship continued for five years.
Although lacking formal theatrical training, Nagra signed on with
veteran London-based agent Joan Brown, after which she began to land
her first television roles — a bit part on the British medical drama
Casualty, where she played a girl attacked with a broken bottle, and
a small role in the television movie King Girl in which Nagra
portrayed an abusive member of a girls' gang.
In 1997, Nagra appeared in the three-part drama Turning World,
starring Roshan Seth. The following year she appeared on Casualty
for the second time.
The year 1999 saw her playing the part of a convenience store clerk
in the television movie Donovan Quick, starring Colin Firth. Also of
note are appearances on the British Asian comedy shows Goodness
Gracious Me and The Kumars at No. 42.
While slowly building a reputation on British television, Nagra also
dabbled in radio, with parts in, among others, radio plays written
by noted author and playwright Tanika Gupta. In 1998, Nagra was part
of Dancing Girls of Lahore, a radio play co-written by her future
Bend It Like Beckham co-star, Shaheen Khan. In 2001, Nagra provided
the voice of a Muslim girl in Arena: The Veil, a docu-drama about
women who choose to wear the Muslim head scarf.
Although Nagra had cut her teeth in television and, to a lesser
extent, in radio, her stage performances are perhaps the most
noteworthy element in her corpus of work during her London years.
Not long after the aforementioned Fair Ladies at a Game of Poem
Cards, Nagra was cast in 1997's Oh Sweet Sita, an adaptation of
Indian lore about Rama and his dutiful wife Sita.
Starring in the title role of Sita, Nagra caught the attention of
director Gurinder Chadha, who would later write the script for Bend
It Like Beckham with Nagra in mind for the lead role. Although
Chadha was charmed by Nagra, it would be five more years before the
spectacular results of their collaboration would materialize.
Nagra's other notable stage roles during this period are many and
include appearances in Skeleton (1997), with critical acclaim for
her "bright-eyed vivacity" as the village girl; A Tainted Dawn
(1997), playing a Hindu boy accidentally left in Pakistan and raised
by a Muslim couple; Fourteen Songs, Two Weddings & A Funeral (1998),
showing her skills as a romantic comedienne, also to critical
acclaim; Krishna’s Lila — A Play of the Asian World (1999), as part
of a five-person cast in a controversially titled piece; The Square
Circle (1999), tackling the demanding role of an illiterate peasant
girl who becomes a rape victim; and in River on Fire (2000), as
Kiran, in a retelling of Sophocles' Antigone.
Although she was fast becoming a star on the stages of London, it
was 2002's surprise blockbuster Bend It Like Beckham, Nagra’s first
motion picture, that turned her into an international celebrity
Bend It Like Beckham
Like Beckham was directed by Gurinder Chadha, a British film
director also of Indian descent. It starred Nagra, Jonathan
Rhys-Meyers, Anupam Kher, Shaheen Khan, and Keira Knightley, for
whom this film was also a career breakthrough.
The small-budget picture was a critical and financial success in the
United Kingdom, eventually making the leap around the world and to
the United States where it earned over $30 million at the box
office, making it the highest-grossing British comedy in U.S.
history. The script, conceived by Chadha with her husband Paul
Mayeda Berges and Guljit Bindra, was penned especially with Nagra in
mind. While initially indifferent to the game of football, Nagra
found the football-centred story to be both funny and touching. She
agreed to audition and eventually accepted the role.
In the film, Nagra plays Jesminder (Jess) Bhamra, a teenage Sikh
football player who idolizes football superstar David Beckham and
defies her traditional parents to pursue her dreams of playing
football. The rough parallels to Nagra’s (and Chadha's) own personal
story are apparent. However, pulling off the role was no small feat
considering that the then-26-year-old actress had never played
football and was portraying a character nearly a decade younger than
she was. An intensive ten-week training course emphasizing a
Brazilian technique called Futebol de Salao, led by noted coach
Simon Clifford, put Nagra through rigorous nine-hour-a-day workouts.
The hard work paid off as Nagra learned to "bend" or curve the ball
in flight, as she did in one particularly memorable backyard scene.
In a nod to Nagra's actual life, director Chadha wrote and
incorporated a scene about Nagra's scar into the film.
Nagra demonstrated that an unknown Asian actress could carry a hit
film. For her efforts, the actress received much critical acclaim
and a slew of professional accolades. Nagra became the first woman
honoured as FIFA's "International Football Personality of the Year"
and garnered no less than nine acting award nominations from various
film organizations for her performance in Bend It Like Beckham.
In 2002, she was awarded the Golden Wave Award at the Bordeaux
International Festival of Women in Cinema for "best actress" and
later earned a Movieline Young Hollywood Award for "best
Beyond Bend It
after wrapping up shooting on Bend It, Nagra appeared in another
motion picture, Miramax’s fairy tale Ella Enchanted starring Anne
Hathaway and co-starring Minnie Driver, Vivica A. Fox and Cary Elwes,
where she was cast in the part of Areida, friend to Hathaway's title
character Ella. In addition, Nagra took on two notable television
roles for Channel 4—as Viola/Cesario in a multicultural version of
Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, and as Heere Sharma in the two-part
Anglo-Indian drama Second Generation, directed by acclaimed
filmmaker Jon Sen and was loosely based on the Bard’s King Lear and
starred Bollywood legend Om Puri.
Although Second Generation was a ratings flop, it was a huge
critical success, earning a place in The Observer newspaper's top 10
British TV programmes of 2003. It garnered Nagra a prestigious
Ethnic Multicultural Media Academy (EMMA) Award for her turn as a
sexually liberated and independent-minded young Anglo-Indian woman.
For the role, Nagra had to muster up the courage to do some of the
steamy and passionate love scenes that she had vowed not to do as an
actress. The role allowed Nagra her first opportunity to visit her
ancestral homeland of India when cast members traveled to Calcutta
to shoot the drama’s final scenes.
a promotional junket in Los Angeles for Bend It, Nagra was informed
by her agent that ER producer John Wells, a fan of Bend It Like
Beckham, was interested in meeting with her.
At their initial meeting, Wells floated to Nagra an offer to join
the ensemble cast; she accepted immediately. In recalling the
moment, she said, "I had to sit still and act professional, while
all the time I just wanted to jump up and run around the room
screaming." Not long after the meeting, Nagra signed a one-year
contract that included an option for three additional years. Despite
her new status, Nagra said, "I don't think Hollywood has changed me
at all. The first thing I did when I arrived was buy chapati flour
Nagra made her first ER appearance as County General Hospital
medical intern Neela Rasgotra on September 25, 2003, in season 10's
premiere episode entitled, "Now What?" This was the first recurring
Indian doctor role on American television. Wells adapted the
character to suit Nagra, who was allowed to "keep" her own East
Midlands accent in portraying the Yale-educated Anglo-Indian Neela.
Nagra would go on to appear in 21 of the season’s 22 episodes,
including "NICU" and "The Student," episodes in which her character
was a central player. Noah Wyle, on announcing his departure from
the series, described Nagra as "the future" of ER, and the media has
concurred, anointing her as one of the show's "golden girls."
Nagra continues to garner professional accolades and honors. In
2004, she received a Teen Choice Award nomination for her work on ER
and also had the honor of being a torch bearer as the Olympic torch
passed through London on its way to the Games in Athens. In 2005 she
took home an Outstanding Achievement in Acting Award from the South
Asian Students' Alliance. Later on in the year, Nagra finished
filming season 11 of ER and returned to her native Leicester to work
on director Amit Gupta's Love in Little India in which she was cast
as the female lead.
She was nominated for a 2006 Asian Excellence Award, in the category
of Outstanding Female Television Performance, for her work in ER.
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