The Latest Muse 

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Parminder Nagra at the roots of empathy

Author: Shardy - 03.21.2008

I suffer from height sickness, especially on planes. Sometimes I panic when driving at night on unfamiliar highways. Claustrophobia, however, is not something with which I am burdened, or any similar anxiety related condition.
I am aware that these are not particularly interesting disclosures, but nevertheless provide a necessary premise for what follows. 

The other day I was watching for the first time an episode of 'ER' entitled "Blood Relations", from the show's tenth Season. After assisting in the delivery of a baby boy, Neela is locked up in the hospital's hyperbaric chamber with the new born. She is initially uneasy, but shortly after entering the chamber, this develops into a state of panic and anxiety symptomatic of claustrophobia. Hard to believe, but the scene caused me to jump off the sofa and pause the DVD player. I felt a weight on my chest and had difficulty breathing. My heart was pumping like hell, and my legs felt weak. I had to walk around the room for few minutes …I was almost laughing. Then I sat back and resumed watching.

What had happened? - Nothing particularly strange, actually. Vittorio Gallese, a Professor of Human Physiology, would say that "there are at least two types of identity to be explained:

(1) the identity we experience as individual organisms, by means of which the self is uniquely individuated (i-identity) and
(2) the identity we experience in other individuals, by means of which the self is identified within a larger community of other beings (s-inentity)"
(V. Gallese, "Roots of Empathy", Psychopathology, n.36, 2003, p.172)

The experience of s-identities rely on the so called mirror neurons. "Whenever we look at someone performing an action, beside the activation of various visual areas, there is a concurrent activation of the motor circuits (the mirror neurons) that are recruited when we ourselves perform the action. Although we do not overtly reproduce the observed action, our motor system becomes nevertheless active as if we were executing that very same action."

Gallese calls this process "embodied simulation". This solution is undoubtedly fascinating; nevertheless I think that something is missing. 

First of all, what happened to me cannot be explained simply by the embodied simulation. I wasn't merely 'imitating' Parminder's actions (shortness of breath, dizziness etc.). In that moment, I was claustrophobic. Secondly, even if I do suffer from vertigo, it has never been triggered by watching a film, so how could I experience the symptoms of a condition that I do not have? 

I believe that in both cases Parminder Nagra is the answer to my problems. To be more precise, I think that the solution to my little enigma has to do with polyphony and truth, two aspects directly connected to Parminder's acting skills.

The Italian sociologist Francesco Alberoni once said that when we love, hate, rejoice or feel sorrow or sadness, when we experience every shade of sentiment, we always bring with us our 'sentimental history'. That means two different things: (1) we love, hate, rejoice… through our previous experiences of love, hate, joy… ; (2) in all our emotional states we carry parts of all the others, therefore we can't love without bringing with us a little bit of our previous experience of hate, fear, joy and sadness. In this respect it is almost pointless to talk about single sentiments, since they are more a 'polyphony' than a 'monody'. 

One of Parminder's greatest abilities is to re-create the characteristic 'polyphony' of real sentiments. When she expresses love, joy, fear or sadness, she doesn't follow the easiest track. She doesn't use an artistic but stereotypical manifestation of these sentiments (a choice made commonly in performance), but she instead re-creates the complexity of every one of them, giving the appropriate weight to all their components.

In a way, we are talking about person and mask: a mask expresses only a single sentiment (see masks in Greek Theatre), while a person always expresses the complexity of sentiments. In support of this, I return to my 'claustrophobic' experience. I started to feel unease when Neela is first directed to accompany the baby to the hyperbaric room, and she simply asks: "You're sending me?" At that moment we are unaware of her claustrophobia, we might suspect it if we recollect the "N.I.C.U." episode (Season 10 - Episode 12,) but we cannot foresee her reaction once she is locked in the chamber.

This means that in a way, Parminder expresses a claustrophobic feeling without openly performing it. How does she do that?

I think that Parminder Nagra is able to convey sentiments without overt expression because she bases her performing process on truth. Approaching the subject from a purely logical perspective, the logician Gottlob Frege affirms that acting has nothing to do with truth. Obviously, I don't want to question Frege's authority, nor to falsify his logical assumptions, but nevertheless, I do think that there is at least a way in which an actor can portray 'truth'.

An actor can be true if s/he uses her/his performing abilities, honed through schooling and years of practice, to give bodily evidence to her/his real sentiments. When we watch a movie where two characters are in love with one another, we know that the sentiment between the actors is not true (at least in the majority of cases). We are aware that the performers are not really in love, but at the same time, they can be completely convincing only if they carry with them all of their past experiences of love, fear, hate, joy and sadness. So, if in a movie 'X' says to 'Y' "I love you", the logical connection that 'love' establishes between 'X' and 'Y' is not true (i.e. 'X' doesn't love 'Y'), but what could be true is the expression of love itself (i.e. 'X' and 'Y' could express their experience of love and of being loved, even if they do not love each other). It goes without saying that the expression of true sentiments is necessarily 'polyphonic'.

I believe that this is how Parminder works. When she acts, she is able to be almost 'skinless' (please forgive this rather unkind metaphor, but this is the best way to describe it). She recognizes the need to lose all of her 'inner protection' in order to express her deepest emotions through her acting. She never wears masks, and you can always recognize the person beyond the role she is playing, even when the role is that very special character named 'Parminder Nagra' - the one you might meet on Red Carpets or at official events. 

This seems to be an innocent and harmless strategy, but it is not. If you are disposed to forget your own "i-identity" and to experience Parminder's "s-identity", the power she achieves on you is devastating. She crawls under your skin and makes you feel everything she feels and/or she has felt. Through the adoption of a 'polyphonic' method of acting, in every single moment of a performance, she recollects and expresses a great variety of different sentiments, all of them 'true', even if not from a logical point of view, and hence she can let you perceive something you have never experienced (like claustrophobia). It doesn't matter if she is relying on her own experiences or not. Parminder Nagra may not suffer from claustrophobia, but can create this feeling using a different combination of sentiments that she has experienced. Moreover, Parminder can make you feel every little change of sentiment even without expressing it openly. A comparison might be an orchestral composition. You can almost unconsciously recognize the main theme played by a limited number of instruments, while all the others are playing something different, as Parminder can make you feel the claustrophobic fear of being trapped in an hyperbaric chamber, even if she is not openly expressing it. 

In conclusion, we could say that Parminder Nagra uses a polyphonic conception of acting and her almost ontological predisposition to truth in order to reach the roots of empathy, the very place where the emotional participation and engagement in a movie takes place. 

Shardy (

(Images from the 'ER' episode 'Blood Relations' - click on each to view full size)

Shardy indulges in some metaphysical ruminations and considers why the photograph may not lie - but doesn't necessarily tell the whole truth...

Why I don't like Parminder Nagra's pictures

Author: Shardy - 06.05.2007

There must be something wrong with me.

It started with being a Jess addict. I used to watch ' Bend It like Beckham' at least twice a week. Now I'm cutting down - with much effort - but I'm becoming more and more a compulsive 'Parmaniac'. Nevertheless, I don't like Parminder's pictures. I visited all the 'Parminder Nagra Online' Galleries and I hardly liked one photo. Why?. I couldn't explain this phenomenon' and searched for more and more shots without finding anything interesting.

An essay by a friend of mine helped me. In this work he talked about comics.
He observed that when you draw a face, it always has an expression. It is not possible to draw an 'expressionless' face. Furthermore, he commented that an expression is something more than the simple addition of single facial movements.

It has been proven that if you try to create an expression by combining parts of different photos of the same person, the result is never 'realistic'. The same thing happens when someone is just pretending to have an emotion. The reason is that expressions do not depend on the so called 'fixed traits' (the shape of the mouth, the shape of the eyes and so on), but on the 'variable ones'. The 'variable traits' could be described as "the expression beyond the physical traits that make the expression perceivable".

It is not immediately apparent that this has anything to do with my problem.
However, when you reflect further on this (as I did) you could find a possible solution.

Parminder Nagra is beautiful, no question about that. Actually, she is extremely beautiful, embarrassingly beautiful, unbearably beautiful... I could go on (I have to confess that I'm not completely impartial concerning Parminder!).
You can see that she is beautiful in every single picture. So what's the problem? Why don't I like them?
In every photo Parminder has a 'realistic' expression, and there is nothing that lets you think they are contrived. Nevertheless I do not like them. After a while I thought "maybe they didn't choose the right shots". I tried to create some 'Parminder pictures' myself using the 'Bend It like Beckham' DVD. I paused the machine and saved the images, only to discover that I didn't like those frames either. 

The experiment made me realize something obvious. The expression in a picture or a drawing is something static; it's a kind of frozen moment that suggests that a process has been stopped.

There is, however, an interesting difference between comics and photographs. When reading a comic, you know that it is something unreal, so you have to mentally reconstruct almost everything: the voices, the movements, the noises, the facial expressions and even the variable traits constitutive of the expression itself. A whole world is frozen in a few lines.
In contrast to this, when you see a photograph or 'captured image', you deal (or at least think that you are dealing) more closely with reality. The re-constructive process is not as present as when viewing a comic. What you have is a face or a body that has been temporarily suspended.

In this freezing process, the variable traits, those that ontologically constitute the expression, become more and more similar to the fixed ones. So when you like a photo of someone, especially if you don't know the individual personally, you do so merely in appreciation of the fixed traits. If you like actress X's picture, you do so because you think that in this photo she is beautiful, and you don't ask or expect more than her beauty to appear in the image. Even if you like her expression in that particular photo, in reality what you see are the variable traits rendered fixed. 

In the case of Parminder Nagra, things are a little bit different. When Parminder acts, you completely forget that she is beautiful; her beauty is just a collateral aspect of her performance. Her acting is so convincing it's difficult to keep in mind that it's a fiction. Director Gurinder Chadha, while talking about BILB, commented that when Parminder expresses sorrow, or the desire to do something which is forbidden to her, you can feel it right in your stomach.
I completely agree with her. Moreover, I think that she could have achieved the same result without being so astonishingly beautiful.

In conclusion, what you like in Parminder are not the fixed traits but the variable ones, which are necesarily dynamic. When I look at Parminder's pictures, what I see is her beauty, but at the same time they leave me completely unsatisfied because in their stillness the fixed and variable traits are almost indistinguishable. What I miss is exactly that which makes me see past her beauty.

There must definitely be something wrong with me (Now you know I'm right!)

Shardy (


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