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Parminder Nagra

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Parminder Kaur Nagra (Punjabi: ਪਰਮਿੰਦਰ ਕੌਰ ਨਾਗਰਾ) (born October 5, 1975 in Leicester, England) is a British actress of Indian descent.


Birth and upbringing

Nagra 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 right leg.

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 theatrical productions.

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"

Not long 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 of events.

The London years

Before 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 almost overnight.

Bend It Like Beckham

Bend It 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 breakthrough performance."

Beyond Bend It

Not long 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.


While on 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 and lentils."

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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