Sacha Dhawan: Filming The Boy with the Topknot terrified me – but it made me more at ease with who I am

The actor admits he was not sure he was ready to star in BBC2’s adaptation of Sathnam Sanghera’s memoirs about being a second generation Indian growing up in Britain

The Boy with the Topknot (BBC, EH)

Sacha Dhawan is used to transforming himself for his roles: a 1920s playboy entrepreneur in Mr Selfridge, a deadly assassin in Sherlock, a Marvel supervillain in Netflix’s Iron Fist.

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But then along came a part that was dauntingly close to home. So close, in fact, that he almost turned it down.

The opportunity was to play the starring role in The Boy with the Topknot, BBC2’s one-off adaptation of Sathnam Sanghera’s critically acclaimed memoirs, about growing up as a British-born second generation Indian in Wolverhampton.

Sanghera – now a journalist for The Times – moved to London after graduating from Cambridge and, in his twenties, struggled to reconcile his two worlds.

Sanghera’s plans to defy his family’s expectations of an arranged marriage and tell them about his white British girlfriend were put on hold when he made the painful discovery that his father and sister have schizophrenia.

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On hearing about the opportunity to play Sanghera, Dhawan read his memoirs and was moved by how similar their experiences were.

Like Sanghera, Dhawan is from a Pubjabi family. He too, grew up in the north of England – in Stockport. And although Sanghera is Sikh and Dhawan is Hindu, their cultures are very close, and they certainly both know what it’s like to have mums who obsessively match-make.

“The audition came around and I got so terrified that I turned it down because it was too close to home for me,” says Dhawan. “I wasn’t sure if I was ready to put that on screen because there’s a lot of me in the role, as there is of Sathnam.”

Dhawan, 33, explains that much of his fear in taking the part stemmed from his own identity struggle, which mirrors Sanghera’s in The Boy with the Topknot. “I’m used to playing characters that are so different to me and I love that; it’s my safety blanket and I hide behind the character.

“With this, it was very much me being myself, which I thought I wasn’t ready to do yet. Also, I’ve always been slightly embarrassed about being stuck between two different worlds. I’m never quite sure where I fit.

“I’m glad that I overcame that challenge because now I’m proud of being who I am. I realised I was quite disconnected from my roots. To reconnect was really special.”

One of Sanghera’s biggest challenges, as depicted in the drama, is breaking the news to his parents that he is dating – more than that, he is in love with and engaged to – a non-Sikh woman in London. Dhawan can draw parallels between this and his own life: “There have been times I’ve been so worried that I’ve lived out relationships in hotel bedrooms, or going away to different cities so no one can find out or see us.”

It was Dhawan’s girlfriend who persuaded him to take the role, which he says now has “freed” him and “made me so much more at ease with who I am”.

The Boy with the Topknot is refreshing, he says, because as opposed to being “another stereotypical story about an Indian family”, it succeeds in accurately voicing what it is like to be a young British-born second generation Indian trying to navigate life in northern England.

The drama also clearly identifies that Sanghera’s family is Sikh, whereas in the past, Dhawan says, many series have been “quite generalised: we just say, ‘Oh, they’re Indian.’”

Although The Boy with the Topknot is about an Indian family, its themes should resonate with people of all ethnicities who, with age, have developed an interest in and dug back through their parent’s history. “It’s primarily about family,” says Dhawan, “and I think at the moment we’re constantly fed with political, heavy police dramas and period dramas, so it’s just nice to be presented with a human story.”

The Boy with the Topknot (Getty, EH)

One last – and perhaps the most important – reason to watch this film is its portrayal of and approach to mental illness. Sanghera, though apprehensive about the adaptation, wrote in Radio Times that he felt he had to be part of it in order to ensure that the drama depicted schizophrenia fairly.

“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,” he wrote.

Dhawan echoes this wish, saying that families like his and Sanghera’s are often too proud to talk about what’s going on, or too concerned about how the rest of the community perceives them.

“I’m proud for the book and the film to act as a vehicle to start opening up conversations about mental illness.”

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The Boy with the Topknot is on Monday 13th November at 9pm on BBC2