Sharat Sardana: Writer whose television comedy work satirised Asian stereotypes
Wednesday 01 April 2009
Teaming up to form a writing partnership with his former schoolfriend Richard Pinto led Sharat Sardana to revolutionise the portrayal of Asians on television. The irreverent humour they relished found a mainstream audience in the sketch series Goodness Gracious Me and the spoof chat-show The Kumars at No 42. Many of the characters dreamed up by Sardana were based on his family and friends.
One of the duo's most cherished sketches was "Going for an English", a satirical turning-of-the-tables on the stereotypical view of Britons bundling into an Indian restaurant for a late-night meal after an evening in the pub.
Sardana and Pinto's scenario featured a group of Indians at Mountbatten's English Cuisine, 222 Viceroy Place, Bombay. The men swagger, burp and abuse the English waiter while the women flirt with him. "What's the blandest thing on the menu?" asks one of the men as he tries to choose a meal and his friend demands bread rolls and butter.
"Could I just have the chicken curry, please?" asks a woman in the group. "Come on, it's an English restaurant," chides a friend. "You've got to have something English." At the suggestion of a steak and kidney pie, she grimaces: "It blocks me right up. I won't go to the toilet for a week." "Nina, that's the point of going for an English," says another friend. Finally, the group's order for 24 plates of chips is met with the waiter's suggestion that this might be too much.
Such inverted humour might have made British audiences think twice about their perceptions of the Asian community. It certainly had them watching. Although Goodness Gracious Me (1998-2000) tried to explode British myths about Asians, it also satirised Asians' own customs and double standards. In another sketch, when a gay Indian man brings home his white partner to meet his parents, his mother cries: "But, Simon, you couldn't have found a nice Indian boy?"
Regular characters in the series included a father who insisted that anyone important, including the Queen and most of the Royal family, must be Indian, and the Kapoor family, who tried to dismiss their Asian roots by insisting on being called the Coopers.
With Sanjeev Bhaskar, who had appeared in and contributed sketches to Goodness Gracious Me, Sardana and Pinto then created The Kumars at No 42 (2001-06). A fake chat show in the vein of The Mrs Merton Show, which preceded it on BBC2, it featured a dysfunctional Indian family who had a television studio built at their Wembley home.
Bhaskar was the fame-obsessed host, Sanjeev Kumar, who subjected real stars such as Donny Osmond, Jerry Hall and Stephen Fry to his questions, aided and abetted by his parents, Ashwin and Madhuri (Vincent Ebrahim and Indira Joshi), and ageing grandmother, Sushila (Meera Syal, also from Goodness Gracious Me, made up to look twice her age).
The family crammed together on a sofa while Sanjeev sat at his desk, engaging in banter with them while preparing for the big interview, before having to contend with their own questions being fired at his subject. Invariably, the innocently framed, mischief-making queries from Grandma stole the show. The programme's mainstream credentials were confirmed when it was switched to BBC1 and won two International Emmy Awards (2002, 2003).
The son of Indian immigrants, Sharat Sardana was born in 1968 in London, where his mother was a GP and gynaecologist. He grew up in the east London suburb of Wanstead and attended Forest School, Snaresbrook, where he met Richard Pinto, before gaining an English degree from Queen Mary College, University of London.
Sardana then trained as a script editor at the BBC, where he worked with Anil Gupta, an Asian producer who wanted to make a programme that would destroy stereotypes about his community. Gupta created Goodness Gracious Me, which began as a one-off, 1995 London stage show titled Peter Sellers is Dead, a comment on how much had changed since the days when the British comedy actor blacked up to play an Indian doctor in the 1960 film The Millionairess. Sardana and Pinto wrote many of the sketches and, after three BBC radio series (1996-98), it transferred to television, where it was the first British show to feature an all-Asian starring cast. After three series and a Christmas programme, a 50-minute special titled Goodness Gracious Me – Back Where They Came From, partly filmed in India, was screened in 2001.
The new writing partnership of Sardana and Pinto then created their first sitcom, Small Potatoes (1999-2001), which they also produced, for Hat Trick Productions. The Channel 4 series was set in the Screen Dreams video shop in east London, where the tedious days endured by its manager, Ed Hewitt (Tommy Tiernan), were relieved by visits from his friends, including the sex-obsessed Rick Roy, played by Sanjeev Bhaskar (who married Meera Syal in 2005).
Then came The Kumars at No 42, again produced by Sardana and Pinto, with the programme's format being sold to television companies in the US, Australia, the Netherlands, Germany, Turkey and Italy.
The pair also teamed up with Anil Gupta and Richard Osman to create the animated comedy series Bromwell High (2005), featuring loud, oversexed girls at a London school of mostly Caribbean and Asian immigrant children. It won the Best Comedy honour at the 2006 British Animation Awards.
With Pinto and Gupta, Sardana scripted the one-off comedy-drama Chopratown (2005), starring Bhaskar as a private eye, but it failed to progress to a series.
Sharat Sardana, writer: born London 20 August 1968; died London 27 January 2009.
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