Author and journalist Sathnam Sanghera wrote his memoir The Boy With the Topknot in 2009. Now, BBC2 is adapting his story with star Sacha Dhawan. Here he looks back on the book’s publications – and what his family think about seeing their story on TV
A couple of years ago, one of my nieces was given a choice of essays to tackle over the school summer holidays. She could write about the Second World War, considering the question of whether Britain should apologise for the bombing of Dresden in 1945. She could veer into the realm of medicine and explore how the use of antibiotics might change in the future. Or she could read my family memoir, The Boy with the Topknot, and ponder the question of how the author “presents the struggle for identity” in the work.
Given she was a teenager and therefore regarded the subject of her own family as the most tedious thing on the planet, she opted for Dresden. The next year, her sister faced the same options, and seemed marginally more interested in a book in which she actually featured. But this time, I found myself stopping her from reading it, fearing 15 might be too young an age to be burdened with the painful facts of the story: my father’s and their mother’s experience of schizophrenia, and my agonised attempts to break free from the pressure to marry a fellow Sikh in my 20s.
If I’ve found myself recalling this lately, it’s because the book has now been adapted by BBC2 into a drama, and, as with the memoir, the question I have been getting more than any other is: “How do your family feel about it?” Implicit in the enquiry is the assumption that there is such a thing as a unified and consistent reaction, when the fact is, as my nieces’ summer project demonstrated, every member of the family has felt differently about it at different times. Also, given that it essentially deals with the worst things that have ever happened to me, I have found my feelings about it have varied wildly too.
Indeed, I think we have as a family, between us, and over the decade between writing and broadcast, responded in almost every possible way. The book was published with my whole family’s permission, after my sister, my nieces’ mother, had asked for parts of it to be deleted. This killed me at the time, but now I am hugely thankful because it means we still have some private experiences, and it also meant the book came out with her blessing. She appreciated the final version so much that she has read it four times. People with schizophrenia often feel shunned by society, and sometimes even by their own families, so having your story told can feel important.
Meanwhile, another sister got as far as page 40 and gave up, she said, because I “used too many big words”, providing an important and unexpected lesson for a writer: sometimes people who don’t read books just don’t give a toss. Then, my brother, who was understandably apprehensive about the whole exercise, declared on reading a draft that I had been “too nice” about him.
The reactions to the TV adaptation have, if anything, been even more bewildering. The sister who hasn’t read the book has suddenly become intrigued, TV being her medium of choice. My brother expressed reservations but then, on seeing it, joked that his role in the family story had been minimised.
Meanwhile, my mother, who went to a private screening before any significant number of people saw it, gave about 45 seconds of intense feedback, saying she couldn’t believe how well Anupam Kher had portrayed my father, and heaping praise on the child actor playing me. She then immediately changed the subject to that of how the driveway needed to be fixed, and could I get onto it.
In the middle of it all, the person supposedly navigating everyone through the project, but probably experiencing more wildly oscillating feelings than anyone: me. The book was originally with another production company, but I let the option lapse after a family bereavement because I felt vulnerable and that we could all do without the attention.
When [producer] Nisha Parti persuaded me to give it another shot with the BBC, seeming to really connect with the story, I decided I would keep my distance from the project – I thought it would need to work on its own terms, as telly, but also because the material is so painful that I didn’t particularly want to spend years reliving it. But then, when production began, it became apparent I simply would have to get involved to make sure they portrayed my family fairly, and got the facts right about schizophrenia – one of the most misunderstood illnesses out there.
Not that there has been anything formal about my involvement. The producers and director made it clear that they would listen to anything I had to say, but I tried to give them space, until, usually at three in the morning, I could no longer manage my emotional freak-out and would send tense emails about some aspect of the production. Without fail, they listened and responded with compassion and made the right changes, but it has been an emotional rollercoaster with periods of crippling motion sickness for me.
I was absolutely thrilled, for instance, when the talented Anupam Kher was cast in the role of my father, and his performance is spectacular, but when he posted a picture from set with the hashtag #sathnamsfather on Instagram, I found myself, for reasons I can’t really explain, screaming “You’re not my father!” at my phone.
Having Sacha Dhawan play me was a dream, but I felt like a tosser when he spent a day with me at my day job at The Times and I had to introduce him to colleagues as the man playing me in the film of my life. Visiting the set, where my childhood home had been reconstructed in an insane amount of detail, complete with the music compilations I used to tape, was incredible – but I couldn’t leave quickly enough, because that bedroom was the setting of so much pain.
At times I have wanted to have nothing to do with the whole thing, and at others I have fretted about losing control. At times I have not wanted to even think about it; at others I have felt aggrieved that I haven’t been consulted.
And I now understand why so few memoirs make it onto the big or small screen, and why those that do rarely get the support of the author. It’s not just that a third party is taking control of your work, but they are also taking control of your life story, and how those you love most in the world are portrayed to a large audience.
In short, the whole thing is almost impossible to navigate. The fact that it has all turned out well, with my family not only turning up to the BFI preview screening last month but being delighted with the final film, is nothing short of a miracle. It helps, I suppose, that the cast, director and producers approached the whole thing with such sensitivity. I should thank them, because I definitely would have blamed them if it had all gone wrong.
It also helps that we value our family relationships much more than anyone’s version of events (my nieces read the book before the screening, by the way), and that there has been a meaningful reason to do it all: to improve understanding of schizophrenia. I hope it has some effect.
The Boy with the Topknot is on Monday 13th November at 9pm on BBC1