Nitin Ganatra on his EastEnders exit – and why we might not have seen the last of Masood

The actor also reveals his favourite plotlines - and takes his pick of Masood's love interests!

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Masood Ahmed is to hang up his post bag up for the final time in next week’s EastEnders when actor Nitin Ganatra exits after nine years in Walford. But why has he decided to leave? And what are his personal highlights from nearly a decade in Albert Square? We caught up with the man himself ahead of his last appearance on the BBC1 soap…

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So, when did you decide to call it a day?
Honestly – I thought about leaving every year. But then I’d always end up hearing about a new story and deciding to stay. But certainly Himesh Patel [Tamwar] leaving was really emotional for us both because we’re very close – we have the same sense of humour. Nobody else gets it because it’s just the two of us sitting together and making each other laugh. And when he went, it did stimulate the idea that it was time for me too. But it had been at the back of my mind anyway – I like doing lots of different things and transforming for other roles.

Has the realisation hit that you’re actually done with EastEnders?
No, it hasn’t. Not yet. I think reality will hit once my exit airs and Masood jumps into that taxi and we have that beautiful crane shot and the music kicks in. And after that, it’ll be done. What will be interesting for me is seeing if Masood stands the test of time as a character on the show. Because some characters get forgotten about very quickly, while others don’t.

So do you think the Masoods will stand the test of time?
I think the Masoods are groundbreaking characters. I can’t compare it to any other show. With this family, we had Asian leads playing fully-formed characters. Often, the mistake when casting and writing for diverse characters is that you write the culture before you write the characters. But here at EastEnders, it was done the right way round – the characters and their relationships were formed very well. It went beyond being ‘an Asian family’. It rose above that.

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Why did the Masoods succeed when other Asian families on EastEnders – like the Ferreiras – had failed?
I know a lot of the actors who played the Ferreiras and they’re all great. But something didn’t gel. And I don’t know all the reasons behind it. But when we came on board, I know that one of the things Nina Wadia [Zainab] and I decided to do was to play the comedy of it. We wanted to play the fun of their situation. If you start a character off with high drama, then it doesn’t leave you much in the way of a direction to go in. And comedy can reach more people because everyone has to have a laugh. Not everyone is shouting or having affairs all the time. Laughter is something that everyone can relate to.

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Of which storyline are you most proud?
My character could just have been a henpecked husband, which I thought would be interesting for about five minutes. He could just have been a ‘whipped’ guy. But we kept it fluid and made a real effort to make him surprising for the viewers. Like, who knew he had a good right hook? He punched Christian, he punched Kush, I think David Wicks got a punch at one point too. So he’s this loving father and good husband, but threaten his family and he’ll knock you out!

It was also really interesting to see him drinking and gambling. EastEnders had created a Pakistani Muslim family, but they allowed Masood to be a drinker and a gambler. So he had these flaws and weaknesses, which I thought were brilliant. In fact, the more I’m talking out loud, the more I’m thinking, ‘I shouldn’t have left!’

What reaction did you get from Muslim viewers regarding Masood’s flaws?
They were fine about it. Just as they were fine about the Syed and Christian story. I actually had people saying, “Well done, we can talk about this issue now.” No lie. I was on Shaftesbury Avenue and a woman in a hijab came up to me and said, “thank you for that story, because my brother’s gay and now we can talk about it”.

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Did that surprise you?
Well, the Asian community knew me before I did EastEnders because I’d been in movies such as Bride and Prejudice. And I’m always very honest with my fans. I’m very vocal and I can get quite cross if I hear any objections. I’ll talk to them like they’re my family and say, “Don’t be like that because I’m trying to do something good here. Sit down and watch the show. You’ll like it”. I’m an Asian, so I feel that they’re my people, so to speak.

Have you left any plotlines unexplored?
I think a friendship between Masood and Phil would have been interesting. I did once pitch the idea of the two of them being like Walter Matthau and Jack Lemmon in The Odd Couple. You could have gone down a very funny route between the two of them. I also thought that Roxy and Masood would have made an interesting couple – Rita Simons has got a very particular energy about her and I enjoyed our scenes together.

Out of all the relationships he’s had, to whom was Masood best suited?
The unexplored one that a lot of people have mentioned to me is Denise. And that would have been an interesting pairing. The most delicate story of them all, though, was what Masood had with Jane. The whole concept of that was Butterflies – it had that slow burn over two years where these people would meet on a park bench and you just knew there was a connection between them and that they wanted to get together, but they couldn’t leave their partners. And Laurie Brett and I worked well together.

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Were you surprised by the fan reaction to the news that you were leaving?
I was really overwhelmed by it. I have been told that I do myself a disservice sometimes, that I don’t play myself up enough. Because I’m just a kid from a corner shop, who just gets on with the job that needs to be done. I grew up with my dad waking me up at four thirty in the morning saying the papers needed to be done because the paperboy didn’t turn up. So I’ve got that kind of head down, work horse mentality – I just assume that nobody’s really paying much attention to me.

And so when it was announced that I was going, the reaction really surprised me. Especially the amount of love that they have for Masood and the fact that he had that much status on the show. I didn’t realise that people really rooted for him in the way that they did. I was very grateful – you probably saw from my tweets I did say thank you to those people. My Twitter feed went crazy! 

Do you think you might one day return to EastEnders?
I’d love to come back. I really love the character and I still think there’s something about Masood that we haven’t discovered yet. He’s still got a lot of surprises in him. It’s just that after nine years, I need to go off and do some movies and stage work again. But I’ve made such good friends here. And it would be a privilege to come back.

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And what’s next for you?
I’ve just done a series for Channel Five called Corfu Kitchen. I don’t often do celebrity reality stuff, because I’m not sure I’d be any good at it, but this is actually quite a nice idea. They’ve taken six celebs to Corfu to do a travelogue cookery show. So you immerse yourself in the culture that you’re in – and I milked a cow and a goat and made cheese out of that. I’ve never made cheese before! I learned how to bake bread and saw how olives are pressed. I did that literally the week after I left EastEnders. And next, I’m doing a really nice part in a dark drama, which we’re filming in Novemeber.

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

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