A south Asian woman is standing by the wine in a supermarket, wondering which Merlot to choose. She plunges three into her basket (they’re on offer) when an older white man snakes round her to ask where the eggs are. It becomes clear he has mistaken her for staff because she is brown.
“Wish you lot wouldn’t keep moving the stuff around. No good for me memory,” he says. She starts to explain without any conviction that she does not work there “actually”, but before the words have left her mouth he has gone.
The sting from this racist microaggression is sharp and brief – like the rip of a small plaster – before suddenly, almost comically, the woman faces a more pressing issue. She spots a south Asian man wielding a knife who stabs a police officer. She sprints after him, in hot pursuit of a potential terrorist.
This is the opening scene to DI Ray, a gritty new ITV police drama set in Birmingham, whose use of ethnic stereotypes constantly leaves viewers guessing as to where the story will go. The series follows Rachita Ray, a Leicester-born British-south Asian officer who is promoted to homicide detective, played by Parminder Nagra, known for her roles in ER and Bend It Like Beckham. Not only do we see Ray land a complex first murder case and follow the investigation throughout the series, we see her simultaneously battle assumptions that her quick promotion is down to her skin colour, and it’s all done with great subtlety.
“We wanted to show you from the start that this isn’t going to bang you over the head about race; it’s going to be peppered in,” says the show’s writer, Maya Sondhi, speaking over Zoom on a quiet Wednesday afternoon. The Birmingham-born actor, best known for playing well-meaning police constable Maneet Bindra in Line of Duty, created the show after teaming up with the cop drama’s creator Jed Mercurio.
“We talked a lot about identity,” says Sondhi. “Jed’s from an immigrant background, his parents were Italian, and we thought – how can we make those themes accessible?” Their answer was to create a character whose professional and personal lives rub up against each other. “Rachita Ray is not only dealing with her work life but also her identity struggle as a British Indian,” says Sondhi. “It felt natural to cross the two, so that whatever is happening in her work life could impact her personal journey and vice versa.”
Nagra particularly loved how Sondhi wove many of these scenes in with humour. “One minute you might find yourself laughing at a scenario Rachita has found herself in,” she says, “and then you reconsider and think that’s awkward, actually.” It’s the kind of experience Nagra is familiar with – and which she has to put out of mind while on set. “There are times where I may have been in those situations, but when you’re in those scenes, it’s just about – how does Rachita feel about this?”
Police stereotyping has touched Sondhi’s life, too. She recalls an instance a few years ago when her brother, a student barrister at the time, was walking through London on the same day as a bomb scare and was racially profiled. “He got stopped and pulled over by the police. They searched his bag and found his wig and gown. My brother was just like: ‘It is what it is.’ He could have really wiped the floor with them, but he was more hurt by the fact that the officer had racially profiled him.”
While the police are a ripe industry in which to explore racial stereotyping, Sondhi says she wants the show to highlight the issues universally. “I don’t want to just bash the police.”
The show’s strength is its examination of coded racial language. It shines a light on the way police officers use terms such as “honour crime” as proof they understand a community, but apply them in a way that looks indistinguishable from offensive stereotyping. Sondhi created the term “culturally sensitive homicide” as “it sounds like a term that would be used”. The inference is clear: these are crimes involving non-white people. “Call it what you like, but it’s still a crime. Why can’t the police just call it a murder?”
This desire to sound inclusive is something Sondhi has noticed across industries. “People talk the talk, don’t they? They’re so careful about the words they use,” she says. “There is so much jargon now which makes it sound like people are being inclusive but, ultimately, what are their intentions?”
Another key theme in DI Ray, and one very personal to Sondhi, is Ray’s complicated relationship to her identity as a British Indian. The detective has a white fiance, lost her grasp of Punjabi aged three, and has mostly white friends. She spent most of her life assimilating, but now finds herself a misshapen jigsaw piece in every setting – not white enough for white people, not brown enough for Indian people.
At one point, we see Ray interview the family of the victim’s girlfriend, only to be dumbfounded when they speak Punjabi. It’s a funny moment as Ray, who is clinging on to her authority as a homicide detective, reluctantly defers to the British Indian PC, whose grasp of the language means they can translate. Her expression is awkward and the very serious, very ballsy lead character is forced to acknowledge her hubris.
“I think the struggle of ‘where do I belong’ is such an interesting thing for our generation, as I think we all do wonder where we fit in,” says Nagra. Unlike Ray, she was surprised to find her Punjabi was better than she thought as she understood everything on set – a welcome discovery after years of feeling “a bit rusty”.
Sondhi, who lost her Hindi and Punjabi aged four, after her parents spoke mostly English in their household, agrees. “I’ve always felt a bit ashamed about who I am, because I grew up with no representation to look at. I didn’t see me in Disney things, I didn’t see me in cartoons, I didn’t see me in teen programmes. All of my role models were white, blond girls.”
Workplace assumptions about diversity are also tackled in DI Ray. Ray’s colleagues assume she is a diversity hire and this is clear from their reluctant interactions with her. After she successfully neutralises the armed man in episode one, her senior remarks she is “exactly what the team needs” and promotes her on to a case about south Asian crime. It’s an unsettling situation many people of colour can relate to regardless of how exceptional you are. “Tokenism is a huge thing that bothers me,” says Sondhi. “Ray is actually good at her job and wants to get on with it.”
But given that stereotypes and microaggressions are key to DI Ray, was Nagra not concerned about the team working on the project? After all, Mercurio has been accused of perpetuating racial stereotypes in his work – showing one-dimensional depictions of Islamic terrorists by having a Muslim woman being controlled by her jihadi husband in Bodyguard, for example. He rejected the claims, telling the Radio Times that “if the show were set in the recent British past, the attackers might be Irish republicans”.
She has not seen Bodyguard but is confident in DI Ray, which she says is Sondhi’s work and story. She never had any fears or conversations over how the characters were portrayed. “It was Maya’s script and Jed really championed it,” she says. “When Jed was on set, which he was quite often, it was to make sure that the scenes made sense, and that we were making it enjoyable for a viewer to keep them watching.”
I ask Nagra about the opportunities for south Asian actors in entertainment now. “Diversity has definitely progressed a lot more [in television and film] than when I first got on to the scene,” she says. “Just look at Bridgerton and the work Riz Ahmed is doing. Priyanka Chopra is massive here, too. Things have definitely shifted, but I think people are a little bit scared of, when you do hire someone, are you hiring them because they tick a box in terms of diversity or are they actually good at what they do?”
“You’d like to think that you’re being hired because you’re good at the job,” she says flatly. “But it is also very frustrating for me. As the years roll on, I’m still answering those questions. It’s still the No 1 thing, as opposed to it being the character.”
As our Zoom comes to an end, Nagra’s tone has shifted. Her exasperation now reads through the screen. I realise she is exhausted from explaining herself and her career in relation to her skin colour. How very like DI Ray.
DI Ray starts Monday 2 May, 9pm, ITV