‘The establishment didn’t know what to do with me’: Sanjeev Bhaskar on marriage, success and stereotypes

Goodness Gracious Me made him a household name. Now The Sandman could bring international stardom. He talks about the bullies who tried to keep him down – and life as a reluctant role model

In 1995, 31-year-old Sanjeev Bhaskar was performing a two-week run of The Secret Asians, his comedy double act with the musician Nitin Sawhney, at Ovalhouse theatre in south London. After a surprise rave review from Bonnie Greer in Time Out magazine, a group of BBC executives, including the future producer of The Office, Anil Gupta, flipped a coin to see whether they should go to the show after work or head to the pub. Luckily for Bhaskar, the toss went in his favour. The show was such a hit that they offered him the chance to put those sketches on Radio 4 as part of a new comedy show exploring British Asian culture. It was called Goodness Gracious Me – and it would make Bhaskar a household name.

By 1998, the show had transferred to primetime on BBC Two and was a firm part of the British Asian cultural zeitgeist. In music, the so-called Asian underground movement was giving voice to second-generation migrants through its mix of club culture and north Indian bhangra. In film, writers and directors such as Gurinder Chadha and Ayub Khan Din explored intergenerational differences in Bhaji on the Beach and East Is East. On TV, Bhaskar’s sketch series – created by an ensemble of British Asian actors including Bhaskar’s future wife, Meera Syal – lampooned British Asian stereotypes through a mixture of farce and knowing irony.

With its skits on curry house culture, fake eastern mysticism and competitive mothers, it reached cult-classic status in British Asian households. Watching it at home as a child, I saw the constituent elements of my community reflected for the first time, with punchlines, played for laughs, that would be fully felt only by those who had lived those experiences. It was television that was for us, by us.

“It was the right group of people at the right time,” Bhaskar says. “It feels like a landmark today, but five years earlier it wouldn’t have happened and five years later someone else might have done it. I’m thankful that we were there.”

International breakthrough … watch the trailer for The Sandman.

When Goodness Gracious Me’s TV run ended after three seasons, in 2001, Bhaskar co-created the spoof chatshow The Kumars at No 42. He has since explored dramatic work, with starring roles in the gentle period series The Indian Doctor and, since 2015, the acclaimed cold-case drama Unforgotten. “It was partly a conscious decision to move into drama. I wanted to explore the drama side of acting, partly because you just want to see if you can do it,” he says. This week, he will feature in what could be his international breakthrough: the much-anticipated Netflix adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s graphic novel series The Sandman, alongside Tom Sturridge, Gwendoline Christie and Stephen Fry.

Meeting Bhaskar, who has spent 25 years on British screens, often playing British Asian caricatures, feels akin to meeting a close relative. In fact, he might be one: his parents are from Punjab, India, like my relatives; we grew up in the same area of London, Hounslow; and his father, Inderjit, worked in the same Nestlé factory in Hayes as my grandmother. It was only when Bhaskar’s career was taking off that he discovered his father had other ambitions. “I only found out in my 40s that he had always wanted to be a director,” he says.

We are sitting in the airy front room of the north London home he shares with Syal and their 16-year-old son, Shaan. It is the hottest day of the year. While going outside feels like stepping in front of a hairdryer, Bhaskar is relaxed and sweat-free, dressed in a black “Choose Love” T-shirt.

Kulvinder Ghir, Nina Wadia, Meera Syal and Sanjeev Bhaskar in Goodness Gracious Me
‘The establishment clearly didn’t know what to do with us’ … Kulvinder Ghir, Nina Wadia, Meera Syal and Bhaskar in Goodness Gracious Me. Photograph: BBC

“My parents grew up in pre-partition India and when my dad was 14 he ran away to join a theatre company,” he says. “He rode the trains and slept on the streets for two months before he was turned away from the company for being too young. He only made it back home because one day he came across an anti-colonial march that Gandhi was leading and was teargassed with the crowd. He ended up in hospital and they managed to inform his parents.”

The year after, in 1947, partition took place. Inderjit found himself in what is now Pakistan. With religious tensions growing, he was forced to move south, to Delhi, where he had no family. “He had to stay in a refugee camp,” Bhaskar says. “He later moved to England, in 1956, but I always think that coming here was not as much of a wrench as that migration. These were ancestral lands that were changed. No one travelled much in those days, so to suddenly go hundreds of miles to Delhi, where he had no connection, must have been brutal.”

Bhaskar’s mother, Janak, joined her husband in the UK in 1960. By the time Bhaskar was born, in 1963, they had settled above a launderette in Hounslow. In his spare time, Inderjit would take two buses to a film school in Brixton to take a course on directing. But when his sister’s husband died suddenly, Inderjit decided to quit his studies to support her four young children financially. “He knew what it was like to crush your own dreams, so that explained why he wasn’t more supportive of me when I started out,” Bhaskar says. “He didn’t want his son to go through that as well.”

Bhaskar’s start in performance was slow. “I knew from the age of four that I wanted to act and write – I would point at the TV and say to my mum: ‘I can do better than that!’” he says, laughing. “But it took me 30 years to get going. When I did, my parents were shocked, since I was usually so quiet at home.”

He describes a childhood of “isolation and bullying at school”, which ultimately led him to cultivate a sense of humour as a coping mechanism. “It was embedded in my ability to survive,” he says. “Humour and irony gives you instant perspective. It can make a terrifying, all-encompassing situation seem ridiculous and manageable. In those years, I would turn to my bedroom wall as an escape. Up there were posters of Elvis, Roger Moore as Bond, Monty Python’s Life of Brian – that was my fantasy land. That, coupled with this sense of irony, saved me in all the challenging times I had to go through, since there was always a bit of me that could see it as absurd.”

Having written off school, Bhaskar reinvented himself in college, away from his bullies. There he met a kindred spirit in Sawhney, who would later be in the vanguard of the Asian underground scene; his fourth album, Beyond Skin, was nominated for the Mercury prize in 2000. “We started messing around making little musical comedy skits,” Bhaskar says. “They were things that would pass the time and provide an escape from everything we were going through – from racism to teenage growing pains.”

Still, the sketches were only a private experiment for Bhaskar and Sawhney – until Bhaskar left his marketing job in his late 20s over a breach-of-contract dispute. “I had all this time on my hands, so I rang Nitin and said: ‘Let’s hang out and make some stuff together again,’” he says. “We agreed to be unpredictable – people had put us in pigeonholes since we were born, because we were Asian, so we wanted to go against their preconceptions by doing something totally different onstage.”

Sanjeev Bhaskar with Nicola Walker in Unforgotten
Dramatic leap … with Nicola Walker in Unforgotten. Photograph: ITV

They began performing skits under the name The Secret Asians in London arts centres and were soon booked to perform their fateful run at Ovalhouse in 1995. The show was a collage of chaos. It included characters who would later feature in Goodness Gracious Me, such as the Bhangra Muffins and Guru Maharishi Yogi, as well as standup and a flamenco performance from Sawhney and Bhaskar singing a song in Italian. “It was so freeing – like a deep exhalation,” Bhaskar says.

In 1998, Bhaskar, Syal and their co-stars, including Nina Wadia and Kulvinder Ghir, found themselves on television, airing to millions every week. (Sawhney had contributed to the radio series, but left to focus on music after the success of Beyond Skin.) “It was hugely cathartic for us, because we had been carrying these experiences around for years and now were in control of that narrative,” Bhaskar says. “We could make jokes about our community that weren’t sectarian and that were written with affection. That’s why we had a broad audience and why people still have a great fondness for the show.” Bhaskar says his Sandman co-star, the British Asian actor and comedian Asim Chaudhry, told him that Goodness Gracious Me was a touchstone for his own work.

On The Kumars at No 42, which was hosted by a fictional British Asian family, Bhaskar interviewed stars including Minnie Driver, Daniel Radcliffe and Tom Jones over the course of seven seasons. Apparently, it is one of the Queen’s favourite shows. “Any conversations you have with the monarch are supposed to remain private,” Bhaskar says, with a smile. “But what I can tell you is I know that she has watched it and I’ve spoken to her about it. My parents are thrilled!”

While The Kumars was in production, Bhaskar took a press trip to Australia with the cast of Goodness Gracious Me. It was during the 23-hour flight that he realised there was a romantic spark between him and Syal. “We were on such a high – we were being flown first class to promote the show, which had been a hit over there; Meera was releasing her film Anita & Me; and we had just found out that we’d gotten to No 1 on the UK chart with our Comic Relief single with Gareth Gates,” Bhaskar says. “The thing with 23 hours in someone’s company is that you get the raw version of each other – especially me, since I can’t sleep on a plane. I had no filter and Meera was very nice about it. It was an intense period, but that intensity made us both realise that we wanted to hang out with each other more.”

The pair are one of the best-known British Asian couples, but how do they manage as two writers and performers under one roof? “It helps that I openly accept she’s just much better than I am at everything,” Bhaskar says. “But it’s key to value the team and to always do what’s best for our partnership, rather than just our individual careers. We’ve tried to tag team when it comes to work, so there was always a parent at home, and I don’t regret turning things down for that.”

With their visibility, does Bhaskar feel they are representative of British Asians in the public eye? “I’m aware there’s a responsibility. It’s not what I asked for, but it’s one that I have been given,” he says. “I don’t think I’m a particularly good role model, but I try to live a compassionate life.” He points to the “Choose Love” slogan on his T-shirt. “I’ve met awful people from all races, religions and genders and I’ve met wonderful people with all those identities, too. People are individuals and we have to treat each other with kindness first. Belonging to a particular club isn’t a shorthand for having the moral high ground.”

Bhaskar has most readily used his public status to promote onscreen diversity. “We didn’t win many awards with Goodness Gracious Me, because the establishment clearly didn’t know what to do with us,” he says. “It’s slightly depressing that it still feels like a landmark show, since that means things still haven’t come on enough.”

Sanjeev Bhaskar collecting an MBE with Meera Syal, his wife, in 2006
Reluctant role model … collecting an MBE with Meera Syal in 2006. Photograph: Rex Features

He mentions We Are Lady Parts, Nida Manzoor’s 2021 comedy series about an all-female Muslim punk band, as an example of storytelling moving in the right direction. “I felt a kindred spirit with that show, as it was similar to what we were trying to do, but updating it for the new generation,” Bhaskar says. “Having art from a unique cultural perspective is really important. Equally, any programme set in modern Britain that isn’t diverse is making a conscious decision to be that way, as it doesn’t reflect the makeup of our nation and especially our cities. A story in London that has five white guys in it who are 30 or 35, for instance, is set in a weird fantasy world of the writer’s head.”

If diversity is lacking on screen, what does he think of the possibility of a first British Asian prime minister in Rishi Sunak? “Growing up, the Conservatives were the natural political home for a lot of Asians who had their own businesses, but these Johnsonian years have been full of misinformation, buffoonery, the breaking of laws and just an utter lack of compassion,” Bhaskar says. “If I look at it just in terms of visibility, the idea that there may be an Asian prime minister is an extraordinary thing. But, in context, it feels like they’re all just playing a game. We need someone who can actually fix this country’s problems, no matter what they look like, rather than bluster on a wave of jingoism and emotion. Where’s the humanity?”

Ultimately, it is in his son and the next generation that Bhaskar finds hope. “Every generation basically screws it up for the next one, but out of adversity in history come people who change the world,” he says. “If we’re a shit generation, I hope our children rebel against our lack of thought and narrow-mindedness.”

With his parents now 91 and still living in Hounslow, Bhaskar has increasingly been looking back to his childhood. “My parents didn’t understand my career at first – you had to see other people who looked like me to believe success was possible and there was no one else there,” he says. “But my dad said recently that he’s living out his dreams through me and that makes all our old arguments mean nothing. I feel so lucky that our paths have coalesced.” He pauses. “If 14-year-old me could see where I am now, he’d tell me to piss off. But I want to tell him that we will make it out of that launderette and even become friends with some of those people on our bedroom wall. For all the shit we went through, with luck and without, it leads us here.”

The Sandman is on Netflix from 5 August


Ammar Kalia

The GuardianTramp

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