Goodness gracious me! Heard the one about the funny Asian?

Sanjeev Bhaskar is one of a new breed of Asian comics to spice up the scene. He talks to Randeep Ramesh
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
IT IS no joke being an Asian comic, according to the comedian Sanjeev Bhaskar. A founding member of the troupe behind the cult show Goodness Gracious Me, Bhaskar has triumphed where many have failed.

The Nineties produced a plethora of brown British talent. Jag Plah, a loudly rude comedian who broke through briefly in the Eighties, did so by overcoming the prejudice engendered by being an wheelchair-bound Asian. Jeff Mirza, whose rapier wit angered an older generation and pleased younger faces in equal measure, found acclaim easier to come by than fame.

None, however, have managed to shine as brightly as the team behind the BBC's Goodness Gracious Me. Born as a series of sketches on Radio 4, it soon built up a following among the station's middle-class, middle-aged audience.

This was despite making jokes at the expense of Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs, as well as featuring Asian characters such the Kapoors, a social climbing couple so desperate to be accepted by white Middle England that they pronounce their name "Cooper". Another favourite was the pair of teenage boys who looked like extras from a Beastie Boys' video, and eyed up women with the cry "rasmalai" (an Indian sweet).

It was this ability to jump the cultural chasm without trading in stereotypes that ensured Goodness Gracious Me's success. The second series won the 1997 Sony Gold Award for Comedy - radio's equivalent of a Bafta.

"Initially the BBC said there was no money for a TV show, and we were offered a radio slot. I think they were pleasantly surprised," says Bhaskar. When translated to television the show's appeal was confirmed, and the series has been recommissioned for next winter.

"It is amazing how mainstream it has become," enthuses Bhaskar, who wrote "25 per cent of the series". "I walked past a pub in Islington recently and this skinhead shouted `Oi'. He asked if I was in Goodness Gracious Me, and what did `chuddies' (underpants) mean."

Paradoxically, it is some Asians who have been most angered by the show. Last month, the Broadcasting Standards Commission upheld "in part" the complaints of 12 viewers who said that the "religious symbol of the Hindu faith was unacceptably mocked" in one episode.

But, if nothing else, the "mainstreaming" of Asian culture is to be welcomed. During the Seventies and Eighties sitcoms and comedy shows made crude jokes at the expense of non-whites. Whether it was a browned-up Michael Bates in It Ain't Half Hot Mum, or Peter Sellers' cod-Indian accent, the picture of Asians painted by TV comedy was seldom complimentary.

In fact, Bhaskar is forgiving of Sellers et al, placing them historically as relics of the Raj. "Peter Sellers was important. He was happy to improvise scenes in Urdu. He was part of a group that defined who British Asians were."

With British Asians now oiling the wheels of popular culture, it is no surprise to see Goodness Gracious Me riding high. Madonna is a self-confessed fan of the Bombay Jungle of Talvin Singh; the forehead of actress Kate Winslet is often graced with a bhindi; cropped sari tops are regularly seen in London's clubs.

While Bhaskar is happy for such a climate to be created, he is aware of the fickle nature of fame. "The worst thing for Asian comedy is for it to become a fashion," he says. "It won't survive if it is a fad."

However it portrays itself, Goodness Gracious Me's success owed much to The Real McCoy, the Afro-Caribbean sketch show - the first non-white comedy commissioned by the BBC.

"McCoy cracked the mould. And a lot of us had worked on it. Our producer, Anil Gupta, was script editor there; Meera Syal worked on it; some of our writers were over there first," says Bhaskar. But Goodness Gracious Me has eclipsed its predecessor, and its creators have risen with its success. Bhaskar, a former marketing manager with IBM, who has no theatrical training, has just finished filming a 30-minute film with Kenneth Branagh and Paul McGann.

"The director saw me on Goodness and just asked me to do it. Both Paul and Kenneth Branagh are Rada-trained and I had to step back during the filming and say that is Kenneth Branagh."

The film, as yet unnamed, is the story of an Indian soldier in the First World War who questions his loyalty to a country he does not feel part of. "It is part of British history which is often overlooked," remarks Bhaskar.

Bhaskar is quick to recognise that his race may be a selling-point. "Do people want me because I am Asian? Yes, probably." His skin colour, he admits, "probably" led to a cameo role in the forthcoming sequel to Four Weddings and a Funeral, Notting Hill. "It's not a big part. After all, Four Weddings had just one black person in it - and he was crying at the funeral. In Notting Hill, there is a scene with a group of loaded- type lads in a restaurant, and I play a guy who's drunk and starts slagging off Julia Roberts."

Bhaskar will fill his summer with a return to comedy, and some odd dates on stage.

In fact, comedy is what Bhaskar loves most. Although he admits to admiring Richard Pryor, his highest praise is reserved for the Yiddish humour of Woody Allen. "I see a lot of parallels. Such as the way Woody Allen uses Jewish words and phrases that no one can understand but everyone laughs at."

Bhaskar's analysis sees Asian humour progressing because "we are part of the infrastructure now". "There are doctors, accountants, lawyers now who are British Asian. It is the power of the brown pound. I mean, we are everywhere, and you can't ignore us."

Sanjeev Bhaskar plays Shepherd's Bush Empire on 5 July