Sanjeev Bhaskar on his transition from comedy to drama: “I saw it as a challenge”

“Lots of glass ceilings, lots of preconceptions – from being a middle-aged man, to the Asian preconception and the comedy preconception…"

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Sanjeev Bhaskar is getting serious. The comedian turned actor is about to return in the second series of Unforgotten, ITV’s cold case drama that spent its first series solving the case of a young man who had been missing since 1976.

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“People have said that having an Asian actor in a lead role on a primetime ITV show is really significant,” says Bhaskar, 53, “but creator Chris Lang wrote my part as an Asian cop because he doesn’t see why skin-colour differences should matter. This is, hopefully, the future – characters you empathise with whatever their nationality, sexual preference, skin colour or accent.

“When I did Spamalot, a few journalists would ask about me being an Asian King Arthur, and I’d say if people are thinking about my ethnicity when they leave the theatre I haven’t done my job. And I think the same with this. It’s about connecting with people.”

And connecting with people has always been Bhaskar’s strong suit. When his breakout show Goodness Gracious Me burst onto the radio, then TV screens, in the mid-1990s, its revolutionary but affectionate skits on British Asian culture did more for race relations than any government speeches about chicken tikka masala being the UK’s favourite dish.

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Goodness Gracious Me

Bhaskar’s route to comedy began, surprisingly, with litigation. “I sued the company at my last marketing job for breach of contract and they countersued, which dragged on for about two years during which I couldn’t get any kind of job at all.” It was the early 1990s and a whole troupe of second-generation British Asian kids were running clubs, magazines and setting up bands. Sanjeev and an old university pal, the composer Nitin Sawhney, set up a comedy double act, the Secret Asians. The pun was “about as good as our comedy got, really, but that was the act we were doing.”

The BBC saw the duo live – “It was the toss of a coin… the producer literally flipped a coin to decide if they should see us or go to the pub” – and asked them to help with a radio sketch show that became Goodness Gracious Me. Characters like the fake Indian guru and the Bhangra Muffin boys with their catchphrase “Kiss my chuddies” came from his work with Sawhney. Others he helped write with Meera Syal, his future wife, and the cast.

“Comedy came very naturally to me, and maybe this was partly a survival mechanism from being bullied when I was a kid,” he says. “I was able to see how ridiculous certain situations could be and I would spin into that quite quickly. I think that was a saving grace for me.” Bhaskar’s parents came to the UK in 1956, settled in Ealing in west London and did their best “not to stick their heads above the parapet and to keep a low profile. But my generation was born here, and I think there was a confidence about being British Asian at that time.” 

The moment he knew Goodness Gracious Me had crossed over was when skinheads starting shouting at him in the street. “I thought I was in trouble so kept walking, and then the biggest skinhead said, ‘Oi, Goodness Gracious Me bloke!’ I turned around, he said, ‘Love that show – chuddies are underpants, innit?’ I said, ‘Yeah.’ And he turned around to this bunch of skinheads and went, ‘I told you so.’”

The Kumars at No 42 grew out of Goodness Gracious Me – a spoof chat show with Bhaskar as the self-important presenter trying to interview celebrities in his front room while Syal, playing his naughty grandmother, heckled everyone. “Funnily enough, it was only in the UK that everyone saw that as an Asian show,” he says. “Everywhere else in the world thought it was just a British show.”

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The Kumars

It landed him roles in comedy movies like Notting Hill and The Guru and, every now and then, the odd dramatic role. “I did Silent Witness, Midsomer Murders and Indian Summers, all of which I had to audition for. Then I thought, I’ll focus on drama,” he says. “Lots of glass ceilings, lots of preconceptions – from being a middle-aged man, to the Asian preconception and the comedy preconception… maybe I saw it as a challenge.”

And it seems to have worked. Unforgotten, in which he plays DI Sunil “Sunny” Khan opposite Nicola Walker’s DCI Cassie Stuart, arrived on ITV in 2015 with a cast including Trevor Eve and Tom Courtenay and won over the critics from the start. “One thing that appealed to me about the script was that it had this question – do horrifying acts define you as a horrifying person?” he muses. “We all have the capacity to do terrible things, but does that make us terrible people? It plays out within Cassie and Sunny’s relationship – and we’re much more opinionated in this series. I’m looking forward to the reaction.”

He’s able to keep the darkness of the show away from his home life with Syal, although he doesn’t think there’s much chance of them writing more comedy together. “The difficulty when you live in the same house is that [your family] are your material and if you show them something and they don’t laugh…” he trails off. “I guess if we did do anything, it’d be a drama…” He pauses. “That does sound like I’m really serious these days, doesn’t it? Could you chuck in a couple of bum jokes when you write this up? Keep the comedy reputation…”

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Unforgotten begins tonight at 9pm on ITV