The Maalik family have been the target of racist abuse from far right extremists in Hollyoaks‘ hard-hitting radicalisation storyline, and British Asian actors Harvey Virdi (Misbah Maalik) and Rishi Nair (Sami Maalik) have revealed how they drew on their own experiences to portray the difficult scenes in which their characters endure victimisation.
“I was lucky enough to grow up in multi-cultural London but I did encounter racism,” said Nair at the Royal Television Society’s screening event on the plot in Manchester this week. “The only time was on the football field when I was 13 or 14. I remember how it made me feel, knowing people hate you because of the colour of your skin – it’s so hard to describe and I channelled that.
“As I’ve got older, if you feel like you get looks or comments you second-guess yourself and think, ‘Did that just happen? Am I overthinking it?’. For the Maaliks, the racism has got worse and for me personally I never experienced situations like they have, but I could still draw on that underlying feeling.
“Lots of people have messaged me about their experiences of being a victim of racism. As an actor channelling their stories it was draining but I was proud to do it. I was prepared to put myself through feeling that to tell this story.”
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Virdi, as dignified matriarch Misbah who has struggled to maintain her composure in the face of the extremists and encourage her family not to react, said: “In that moment where something does happen, you don’t know what to do. As Rishi says, you second-guess it especially when it’s subtle. If someone is in your face and being racist you can deal with it and walk away, but if it’s’ subtle you start to think you’re being oversensitive.
“You can use all of that to inform the character. There was a point where Misbah couldn’t hold it together and felt the far right had won because she felt she had to react, and for her to say that was a scary moment because if she felt lost, her children will be lost.”
The actors also defended criticism that the storyline had been uncomfortable viewing, insisting that was precisely the point: “When the story started, a lot of people said the show shouldn’t be doing the storyline, it was too difficult to watch,” said Nair. “Essentially, that is what we wanted. Racism is hard, you can never paint that in a good light. We wanted people to feel uncomfortable watching it because, if you do see racism, it is really uncomfortable.”
Adds Virdi: “It should be hard to watch, what’s happening on screen is difficult and wrong. It’s wonderful to have a whole range of people all talking about the subject and bringing their perspective to it.
“As it’s progressed we’ve had feedback from victims of racism who feel like their voice is being heard,” said Nair. “Teachers have told me Hollyoaks is on the school curriculum to engage students and educate them about racism – I think the storyline has made a real difference.”
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