It is not often that an interviewee takes on a metaphorical role for an interviewer. Even less often that the metaphor they become relates directly to the show in which they are starring. But for Sanjeev Bhaskar this is definitely the case, writes Matthew Amer.
Bhaskar has become my very own Holy Grail, as I have been on a quest to interview him for the last two weeks, each time to be thwarted by tube trains or press nights.
But finally, having never given up hope and battled against the odds (well, I did at least have to ring the press company a couple of times), I, like King Arthur, have found my grail. “I’ve never been called that before,” Bhaskar responds when I mention this, looking half bemused, half worried as he makes a mental note of his nearest exit. “That’s a first, a dubious first, I’ll give you that.”
When we meet, Bhaskar, star of hit shows Goodness Gracious Me and The Kumars At No. 42, is about to don the chain mail and crown of the legendary monarch King Arthur in mythical musical Monty Python’s Spamalot. As if battling Gallic insulters and vicious rabbits did not give him enough to worry about, it will be the first time he has appeared in a West End musical. Yet rather than being concerned about his own performance, Bhaskar seems rather more interested in the rest of the cast. “I’m sort of mesmerised and in awe of everyone else,” he tells me. “I’ve been to see shows before, but never having been so close to a musical… Just seeing how skilled the dancers are, I just find it extraordinary, absolutely extraordinary. To be able to dance to that level and then be able to sing and do all the harmonies… Wow.” Dancing, Bhaskar admits laughing, is not his strong point; it is what he would do after a few drinks in a nightclub, not the high-kicking, sequin-shimmying routines of Spamalot.
Seeing the talent of those around him, though, has inspired Bhaskar to work that much harder on his performance. The reason he chose the project was because it was a new art form that would test him. “I feel that I have to raise my game,” he explains. “I enjoy doing stuff that is out of my comfort zone because I think I try harder, I feel like I’ve got something to prove, and so I focus that much more because I want to get it right. If you’re surrounded by that many people who are very very good at what they do then the bar is raised. I’m just trying not to screw it up really.”
Bhaskar has more than enough praise for everyone and actually stops to apologise for talking so much about other people. He is effusive about the resident choreographer, director and musical director at Spamalot, who have been putting him through his paces as he learns how to wield Excalibur, bang coconuts and Always Look On The Bright Side Of Life. Their patience, he says, has made his job as a performer new to both the company and musical theatre a great deal easier. But so, I think, has his desire to learn. He has a thirst for improvement and the feeling of achievement. He describes the sensation of knowing that you’ve cracked a routine or a song as “that euphoria of hitting a hole in one; it’s the sweet spot on the tennis racket when you get the ball perfectly and you know it”.
"Me as a name is a joke in itself. That’s the biggest gag"
It is very quickly apparent that though Bhaskar is the performer taking star billing, he is more concerned with the whole team behind the show than himself. “Me as a name is a joke in itself,” he laughs. “That’s the biggest gag.”
He is very much a team player in everything he does. In Goodness Gracious Me he was part of an ensemble, both writing and performing. Again with The Kumars At No. 42, he was just one member of the eccentric family interviewing celebrities. This is no accident. “I’ve always felt that I’m one piece of the jigsaw; it’s not really about me,” he explains. “I feel much more comfortable being part of a team than I would being stuck out on my own.”
This sense of being one small piece of a bigger whole is a dominating trait of Bhaskar’s character. He traces the idea back to childhood and the sense of community which, in many areas today, has disappeared. “When I was a kid,” he says, “[community] meant your street or the street next door or your village, so you had that sense of belonging to a group of people that you interacted with every day, so you knew that every day wasn’t all about you. You knew everybody who lived down your road, you knew everyone, and those were extra pairs of eyes that were looking out for each other. I think that changed in the 80s; Thatcherism, the focus on the individual. I think growing up in Britain in the 60s and 70s is part of the thing that makes me go ‘Me on my own is really boring and a bit crap. Me with other people is much more interesting.’”
“I think becoming a Dad changed a lot,” he continues, “because suddenly there is someone else who has to be the most important person in the room, because they have to be watched and they have to be catered for, because all their needs are immediate.”
Bhaskar looks like a Dad, a cool Dad. His salt and pepper goatee gives him gravitas, while his Che Guevara T-shirt and denim jacket add a hint of the aging rocker. Although baby Bhaskar – two-and-a-half-year-old Shaan – is still too young to pick up on any of this, he has already been taught a little of what Daddy does and is currently shouting ‘Ni’ at his father in the hope of a cowering reaction.
Should Shaan want to pursue a career in entertainment I would suspect that Bhaskar and wife, actress/writer Meera Syal, would whole-heartedly support his decision. This was not the case for a young Bhaskar who, when he told his father he wanted to be an actor was told “We pronounce it doctor.” This led to a career in marketing – “the absolute midpoint between medicine and performing” – before Bhaskar was discovered performing with Nitin Sawnhey and asked to collaborate on Goodness Gracious Me.
"I think with my parents I could probably get away with genocide"
More recently, the truth behind Bhaskar’s parents’ lack of support became clearer; his father had arrived from India in 1957 with the hope of becoming a film director – he had even attended film school – but was forced to leave his dream when his family struggled for money. He wanted to spare his child the same disappointment. “In a way I got a much clearer picture of my Dad at that point than I’d probably ever had, which was not just a bloke who was a workaholic, but somebody who had to give up something that he really wanted to do in order to support the family.”
Now that he is comfortably settled in the entertainment world and that threat of disappointment is no longer looming, Mr and Mrs Bhaskar could not be more supportive of their son. “I think with my parents I could probably get away with genocide,” Bhaskar laughs. “If I wiped out a small race of people I think they would still go, ‘I know, but…’ A major race, I think they might feel a bit of embarrassment about.”
Though they might not have lent him their full support at the beginning of his career, his parents did provide the inspiration for arguably Bhaskar’s biggest hit to date, The Kumars At No. 42. The germ of the idea came from a meeting between Bhaskar’s parents and his girlfriend, who was welcomed by his father with the phrase “Pleased to meet you. How much does your father earn?”
When he was filming Goodness Gracious Me, new to the entertainment world Bhaskar wondered if he would make any famous friends, and what would happen if he took them home.
A gilded version of the answer was played out in seven series of the hit comedy chat show. The real answer, however, was seen behind the scenes, when, after filming, his real parents would often meet the stars who had appeared as guests: “They said to Minnie Driver ‘You’ve sold your house here; we live quite near the airport, we’ve got a spare room and a zed-bed if you want to stop there.’ And Helena Bonham Carter, I introduced her, and my Mum said ‘You’re such a beautiful girl,’ and Helena said ‘Thank you very much’ and my Mum said ‘In your last film why did they put you in a monkey mask?’ It was Planet Of The Apes. It was always hilarious afterwards because they’re my parents, they’re never going to change.”
With the success of Goodness Gracious Me and The Kumars At No. 42, Bhaskar is probably Britain’s best known Asian entertainer, though he protests, laughing, “My wife will kill you for that!” Such a high profile position brings with it the possibly unavoidable pressure of becoming a representative for a minority. It is not a position Bhaskar envies: “I’ve always kind of avoided doing that because once you get drawn into it then you become a spokesperson for a political identity, whether it be Asian, British-Asian, British-Hindu, people born in the 60s, whatever it may be. But in terms of people who may feel an affinity with me for whatever reason, then I’m respectful of the affinity that they feel, so I try not to piss on that, really.”
"The world is a fearful, angry and insecure place, so you need humour to counter that, otherwise only darkness remains"
Yet in the next breath, having claimed not to take a political standpoint, Bhaskar can’t help himself. “This whole thing with the debate about multiculturalism and where multiculturalism has failed and hasn’t worked, I just find bizarre. It’s like saying culture has failed. Multiculturalism is what it is; it’s not about a diluting of anything, it’s about access to different viewpoints. That’s what it is to me. One of the biggest success stories in this country with regard to multiculturalism is our eating habits. That’s multiculturalism, it’s multi-cuisine. The cuisine comes from a specific culture and morphs into something which is accessible to all. There’s no sense of ownership about the food now. And I think the same with contributions in society, particularly artistic contributions. It would be very, very dull to not have access to those things. You don’t have to go and see it if you don’t want to, but knowing it’s there is kind of useful.”
As we talk, Bhaskar references a list of widely respected comic geniuses. One would expect him to mention Monty Python, starring, as he is, in Spamalot, but also in there are Groucho Marx, Woody Allen and Spinal Tap. He is clearly a man who knows and loves comedy. Yet, even though his major success has come in writing and starring in comedy series, he does not consider himself a comedian. He doesn’t tell jokes, he says, rather he mimics and puts a twist on observations. He does, though, have the prerequisite comedian’s tale of using humour to avoid bullying.
Growing up a British-Asian at the turn of the 70s/80s, it was always likely that he would have been caught up in bullying of one kind or another. Yet, looking back, Bhaskar welcomes his experience, as it came from two sides; the whites, and the Asians who did not like the fact he had white friends: “It felt crap at the time,” he sighs, “but I’m very glad I went through it because it really clarified the term ‘my people’ for me. It wasn’t then based on colour, it wasn’t then based on politics, it wasn’t based on any of those things. It meant I could define it rather than somebody going ‘Are you or are you not in my club?’ and at least from that point onwards I could say ‘No, I’m not. I’m a member of my club, but I’m not a member of yours. Don’t really want to be, whoever you are.”
Humour has been his weapon of choice ever since, and he regards it far more highly than the distraction method it is so often taken for. “I think humour used as a coping mechanism is actually quite philosophical and it’s probably underrated slightly. People think that humour as a coping mechanism is all about deflection, it isn’t. Sometimes it’s about expressing deep truths within it, which is the power of satire.” He is vehement and passionate in his views.
The search for the grail was worth it. Bhaskar is open, approachable, amusing, humble, altruistic, fun and more intelligent than he would have you believe. But more than that, when you cut through the humour, the self-deprecation and the god-given completely untrained talent, he is just a little bit philosophical too. “There’s a lot of shit stuff in the world,” he concludes, “and in a way this country, right now, it’s just a very angry place. I think the world is. It’s a fearful, angry and insecure place, so you need humour to counter that, otherwise only darkness remains.”
This would have been a poignant way to end an interview, if not slightly tense and a touch depressing. But the glint in Bhaskar’s eye suggests he is not finished. “The counter point to that is, for all the people out there who are fearful and depressed and angry and insecure… f**k ‘em!” The tension is immediately broken. Bhaskar smiles knowingly. “That’s the advantage of humour.”