India-born British actress Archie Panjabi says her ethnic background definitely helped her in playing the challenging role of an Indian scribe in "A Mighty Heart" about American journalist Daniel Pearl's 2002 murder in Pakistan.
Panjabi, who plays the role of Pearl's fellow Wall Street Journal reporter Asra Q Nomani in the movie adaptation of the book by the journalist's widow Mariane Pearl, says she and Nomani had a lot in common as both keep swinging between the East and the West.
This definitely helped her identify with the character and play a very challenging role as each of the players stop their lives and focus on the situation in the aftermath of Pearl's disappearance, Panjabi said over the phone. The Angeline Jolie starrer produced by Brad Pitt opens in 1,350 theatres across North America on June 22.
The film, directed by Michael Winterbottom, has Dan Futterman, nominated for an Oscar for his "Capote" screenplay, playing Daniel Pearl.
Panjabi, who was awarded the Chopard Trophy in Cannes for a Breakout Performance in "A Mighty Heart", said fellow South Asian actors, India's Irrfan Khan and Pakistani television star Adnan Siddiqui, proved pillars of strength to each other as everybody bonded.
But the best part of the experience was going back to home in India where the interior scenes were shot in Pune. She had left Mumbai when only four or five years old and though she keeps going back and forth, this extended eight-week stay was a wonderful experience.
India is going through exciting times, said Panjabi. Indian people have not only lot more money, but also a lot of confidence as the country of her birth witnesses great changes. She does not remember much of old India, but her parents were amazed at the big change. "So much so that they would like to go back."
Panjabi, who had worked with Winterbottom in "Code 46", readily accepted the offer to take up the role. Reading the script she felt, "This is something I wanted to do", touched as she was by the honesty of the real life story.
And she felt Winterbottom, known for shooting dramatic films in documentary style ("The Road To Guantanamo" and "Tristram Shandy"), was "a perfect choice" to do the job.
Asked about criticism that the film tended to focus a bit more on the search for Daniel's kidnappers rather than the emotional aspect of the tragedy, Panjabi said that at the end of the day it was Mariane's (Pearl) book on how her world changed forever on January 23, 2002.
Her husband Daniel, the South Asia Bureau chief for the Wall Street Journal, was researching a story on shoe bomber Richard Reid. The story drew them to Karachi where a go-between had promised access to an elusive source. As Danny left for the meeting, he told Mariane he might be late for dinner. He never returned.
Six months pregnant when the ordeal began, she was carrying a son that Danny hoped to name Adam, Mariane wrote the book to introduce Adam to the father he would never meet, Panjabi recalled.
Panjabi has taken acting roles in both film and television, from early appearances in the 1999 comedy film "East is East" to the recent BBC television series "Life on Mars".
Her first Hollywood role was as a British diplomat in the Oscar-winning "The Constant Gardener" in 2005, although one of her most high-profile roles was in the 2002 comedy release "Bend It Like Beckham".
She won the Shooting Star Award for her role in "Yasmin" at The Berlin Film Festival in 2005. She also won Best Actress in the same year at the Reims Film Festival.