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  • Annya Pabial

The Lincoln Lawyer, Oneness With Our Universe & Bridging the Gap Between the East and West

Just last week, Netflix’s original of the age-old classic legal thriller was released and quickly shot to the number one spot in their trending tab. The show follows the story of idealistic lawyer Mickey Haller (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo) as he runs his own practice and tackles a myriad of case types.

Here at JORE, we aspire to showcase a variety of South Asian cultures, especially when it comes to what types of media are already out there. With all the onscreen representation that allows SAs to simply exist within their own right, we had to spotlight and support Puja Mohindra’s most recent creative endeavour as it beautifully exhibits just that. I was given the wonderful opportunity to interview one of The Lincoln Lawyer’s actors, Puja Mohindra, and delve deeper into the behind-the-scenes action of the show, and learn more about this very well-versed and multi-talented artist. Puja plays a supporting character, Sonia Patel, a friend to one of the victims Mickey has been tasked with bringing justice to.

The Lincoln Lawyer (2011) is a well-revered film and established within the canon of Hollywood, as is the novel. What drew you to be part of its remake and how do you feel this version offers a different perspective on the story?

PUJA: I almost didn't audition for "The Lincoln Lawyer." I was directing a comedy project called, "Stuck In Reality" and immersed in preparing a pitch for my TV series, "Welcome To Shakti." So I wasn't available for the shoot dates. But then, I decided to let the Universe resolve that logistical scheduling part and went ahead and put the audition tape together.

I didn't even know it was David E. Kelley’s show until after I booked it! This all happened so fast. I had one night to tape it, and I just focused on preparing the material in the time I had.

I feel so grateful that it all worked out in the end, and that I get to be a part of Michael Connelly's and David E. Kelley's world. They truly are masters of their craft. I also appreciate how in this version they honored the ethnicity of the original character.

While portraying Sonia Patel's character, was there any part of her that resonated with you? Do you share any similarities or have any polar differences in her personality?

PUJA: What resonated for me was the experience of losing a friend and that friend being in a controlling, unhealthy, toxic relationship. I find Sonia to be both vulnerable and strong and also direct—even blunt—and in this way I’m similar. I’m different from Sonia in that I’m not a serious person. My energy is light. I’m more quirky, love to laugh, and I like to look for humor and light in all of life.

How have your fellow cast members influenced you as an actress? What did you learn, and were you able to give them any of your insight?

PUJA: I was inspired by Manuel Garcia-Rulfo’s work because English is not his first language. To carry a show and act in English—when Spanish is your native language—is incredibly impressive. I also learned a lot from observing Manuel’s focus and concentration on set and the way he preserved his energy. In Episode 8, Manuel had a really strong presence when interrogating me, and I consciously kept matching him. I didn’t want my character to be a victim or be bullied. So, I kept standing up to him, and I found that really fun to play out, especially as a woman. I direct, as well, so I really enjoyed observing David Grossman and Alonso Alvarez at work, both of whom directed Episodes 6 and 8, respectively. They worked with incredible specificity, depth, and efficiency, and I learned so much from them.

How does this project venture from your previous endeavours? I know your work in the past has focused on matters regarding the South Asian diasporic experience so what was it like to step into a role/story such as this?

PUJA: I've previously been on a bunch of medical shows, so this is my first legal drama. This is also the first time my work has been on Netflix. It was fun to share the show with my family in India, Indonesia, Spain, and Africa. Stepping into this was similar to how I approach all my work: I do something that I call "emotional painting." which I would describe as drawing or sketching a scene with my own memories and personal experience. My memories are my “paint” to create a character, play a scene and heighten its stakes. I’ve explored the South Asian diasporic experience in my writing and creating work. From that, I created a web series called, “Geeta’s Guide To Moving On,” which can be found on OTV.

Currently, I’m producing and directing my first feature film with Neil Landau, who wrote, “Don’t Tell Mom The Babysitter’s Dead.” The project is called, “Lakshmi In Love,” and it’s so different from acting in other people’s projects because I have so much more responsibility.

But The Lincoln Lawyer and my work on Chicago Med (as Dr. Heather Singh) are different from my other artistic work because I can act and then go home. Someone else puts the whole show together. It’s so nice to act in someone else’s project and be in service to someone else’s vision. And then just chill after you’re done shooting!

Creating your own project is a lot more work, and it's so meaningful and rewarding! I love putting shows together and being behind the camera, as much as I enjoy being in front of it.

ANNYA: Just to tell you a little more about the project Puja mentioned in this section, her team (which includes Neil Landau, Steve Stanley, and Yashna Malhotra) is based in Chicago and Georgia and they are currently financing “Lakshmi in Love” by building up an equity fund to progress the feature into phase two. Once it reaches pre-production, they hope to shoot it in Chicago. Puja tells us that they are excited to collaborate with investors and artists around the world in order to tell a story that is of service to humanity that bridges the East and West.

Puja has previously said how she wishes to support her Chicago community as well as share their stories. So, if you’re an actor in that area who feels as though this is a project you would love to be a part of, keep an eye out for “Lakshmi in Love.”

Considering the experience of working on this show as a whole, how has this progressed your personal journey as an actor? Were there any strays from conventions you’ve grown accustomed to? Any challenges along the way or any moments that you felt restored part of your creativity or inspiration in a way you didn’t expect it to?

PUJA: It means a lot to me to be able to share my work with my family abroad. I was gifted my acting journey through the sacrifices my immigrant parents made. It’s because of them that I get to live my dreams and purpose, and I couldn't be more grateful for that gift. I didn’t expect how meaningful it would be to receive messages from my family abroad who watched the show.

The only other unexpected part of the experience was that I was in Austin for a conference when I got my scene for Episode 8, so I needed to be in LA within 48 hours to shoot. I attended the conference during the day and prepped the scene at night. As soon as I arrived in LA, someone came to where I was staying to do a COVID test. Everything came together so quickly and with so much ease. It was such a blessing! I feel so grateful for how it all unfolded and this really taught me to trust and go with the flow.

Let’s focus on your past projects: what compels you, in your own work, to tell such a specific viewpoint on the South Asian experience? Why is this something that’s important to you?

PUJA: Helping others is what’s important to me. Stories foster empathy and unity. These themes really resonate with me.

I guess since I’m South Asian, then by default, my work is influenced by my identity. My roots are in Bharatanatyam dance. The intention of Indian classical dance is to enlighten the audience. I think this is the same intention I bring to my work when I work in the American theater, TV, or film. I have an Eastern approach.

I’m interested in stories that can be of service to humanity and can empower people to live their best, most authentic, meaningful, enlightened, and joyful lives.

What are some of your personal inspirations behind your work? Tell us a little about those you see as mentors or muses.

PUJA: I’m inspired by God, our Higher Power, the Universe, Source, Spirit— whatever you want to call the Consciousness that designed us and our lives. My guru, Dada JP Vaswani, and Didi Krishna Kumari of the Sadhu Vaswani Mission, and my spiritual home inspire me. My parents and family inspire me, especially my nieces and nephew, who are my favorite people on the planet. Spirituality, faiths, and cultures different from mine inspire me. I love seeing the oneness in all. I’m inspired by underground spaces and artists and street culture. I have always been a black sheep. Other black sheep inspire me. Dance and music inspire me.

All of life truly inspires me. It is a great blessing to be alive, especially in this moment in history. By this, I believe this moment in time, these past few years particularly, are about awakening. People are waking up. The pandemic gave us a beautiful gift to go within.

More than any other time in history, people are healing traumas and connecting with their Higher Power. They are learning and understanding that thoughts become things. We create our own reality.

People are awakening to the fact that life is Earth School, a spiritual journey.

We are not the body. We are spiritual beings having a human experience. People are becoming aware of their own selves, their true nature, all of the Consciousness, and the cosmic energy that runs through all of us.

This is such a beautiful and powerful thing for humanity, because when we connect to our own Divinity, we are limitless and can expand into our full potential.

It’s why Michael Connelly is such a prolific writer and can write so much and so fast. And why Dave E. Kelley creates the huge hits that he does. They’re connected to God, Source, Spirit, and The Universe.

You cite yourself as a multi-faceted artist whose abilities range from writing, directing, producing, dancing, and acting which is incredibly impressive. Given how physically and mentally stimulating all these roles can be, how do you sustain yourself in all these areas? And how do you motivate yourself to continue pushing yourself to grow in all aspects when each one can be so different from the other?

PUJA: That’s a great question! I sustain and nurture myself through my spiritual practice and my self-care practices. Every morning, I meditate and pray; this grounds me and offers me clarity and insights I’m able to access only through my connection to my Higher Power. On most mornings, I also journal. I don’t find that I need to motivate myself or push myself for I feel endlessly inspired. There are so many stories, and so much beauty, I just want to capture all of them. Writing and the camera helps me capture and freeze moments in time that are otherwise ephemeral. Whether it’s acting, writing, directing, dancing, or producing, all of these are about telling a great story. And I love stories!

Prior to this interview, you told me how you strive to achieve a coexistence of your identities between your roots in the East and your life in the West. Have you ever struggled to find a balance between the two? Have obligations from one or the other impacted the way you want to present yourself?

PUJA: My parents used to say, “You get the best of both worlds,” and I feel that’s been my experience. I feel so blessed to be both Indian and American. I love both cultures so much! The one way I can think of where balancing the two cultures showed up in how I presented myself was my hair! I used to blow out my hair all the time. I don’t do that very much anymore. In fact, during The Lincoln Lawyer audition, I did with my hair naturally curly and have finally embraced my Indian curls. I like wearing my hair naturally. I also like wearing it straight. I get to do either, depending on how I feel! But I think I used to straighten it to fit into and conform to a standard of beauty that wasn’t what my Indian hair actually likes to do.

I so appreciate my friends who helped me embrace natural hair, and I want to inspire more women to love their natural selves.

Finally, a lot of our readers are aspirational artists in their own regard. By showcasing you and the work you’ve produced, we hope they’re inspired to find the drive behind their own work. How would you encourage them in their fields? Do you think there are universal understandings between diasporic subjects, regardless of their particular backgrounds? Do you think we owe it to each other to help out wherever we can?

PUJA: I would encourage your readers and all artists to empower themselves to tell their own stories and own their narratives. Ava DuVernay once said, “It's not about knocking on closed doors. It's about building our own house and having our own door.” I love that [quote] so much; I have it on a bulletin board at home. And, I would add to that, “Build your own house, and then welcome and invite people over for dinner and parties!”

This work is about collaboration and the universal human experience. Stories bring us together through their ability to reveal our common humanity. It is a joy and an honor to help people however and whenever we can. We are one human family. We are here to help one another.

ANNYA: This was my first interview with someone actively working in the heart of the entertainment industry and I just want to express how insightful and inspiring it was to get a glimpse into Puja’s life. She definitely imparted some of her endless passion to me, perhaps without even realising, and reminded me how vital it is that we all look out for one another, especially as creatives. It was absolutely lovely to get the chance to interview such a hard-working and driven artist like Puja; I hope she was able to galvanise you with her words the same way she did for me.

I highly recommend you all to watch The Lincoln Lawyer on Netflix, even if legal dramas aren’t your cup of tea. This show is a compelling story that offers a great reflection on the world we’re currently living in. Not to mention, supporting the work of our fellow South Asians is something we cannot do enough of so definitely check Puja out and share your thoughts on the show as a whole with us!

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