EastEnders star Rakhee Thakrar on Shabnam’s stillbirth trauma – “Her coping mechanism is to shut everyone out and run away”

The actress reveals what's in store during next week's emotional episodes of the BBC1 soap

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Heartbroken Shabnam Masood will next week have to face the awful ordeal of having to give birth to the son that doctors have told her has died. It’s a trauma that looks set to test her and Kush’s relationship to breaking point and have far-reaching repercussions for the Masood family.

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Will Shabnam be able to reconcile with her husband-to-be? And can her friendship with the pregnant Stacey survive? 

Here, actress Rakhee Thakrar talks about to RadioTimes.com all aspects of Shabnam’s future and her own experiences of filming this emotive plotline…

How will Kush and Shabnam cope now that the doctor has told them that their baby has died?
Well, the death of a baby can make or break a relationship. It sounds like a cliché, but it’s true. In Monday’s episode, just before Shabnam starts having her contractions, the nurse is asking them about whether they want to hold the baby and have photographs – and Kush just legs it. It’s too much for him. And he only comes back to the delivery suite about 30 seconds before the baby is born. So, in Shabnam’s head, he could have missed it. Just when she needed him the most.

So, why does Shabnam decide to leave for Pakistan?
Her coping mechanism is to shut everyone out and run away. It feels like her world has just stopped following the death of her baby, so the whole situation is just too much for her to handle. Her answer is to make plans to go to Pakistan.

When Shabnam was first re-introduced, she was this brittle, judgemental person – but the layers have gradually been peeled away. Is that something you’ve enjoyed?
Our executive producer Dominic Treadwell-Collins kept telling me to trust him. Initially, I’d be saying, “but they all hate me!” And he told me that was good because it gave them somewhere to go with the character. And now I get what he means. Shabnam is one of those people who you write off as being prickly, but then you realise later that they’ve been deeply traumatised and hurt in the past. She spouts these opinions so that people won’t look at the person underneath. So getting her to fall in love, for instance, was very clever. It was The Taming of the Shabnam.

If Shabnam ends up staying, what will happen to her friendship with Stacey? How will Shabnam cope with Stacey being pregnant?
That will be really difficult. Shabnam will watch Stacey progress with her pregnancy and see all the things that she was supposed to have. From the research I’ve done, a lot of women say that once their baby dies, all they can see is pregnant women and prams. And it’s relentless. Shabnam is trying to be OK with it – but what other choice does she have? Stacey’s her best mate and she can’t suddenly leave her side.

The charge that’s levelled against EastEnders is that it’s depressing – but do you think that it should tackle traumatic issues like stillbirth?
EastEnders has such a rich history of doing issues like this and I want to help start conversations in living rooms. Telly can reflect things that you’ve felt in a real way and, all of a sudden, you realise that you’re not alone. That’s very important, especially when it comes to grief, which is so isolating. I also hope that it encourages women who are concerned about their own baby’s foetal movement to ring their midwife. It’s not about sending people into a crazy panic – but if you think that there’s a problem, there’s no harm in calling your midwife because that’s what they’re there for.

And it is quite rare to see stillbirth addressed in TV drama…
It does feel like a dated word. One person I spoke to recently even said: “does that still happen?” And yet it’s something that happens every day [11 babies are stillborn each day in the UK, making it 15 times more common than cot death]. So, as hard as it is to hear about it, people do need to know. The thing about stillbirth is that you never get to see your baby’s eyes or hear them take a breath. Can you imagine pushing out a baby knowing that there’s going to be a silence at the end of it?

How did the research you did with Sands [the stillbirth and neonatal death charity] affect you?
On my first visit to Sands, I spent four hours with Erica Stewart, who’s their bereavement support services manager. She’s been on hand for everything with this story and her commitment is unbelievable. I have so much praise for that woman. After the initial visit, I remember walking out of that building and just feeling numbed by what happens to these women and the complexity of grief. But it made me realise that I had this clear goal to do this properly for those mothers. Being as truthful as I could to what Shabnam would feel in those moments was at the forefront of everything I did.

And what did you take away from speaking to mothers who’d experienced stillbirth?
They have a bond with their baby that nobody else does. Their child was alive in their belly and only the mother knows, for instance, how they wriggled. I learned that a mother will protect her children and a bereaved mother will protect her child’s memory. So, I haven’t met one mum who doesn’t love to hear their baby’s name. Please, if you’ve got a friend who has had a stillborn baby, say their baby’s name. Only the other day, I was speaking to one woman who said that it’s really nice to hear her baby’s name said out loud.

So, you’ve now been on EastEnders for a year and half – how has your life changed?
The main difference is that people recognise me on the street, which is a weird thing to get used to. It does feel strange when someone comes up to you and says, “Can I have a photo?” and they’re already getting their phone out. When else would a stranger do that to somebody?

Has Shabnam’s hijab proven to be a good on-screen disguise?
That was never the intention – but it has worked out that way! It was a brilliant idea. For a long time, I’d just get, “has anyone ever told you that you look like the girl from EastEnders?” But she is being seen without the hijab in a domestic setting and, if she gets married to Kush, then there could be more scenes like that. And the thing is, I do get anxious if people are looking at me too much. I can’t take it if people clock me in a busy crowd when I’m shopping. But most of the time, it’s fine. It’s a good problem to have, isn’t it? When you think about the problems in the world, I’ll happily take that over some of the things that are going on.

And do you hope that Shabnam and Kush will stay together in the face of this advsersity?
I love them as a couple. Mainly because they’re a pairing that shouldn’t really work because they’re so chalk and cheese. But somehow it just does. They come through all the odds. And that kind of love is like magic. It’s fairy tale love. This will test them beyond anything that’s ever happened before, but there’s something about them that makes me think they’re going to get through it.

You can watch a 60-second rundown of next week’s episodes of EastEnders below.

You can book your tickets for the EastEnders at 30 live event with Danny Dyer, Natalie Cassidy and Dominic Treadwell-Collins at the Radio Times festival here

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And visit our dedicated EastEnders page for all the latest news, interviews and spoilers.