Interview with Sanjeev Bhaskar, star of The Kumars at No 42
PUBLISHED: 12:04 05 January 2010 | UPDATED: 16:30 20 February 2013
Interview with Sanjeev Bhaskar, creator and star of TV hit The Kumars at No 42...
When writer, actor and comedian Sanjeev Bhaskar failed to get into the University of Sussex in the 1980s he never thought that one day he would be its Chancellor. As the creator and star of the TV hit The Kumars at No 42 tells Angela Wintle, that initial setback wasnt the only hurdle that he has managed to overcome...
Sanjeev Bhaskarcant help seeing the supreme irony in his recent appointment as Chancellor of the University of Sussex. He applied for a place in the 1980s, conscious of the universitys irreverent and challenging reputation, but his paltry A-level results didnt make the grade and he shuffled off to Hatfield Poly instead.
And just look at him now. This month, resplendent in gown and mortar board, hell be conferring degrees on Sussex students at the university's winter graduation ceremony. You can imagine how proud his TV parents will be (you know, those Kumars at No 42), though I cant speak for Granny Sushila. In fact, it might be wise, Sanjeev, to lock her in a broom cupboard until the whole thing is over. We dont want her making improper suggestions to the dignitaries in the front row!
But back to more serious matters. Sanjeev, by his own admission, was an unexpected appointment and certainly a contrast to his predecessor, Lord Attenborough. When he was inaugurated last July, one journalist couldnt resist asking whether his celebrity status had played any part in the selection process.
He tackles the topic with his customary self deprecation. If I was chosen on that basis, I can think of much better celebrities, he says. If it had been up to me, Id have chosen Johnny Depp.
The Vice-Chancellor, Michael Farthing, says he was selected because they were looking for someone who embodied the values and spirit of the university whose success, ambitions and hopes for the world reflected the special community that is the University of Sussex.
Sanjeev, he says, was the perfect candidate a gifted writer and entertainer, who has also demonstrated a real commitment to education across continents. The university hopes to harness this as it progresses its ambition to further internationalise.
I was very surprised and honoured, says Sanjeev. Ive always been passionate about education and we live in a very fortunate part of the world, where its accessible to all.
There can be no better grounding for a young person than to be educated. You can carry that wherever you go. And its something Ive remained passionate about, even though my own academic history was somewhat chequered.
The Chancellor acts as the universitys figurehead. As well as conferring degrees at the summer and winter graduation ceremonies, he is the chair of Court, which meets once a year to receive a report on the universitys activities. The Chancellor also works closely with the wider social and business world.
Sanjeev says his key ambition is to forge a good relationship with the students. When I first met the Vice-Chancellor, I said I wanted to do something tangible, something relevant. Id like to be involved in student debates and act as a conduit between the students and the universitys governing bodies.
The straight A students never have to worry. They will sail through and hopefully achieve great things. But there are many who struggle with the decisions, or the work, or the balance between the social and academic aspects of campus life. I struggled with all of those. And I hope to be a torch bearer for them.
Destination of choice
Sanjeev, 45, is no stranger to Sussex. Brighton was always the destination of choice when I was growing up, he says. Whenever we went for a trip to the seaside or had relatives from India to visit, we came to Brighton. And the Royal Pavilion, of course, was a very familiar structure.
Brought up in Middlesex, Sanjeev was the elder child of immigrant parents, who left the Punjab in the late 1950s. His father was employed as a factory supervisor and his mother worked as an English teacher and later an accountant. Fast forward 30 years, and Sanjeev is now an urbane high flier, with a smart London house and global reputation.
It was Goodness Gracious Me, the cult Radio 4 show which successfully transferred to television, which established him as a star.
But it was his hilarious puncturing of social stereotypes in The Kumars, a chat show wrapped into a sitcom centring on a fictional Anglo-Indian family in Wimbledon, which captivated audiences across the world.
The show, which he wrote and devised, attracted millions of viewers and won a haul of awards.
He says the Kumars were based on his actual parents. I introduced a girlfriend to them once and my dad said: Pleased to meet you, how much does your father earn? I told him that he couldnt say that and he snapped: Im only asking a question! Then, my mum added: Im sorry about my son, hes terrible at handling rejection. All this in the space of a few minutes!
The celebrity guests on The Kumars never quite knew what to expect, but the roll call was impressive all the same from Sir Michael Parkinson and Stephen Fry to Richard E Grant, Donny Osmond and Sir Tom Jones.
Initially, Sanjeev feared the guests might destabilise the programme, though the odds were always stacked in his favour, he says. There were four of us and only one of them. And besides, we had our nuclear weapon Granny, there to undercut and undermine absolutely everyone.
Now, of course, Granny, alias actress and writer Meera Syal, is the real Mrs Bhaskar, and they have a three year-old son Shaan, as well as Meeras daughter Chameli from her previous marriage.
Meera may have played an 85-year-old dowager, padded with latex, but even such passion-killing roleplay wasnt enough to prevent a partnership which seems to have begun, out of the blue, during a promotional tour of Australia.
It was actually the journey there, says Sanjeev. After 23 hours together on a plane, you either end up hating each other or getting married.
The reality was a little more complicated, of course. Theyd known each other for nearly 10 years, and their relationship developed slowly and organically.
It wasnt like a countdown with a starting pistol. There was no thunderbolt. It just made sense. We had similar views and a similar sense of humour. And the nice thing was that it grew out of friendship.
He says his wife is far more gifted than him, and he just brings up the average. Then he adds mischievously: Im legally obliged to say that.
Neither spoke for some time about their new status. Even the couples agents werent told about their wedding at a register office at Lichfield in Staffordshire in 2005. But they didnt set out to mislead people, he says. It was simply that no one twigged that they were more than good friends.
Marriage and fatherhood has brought Sanjeev a new-found contentment, though its hard to believe this measured and reflective man, whose cultured speaking voice is a million miles from the south London vowels of Sanjeev in The Kumars, once suffered from acute low self-esteem. The handicap led him to favour dank, dingy homes when he could have afforded much better, and even prevented him from looking at his own reflection.
Perhaps many of his problems stem from two key incidents in his adolescence and early adulthood. His schooldays were lived in the shadow of the Southall riots in a climate of vicious racism. At Sanjeevs secondary school, 30 per cent of the pupils were Asian, and the National Front recruited at the school gates.
We [the Asian children] were a big enough minority to be a target. I got racism from both sides, because I was friends with white and Asian pupils, and the rules said you must nail your colours to the mast.
I ask whether its true that only two children would sit next to him at class, and he says: For about four months no one did.
He kept this to himself and disappeared to the school library during break to avoid confrontation.
It was certainly a crash-course lesson in group dynamics and peer group pressure. Lots of people didnt speak to me, not because they disliked me, but because the movers and shakers in the school demanded it. It was a great lesson in defining who I was and who my people were.
This sense of isolation repeated itself when he later worked in marketing. He took out a legal action against one employer, alleging breach of contract, and it dragged on for two years, leaving him without the vital reference he needed to find another job.
I became very depressed and had to move back in with my parents. I believed that I would spend the rest of my life paying back a debt. At 30, all I could see was a void in front of me.
He signed on the dole and watched endless videos, back to back, to kill time. His despair peaked when he watched two of the most depressing films ever made as the sun went down. Realising that hed reached rock bottom, the very next day he volunteered for his local hospital radio station, and it saved his sanity.
And so his luck changed. His old firm settled out of court and he tried his hand at acting. Teaming up with an old college friend, he began drawing on his British and Asian experiences to perform in his own revue. A TV producer spotted him and he was drafted on to Goodness Gracious Me. He was finally on his way.
It strikes me that Sanjeev has struggled to match the success of the Kumars. Indeed, ITV pulled the plug on Mumbai Calling, a sitcom he wrote and starred in, after just one series.
Nevertheless, work continues to roll in and he will appear in two films this year. The first, Its a Wonderful Afterlife, is a comedy about a serial killer who goes on a killing spree in West Londons Asian community. He plays the ghost of a victim who haunts the murderer.
A return to writing
This spring, youll also be able to catch him playing a doctor in a star-studded American movie called London Boulevard, opposite Keira Knightley.
After last years successful West End spell as the all-singing, all-dancing King Arthur in Spamalot, he has now returned to writing (he owns his own production company) and is waiting to hear if ITV will commission his latest comedy set in childrens TV.
He still believes there arent enough British Asians on television, but cant see a solution. Theres a lack of imagination when it comes to casting. If theres an Asian character I might get a call. But if the character is called Philip, the chances are I wont. Spamalot was one of the few exceptions. It was great for my ethnicity not to be a factor.
But far from turning his back on his heritage, in 2007 he embarked on an emotional journey to his fathers ancestral home, now in Pakistan, as part of the BBCs series of programmes marking the 60th anniversary of Indian independence.
I visited the streets and alleys where my father had played, and became a witness to his childhood in a most unexpected way.
I rang him during filming and said: Im standing where no one in our family has stood for 60 years. That gave us an unspoken understanding that we couldnt have had before.
Going back to that little village in Pakistan, where my father was born under the Raj, was remarkable for a kid who had grown up in Hounslow, just a stones throw from Heathrow airport. And its just as remarkable to think how my familys circumstances have changed in one generation.
But my own journey has been no less extraordinary this year. To be made Chancellor of the University of Sussex, the very place where I didnt get in ... Well, thats just poetic.