Art Malik: television has gone backwards – it’s no longer colourblind

The actor talked about his new show, Indian Summers, and the real state of diversity in Hollywood

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Art Malik first came to national attention in 1984 in ITV’s The Jewel in the Crown, the living definition of “event television”. In those days, that meant the whole country was watching; it was like a national duty, and falling in love with Malik the nation’s new pastime. Then aged 32, he played English-educated Hari Kumar, who fell foul of Tim Pigott-Smith’s embittered policeman Ronald Merrick. “I wanted to take him home; who didn’t?” says Malik. “Who didn’t want to protect this boy from the horrors of what was happening to him?”

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It was a spectacular start to a career that has taken him from Hollywood to Bollywood, via Holby City. He talks about them all with huge affection: “I jumped at the chance of doing Holby, it’s a great show. It goes out at 8 o’clock, and is probably the last drama of the day when you can get a cross-generational family in front of the telly. And guess what: it’s about as multi-racial as you can get. Why wouldn’t I want to do that?” Now he has arrived at Indian Summers, which critics have been calling the new “Jewel” since the first series was shown on Channel 4 last year.

In the series, which returns this week, he plays the Maharajah of Amritpur, a watchful, worldly new addition to the cast. Indeed, this second series has quite a different atmosphere to the first, both more mournful and more charged. Malik doesn’t see the programme in the same light as the drama that launched his career.

“It’s set around the same time, yes. But for Paul Scott [who wrote the Raj Quartet of which The Jewel in the Crown is the first novel], it was all about apologising; people apologising for what their nation had done in their name. Indian Summers is different because now we’re looking at what those Asians were feeling. That’s why I wanted to do it. I thought, ‘Oh good, the point of view has changed. We’re generations removed from the apologists for empire.’”

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This isn’t to say that he thinks the empire has nothing to apologise for, far from it. “People say, ‘We gave them roads, democracy,’ as if somehow [India] was a blank sheet, these millions of people didn’t do anything until [the British] turned up. The fact is that the GDP of that nation prior to the British arriving, 24 per cent of it came from the export of cloth.”

He comes to the subtle conclusion that a cultural narrative in which the empire simply berates itself, without reflecting on the perspectives of the people on whom the empire was imposed, hasn’t gathered the wisdom that it could. This thought sends his insights all over the globe. “It’s like the debate with Europe, politicians constantly asking, ‘What are our interests?’ Well, the fact is, are they your interests? Or are they someone else’s interests, which you have just appropriated?”

Malik has thought deeply, also, about the issue of race in British television. It’s tempting sometimes to have an unrealistically rosy picture about this, in which we get more evolved as time goes on. This, he says, is not so: TV and film used to be much more colourblind – “Omar Sharif played Doctor Zhivago!” and has since become more insular and nostalgic.

“By all means, do a Dickensian series, but am I interested as an actor? No. If you’re going to do another one of the Brontë sisters, am I interested? Hell, no. Not until somebody turns round and says, ‘Art, how do you fancy playing Charles Dickens? How do you fancy playing Prince Charles in this biopic?’ Until those movements come, then no, we haven’t got past anything.”

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He locates the problem “at the heads of our broadcasters. Look at the people who make the decisions. Whether they’re the head of Bafta or whatever they do, who are they? When will we get a female director-general of the BBC? Where is the colour when you go further up the food chain? It disappears.”

Issues that people tend to get exercised about – the all-white Oscar nominations, for instance – he sees as petty distractions. “That’s the most boring thing in the world to talk about. I did a Bond film [The Living Daylights], went on a tour for it,andinFrankfurt,aladyputherhandup and said, ‘Why weren’t you playing James Bond?’ My response to that was skin tone. We’re not past this. Yet in [the real] world, we are past it. People don’t see colour.”

He has an elegant brevity in his speech, but it’s always plain what he means: that the wider culture is wonderfully diverse, and moved past ideas of what colour a spy should be decades ago; but the media, and specifically showbiz, hasn’t caught up. Indeed, it seems to be going backwards.

Growing up in Balham, south London, in the 1950s and 60s — he’s now 63 — Malik has a long view on how it is, and was, to be of Asian descent in this country. “There was so much racism when I was a kid, but it was also ignorant. They’d ask, ‘Why are you in Britain?’ Well, because when you [British] came to India, you told us all that it was the most brilliant place on the planet. Why wouldn’t I want to come here? If I look over my life, yes, the National Front has gone now. No one would ever try and have a ‘rivers of blood’ speech now.”

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He got a scholarship to Guildhall, where he met his wife, Gina Rowe, who’s a potter. They have two daughters, Jessica, 34, and Keira, 32, who have both followed him into the business, Jessica as a producer, Keira as an actor. He became successful young, and his career has always fallen under a lucky star, disastrous tax bills averted by sudden calls from Hollywood.

True Lies, the 1994 film in which he played a terrorist, was probably his international breakthrough moment. “[It was] very much melodrama. We probably would have done True Lies II had 9/11 not happened”. He was never tempted to move to Los Angeles, however: “As a parent, as a husband, saying, ‘We’re going to live in the Hollywood hills’ is fine for a while. But did I want the girls to have an American education? Did I want Gina to give up her pottery?”

True Lies, of course, was unusual in 1994 – now it’s almost unheard of for a film to have a bad guy who isn’t a Muslim terrorist or at least linked to one. He never takes that kind of role these days. “There are certain things that I know I don’t want to do any more. Playing out-and-out terrorists who terrorise people and don’t actually move the conversation on are not worth doing. So that’s probably another reason I don’t go back to America, because a lot of it is like that. It’s boring, dull, very lazy writing.”

His tone is mellow, ready to parody himself, and wouldn’t dream of calling himself a star – “What does that even mean, star?” he says, “it’s just ‘rats’ backwards” – and he’s always considering how things might look from another vantage point. When I meet him, he hasn’t seen Indian Summers, and says, with a kind of knowing sweetness, “I have no idea whether I’m any good or not. Still waiting, like most actors, for somebody to find out one day that I can’t do it.”

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He is extremely critical of his early performances, even while acknowledging that, at the start, his naivety was part of the point. He is fascinating on the subject of the work of acting itself. “A lot of television now is wanting to see the person who’s speaking. You never see what the reactions are. I will always say that listening is the most difficult thing to do. To make it look as though you are interested.”

Talking about his forthcoming work – some late-career Bollywood, and a part in the revival of Cold Feet – he is unfailingly complimentary. “You want to make sure you’re serving the history of this show, with due diligence and a serious amount of respect. To spend the week watching all five seasons, what joy! To be able to say, ‘I have to do this for research.’ In my pyjamas.” He also hates talking about himself.

“You do a disservice to your future audience by giving them too much information about Art Malik. I’m only really important to my friends and family, they’re the ones who want to know about me, and that’s right and proper. To the rest of the viewing audience, all of these things will get in the way of what an audience needs, which is their naivety and my mystery.”

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Well, that’s an elegant place to conclude, I observe. He smiles. “I’m good at this.”