By FRAZIER MOORE
NEW YORK — Apart from “Mad Men” in its 1960s setting, most TV dramas shy from showing anyone with cigarettes.
But that doesn’t mean Kalinda Sharma isn’t constantly smoking on “The Good Wife.” No cigarettes are involved, mind you, nor are they needed by this steamy in-house investigator at the Chicago law firm of Lockhart Gardner. With her implacable shrewdness, sass and sexuality, Kalinda heats up every scene she’s in.
No wonder she has emerged as a viewer favorite among the many colorful characters populating this CBS drama. And no wonder Archie Panjabi, who last year won an Emmy for her portrayal of Kalinda, can hold her own in a robust cast of actors who include series star Julianna Margulies as well as Christine Baranski, Josh Charles, Matt Czuchry, Alan Cumming and Chris Noth. (“The Good Wife” airs Sunday at 9 p.m. EST.)
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“I’m not just a woman in a pair of boots,” says Panjabi, describing her character with delicious understatement.
Along with her trademark knee-high boots, Kalinda is distinguished by the tough-gal wardrobe snugly sheathing her petite frame and, at the same time, by her defiant composure – little if anything throws her, stops her (including ethics or legal niceties), or penetrates her well-defended shell.
Adding to the intrigue of Kalinda is her matter-of-fact bisexuality, and her exotic but so-far-unexamined ethnic origins. To its credit, “The Good Wife” makes nothing of the fact that the actress chosen to play her is Indian and, though British-born, has adopted for Kalinda a throaty, Americanized purr that obscures any regional identity.
In short, Kalinda cannot be categorized. She is who she is: a source of fascination.
“I think that’s the way forward,” says Panjabi. “You don’t focus on the differences, you don’t make an issue of them – you just present them.”
Meanwhile, the enigmatic Kalinda will have a few more layers peeled away in coming episodes.
“I’ve looked at the script and gone, `Oh my God. Really? Is “The Good Wife” going to go here?’ And they went there,” she teases. “Playing Kalinda definitely keeps me on my feet.”
The 39-year-old Panjabi, whose birth name is Archana, knew from a tender age that she wanted to be an actress, “and I said no one would stop me from doing it.
“Coming from an Indian family and seeing the differences between them and our English neighbors, the differences in cultures always fascinated me,” she says. “That’s probably the source of my desire to earn a living out of being different people. There’s nothing more challenging or exciting than being able to get into the heart and soul of another human being, and show that to the audience convincingly, from head to toe.”
She landed roles on British television and made her film debut as a soccer-loving tomboy in the romantic comedy “East Is East.” Subsequent films include “Traitor,” “Bend It Like Beckham,” “The Constant Gardener,” “A Good Year” and “A Mighty Heart.”
Along the way she wed Rajesh Nihalani, a bespoke tailor with whom she lives in London when professional pursuits aren’t intruding.
But three seasons ago, she was invited to be part of a prospective New York-based TV series, a blend of courtroom procedural, high-stakes office battleground and domestic melodrama.
In the shorthand of casting, the character she was asked to play might be described as a Bollywood version of a Sam Spade detective with a feminist twist. “It’s a throwback to the past, but a modern version of it,” says Panjabi, who, in her portrayal, makes much more of Kalinda than any simple recipe.
“At first, the role kind of scared me,” she concedes. “Kalinda seemed like somebody who used her looks as opposed to her mind, and I was nervous that she would have a limited range. But then they also made her incredibly smart.”
Panjabi, who in person is soft-spoken, with raven hair to her shoulders, a hearty laugh and sparkling eyes, began building Kalinda from the ground up – that is, her boots, “which was something I was particular about.”
She says she was given the choice of playing Kalinda with a British or American accent, and with hair up or down. (She chose her hair tightly bound up as a sign of Kalinda’s fierce self-control. Besides, “She didn’t need her hair down to feel sexy.”)
When the pilot episode was shot, she recalls, “I didn’t want her to dress in a sexy way. I was keen for her to be in jeans and a T-shirt, as if she didn’t care what she looked like.”
But once shooting resumed for the series’ first season, the producers wanted her attire to express her sexuality. She kept the leather jacket and the boots (which are not just for vanity: “I can really run in them,” Panjabi says), adding a snug skirt and tights to what became her signature style.
“The clothes and the look definitely help me perform the character,” says Panjabi, adding that, despite all her differences with Kalinda, they share one trait: “There’s very few people that intimidate me,” she says with a laugh. “That’s a little part of me in Kalinda coming through.”
In the past, friendship-averse Kalinda had begun to be chummy with Alicia Florrick (played by Margulies), her law firm co-worker. But their connection was dashed when Alicia learned that not only had Kalinda previously worked for her husband (Noth), but had also slept with him.
On this Sunday’s episode, Kalinda has an unexpected sexual encounter with another character while investigating a case, in a story arc that promises to heat up for her.
That suits Panjabi fine.
“There are so many smart women I know who are unafraid to celebrate their sexuality,” she says. “Kalinda is sexy, yet people are drawn to her also because of the way she thinks. She’s really struck a chord with women as well as men, and I don’t think we see that kind of character on TV as much as we should.”
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