Easy to demonise, but much harder to humanise complex currents running underneath…
WHENEVER a terrorist incident hits the country, we all recoil in revulsion and shake our heads in disbelief – but how would we react if we were caught up in an investigation through someone we knew well?
This is essentially the premise the writers of a new prime time six-episode drama posed when coming to make the explosive, ‘Next of Kin’.
Novelist Natasha Narayan conceived the story and worked on it with TV writer and husband Paul Rutman. He is best known (to readers and followers of acv) for his lavish two series Channel 4 epic colonial drama, ‘Indian Summers’, which ended in 2016.
‘Next of Kin’ is the first time the couple, both former journalists, have worked together.
Centred around an Asian family and with a very strong cast featuring lead Emmy-Award winner, Archie Panjabi, as the ‘heroine’, TV ‘This Life’ icon Jack Davenport, and Bollywood legend, Shabana Azmi, ‘Next of Kin’ on ITV at 9pm, Monday (January 8), explores what happens to an ordinary wife, her husband and her mother, when they come under an intense police spotlight following a UK bomb plot.
‘Mona Harcourt’ (Panjabi) is a popular GP and married to ‘Guy’ (Davenport), a political lobbyist, and they live in affluent North London with their mixed race young son and Mona’s mother, the widowed ‘Mrs Shirani’ (Azmi).
Their relative tranquillity is blown apart when a bomb goes off in London on the same day that Mona learns her UK-raised doctor brother and charity worker has been has been abducted and murdered in Pakistan.
If that wasn’t bad enough, it transpires that her nephew, ‘Danish’ (known as ‘Danny’ and played by newcomer Viveik Kalra) has disappeared from university and has become in the police jargon, ‘a person of interest’ to those investigating the bombing.
While on the surface and without seeing any of it, it sounds to the casual observer like a rather standard terror plot, both Narayan and Rutman are keen to stress that it is not.
Narayan, a journalist who once covered the Bosnia War in the 1990s, explained to www.asianculturevulture.com:“It started with the character of Mona and thinking about someone in that situation.
“We were concerned about perpetuating stereotypes, and really we wanted to do almost the opposite of that.
“This is a very different take and it starts with a family. It’s not a police procedural or genre piece, it’s much more about the family.”
It wouldn’t have attracted the talent it has, if it was just a straightforward black and white drama (excuse the pun and the metaphor), a ‘cops and bad guys’ or an ‘us and them’ drama.
“We wanted to see things on the other side of the lens, through a living, breathing family.
“There’s a grandma; they are all very relatable and warm.
“This is a very normal family, they are not strange.
“Fantastic as some dramas may be – ‘Homeland’ for example, we wanted to do something quite different.”
Rutman added: “This is a very typical British family. As Natasha pointed out, we always see this sort of drama through the police or the authorities, such as the FBI (or CIA), where there is this unknown aggressor that is out there and it easy to demonise and easy to hate.
“We have tried to get underneath it all and put a human face to a problem.”
That problem of radicalisation, alienation, disaffection, extremism and the path to manifest violence is a complex one; but drama does not always serve it well as we know.
“It’s easy to stereotype and some people are very wary of even trying to understand it,” reflected Narayan. “This will raise questions in people’s minds. We are not waving any kind of big placards.”
Narayan herself did lots of research and talked to both Sara Khan and Kalsoom Bashir from the charity, Inspire, about how young people can get caught into a murky world that often preys on the vulnerable.
However, she wanted to stress that the family depicted in ‘Next of Kin’ are very unremarkable and that the doubts about Danny’s potential radicalisation are just that.
Rutman added: “It’s a universal story, hopefully a story any viewer can relate to, even if they don’t expect to.
“Where does your duty lie? To your family or is your duty to the country that live in?”
Narayan added: “It’s not sensational, it’s evolving and exciting. You should be reeled in and it’s like a noose tightening.”
Narayan and Rutman, who both have executive producer credits as well, wrote the first episode and it then was commissioned with production company Mammoth Screen taking it to ITV.
“I don’t think this has ever been done before. I do think ITV have been incredibly bold putting this on at prime time,” enthused Rutman to acv. “We always wanted Archie and Shabana.”
Panjabi, who has been living in the US, since she started on her Emmy-award winning role in US TV’s‘The Good Wife’ (2009) told ITV press she was totally “gripped” by the script.
“It’s very intelligently written, timely and I was totally captivated by the character of Mona and the journey she encounters.”
The drama also explores the contours of a mixed race marriage too and gives a voice to children of mixed race and religious heritages. The creators have two children.
“They’re hardly reflected in drama at all,” pointed out Narayan.
“We were not consciously trying to do that and if we were, it wouldn’t be Jack Davenport playing the role, it would be more like Phil Collins (Rutman is bald),” he quipped. “Jack had a really good phrase for it – their marriage (Guy’s and Mona’s) is in a post-racial wonderland, but the pressure of the story starts to tell.”
Davenport had another insight into the role he was playing.
He said: “When we were shooting scenes at the family home, I was the only non-Asian character, which I thought was great, because this is what some of Britain looks like.”
The drama was also shot in India with it doubling for Pakistan.
For Azmi, experienced both in India, where she has done over a 100 films, and the UK, where she has featured in both TV and film, she said: “I thought it was a very important story. We see the human side of how the perception of radicalisations touches a family; tortures a family when they are in no way responsible for it.
“And then you see the larger picture through the smaller picture. That humanises it. It’s not done in a didactic, propagandist way. It’s done through relationships and emotional connections which are completely universal.”
Pictures: All with courtesy of ITV Pictures. Please do not reproduce without kind permission – ITV Pictures
‘Next of Kin’ episode 1 starts 9pm-10pm ITV from Monday, January 8.
One of six hour-long dramas, weekly.