Interview: Ramon Tikaram - The mane man

As if the steamy scene with the electrician in 'This Life' wasn't enough, now he's getting tantric in his latest film 'Kama Sutra: A Tale Of Love'
The first surprise is to see Ramon Tikaram looking so, well, fully dressed. Bright-green shirt done up to the neck and dark jeans - not a bicep in sight. His latest role has been rather more revealing, with the 31-year-old actor baring his chest with more aplomb than Sharon Stone and Greta Scaachi combined. The second surprise is that he's turned up at all. The day before, he mysteriously failed to show. When he finally arrives he is suitably contrite. His excuse is "personal problems", a subject he is surprisingly open about later.

For now he's happier pondering the pressures of simulating passion on- screen, something that happens a lot in his latest film, Kama Sutra: A Tale Of Love, directed by Mira Nair (Salaam Bombay, Mississippi Masala).

Set in 16th-century India, Tikaram plays Jai Kumar, a court sculptor who falls for a servant girl. One critic has described the film as "red- hot, vindaloo-style, sari-ripping sex". Certainly, Jai and his lover spend a lot of time getting tantric in the dust. Did he have to read the Kama Sutra to get into his role? "No, I didn't," he laughs, pushing back his mane of black hair for about the fifth time in ten minutes. "In fact, it was best not to. As a sculptor, I was kind of innately Kama Sutric; I was meant to be aware of what other women would have wanted," he says in a "Norf" London patter.

The film is sumptuous and, at times, sensual; Merchant Ivory meets Bollywood with added steam. Is he pleased with the film? "Um, yes," he says. "It was quite a painful process and I didn't know how it would turn out. Somebody said the story teeters on the edge of comedy and just saves itself."

The Indian censors have yet to see the funny side. They are outraged by the sexual content and it is uncertain whether the film will be released there. Tikaram can't understand all the fuss. "Considering they have satellite TV, I was surprised by the response. All that Victorian piety and useless repression they inherited. It's nothing to do with India and its deeper culture."

Tikaram's unusual parentage - his mother is from Borneo and his father from Fiji - has ensured him roles as a variety of nationalities. "In my first theatre role I played a Native American. In the next job I was a Palestinian, then a Malay pirate, followed by a Colombian drugs baron."

He leaps cultures again in BBC2's frenetic yuppie soap This Life, in which he plays Ferdie, a Mexican, bisexual, dispatch rider. Fans will know that Ferdie recently invited a visiting electrician into his bedroom to check out more than a dodgy wall socket. A hand goes through the mane again and Tikaram sips his lager thoughtfully. "It's all right to watch these scenes afterwards, but they're very difficult for me to do. It is easier because we're both straight. We know where it is or isn't going to lead. With women, I find it more difficult. I tend to kiss quite truthfully," he says, smiling coquettishly.

Face to face he's much better looking than on TV. His bone structure and eyes (big, charcoal-black) are more striking. You get the impression that he is aware of it - or at least knows how to use it when he wants. Not that this makes him seem affected. In fact, he appears rather nonplussed by success and does not take his work too seriously. "It's kind of nice that it's happening now," he says. "But hopefully I won't be in this game for too long. I love the work but sometimes I think it's all a bit superficial - a bit self-indulgent. Maybe I don't feel like one of them. I see myself as an outsider or an apprentice."

This might have more to do with his background than any lurking insecurity. "Both my parents were from cultures alien to each other, moving to a third culture alien to them both." Tikaram's early life was nomadic. His father was in the army and the family moved all over the world. After seven years at a military school in Dover ("I still have nightmares of a bell ringing at 6am and having to march to breakfast") he got into drama at Kent University, where he studied English. "I felt acting described another world or another me. A sense of uniformity in my life was absent, creating another identity was very important." It was the same for his younger sister, singer-songwriter Tanita Tikaram, who found fame in the late Eighties with her brand of introspective pop. "We both wanted a life that was somewhere else than in high-rise army flats," he says.

Even now, Tikaram isn't as settled as he'd like to be. An acrimonious split with the mother of his two children is clearly a preoccupation. "Professionally it's going great," he says, trying to sound chirpy. "But when you've got kids, things change. It's a different agenda. I can be a really sensitive bugger when it comes to them. It tends to affect my mood - I can't be too happy at any one time."

For now, stability is a flatshare in south London and planning what to do next. There is a possibility of some television drama, but he would also like to do comedy. "I haven't necessarily got any comic ability. But maybe I could play it straight - I'd certainly like to work with comedians." He pauses, then jokes, "But if someone gives me the money, I'll do anything, really."

Who knows, that may even mean keeping his clothes on.