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For 'Under the Bridge,' Archie Panjabi mined a mother's loss: 'I could not control the pain'

Yvonne Villarreal, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Entertainment News

"I hadn't heard of her story, which deeply shocked me because it hit me to the core," Archie Panjabi says somberly as she reflects on the matter.

It was 1997. Reena Virk was a 14-year-old Canadian girl whose parents were immigrants from India. She painted her nails blue and listened to the Notorious B.I.G., determined to push against the rules of home to fit in. Just a regular teenager. One night, she was lured to a party by a group of her peers before being brutally beaten and killed. Her grisly death drew attention to bullying and peer pressure, particularly among girls, and was deemed a national tragedy in Canada.

The harrowing story receives the true-crime treatment in Hulu's "Under the Bridge," which concluded Wednesday. The limited series follows writer Rebecca Godfrey and cop Cam Bentland, played respectively by Riley Keough and Lily Gladstone, who investigate the beating and murder of Virk (Vritika Gupta). Six teenage girls, many of them Virk's classmates, eventually were convicted on assault charges in the beating, and Kelly Ellard, along with Warren Glowatski, was convicted of her murder.

Developed by Quinn Shephard and Samir Mehta, the series largely gets its shape from the 2005 book of the same name by Godfrey, but it also relies on the memoir "Reena: A Father's Story," by Virk's father, Manjit Virk, to help deepen its portrait of Reena and her family and to move beyond simply a retelling of a horrific murder. As a result, it delves into race and the otherness experienced by a girl who was longing to belong.

The story, which jumps around in time, begins with Reena and her quest to fit in with Josephine Bell (Chloe Guidry), a John Gotti-obsessed foster kid, and her posse — Kelly (Izzy G) and Dusty Pace (Aiyana Goodfellow) — that leads to damaging rumors and the night that took a fatal turn.

Panjabi portrays Reena's mother, Suman, a reserved but resolute woman and member of the Jehovah's Witness faith who runs a home with rules that exasperate her eldest child. Over the course of the series, Panjabi subtly conveys a mother's tested patience and, later, the abject pain, devastation and strength of a parent experiencing the ultimate tragedy: the death of a child.

 

“It was a very dark road to be able to access that level of grief,” says Panjabi, who has a son and a daughter. “You look at your own life and you can’t imagine. ... I mean, how do you access that? Suman’s an incredibly strong woman. And the more I workshopped, I realized the very thing that Reena was trying to escape, which is her [mother’s] faith — she’s a devout Jehovah’s Witness — is the very thing that is a guiding light for someone. It didn’t heal her, but it put her onto the path of healing.”

It all leads to a striking and powerful moment in Wednesday's finale, titled "Mercy Alone," in which her character confronts one of her daughter's teenage killers, Warren (Javon "Wanna" Walton), before he stands trial. And she forgives him.

"I still cannot comprehend what she did, what it must have taken her to forgive," Panjabi says. "Everything inside me, when I had to say those words, I could not control the pain and how hard it was to see the killer in front of me. He looked so helpless. But what he had taken away from her life, it was unbearable. I couldn't care that it was melodramatic. It felt authentic. It felt very, very raw."

The series plays with the timeline of events and dramatizes elements of the real story — for example, Gladstone's character Cam, a Native law enforcement officer, is an invented character— and the scene with Warren is another example of that. In real life, after Glowatski was sentenced to prison, Manjit and Suman Virk went through a restorative justice program, in which victims' families and offenders meet face to face. The couple extended their forgiveness to Glowatski then, which Godfrey detailed in a 2019 reprint of her book. Mehta says they moved this event because it was a much longer process in real life, but nonetheless, it illustrated Suman Virk's "radical forgiveness."

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