Meera Syal and Sanjeev Bhaskar: A funny relationship

Meera Syal and Sanjeev Bhaskar have a new hit on the horizon. But please don't call us TV's 'golden couple', they tell James Rampton
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So, I ask Meera Syal, has being married to Sanjeev Bhaskar since January changed the relationship at all? "Oh yes," she says, "at last I've got someone to take the rubbish out. And now I don't have to worry if the car goes wrong or a light-bulb needs changing. That's all marriage is, isn't it?"

So, I ask Meera Syal, has being married to Sanjeev Bhaskar since January changed the relationship at all? "Oh yes," she says, "at last I've got someone to take the rubbish out. And now I don't have to worry if the car goes wrong or a light-bulb needs changing. That's all marriage is, isn't it?"

Bhaskar is equally flip. He is quick to reveal that he has not been deterred by the fact that Syal plays his granny in their hit spoof chat show, The Kumars at No 42. "I still fancy Meera in her granny suit. At least I know what the future holds. Everyone in a relationship should dress up to be very, very old. It would help them work out how they will feel about each other in the future."

But their jokiness should not detract from the fact that Syal and Bhaskar are two of the most serious players in the business, equally at home fronting a successful comedy show, presenting Bafta awards or attending the wedding of Charles and Camilla.

Syal, who was recently described by one newspaper as "a national treasure", was this year named by Good Housekeeping magazine as the most influential black or Asian woman in Britain. She beat the Olympic gold medallist Dame Kelly Holmes, no less.

In addition to such ground-breaking comedy as Goodness Gracious Me and The Kumars, the 42-year-old has starred in more serious drama such as Murder Investigation Team. She has also written two best-selling novels, Anita and Me and Life Isn't All Ha Ha Hee Hee; an acclaimed screenplay, Bhaji on the Beach; and a hit musical, Bombay Dreams, which has been a hit on both sides of the Atlantic.

Anita and Me, about growing up in the Midlands, is even on the curriculum at Wolverhampton University. "When I heard that, I was very honoured," she beams. "To me, it's worth more than a whole drawerful of awards. I thought, 'Blimey, makes a change from Middlemarch!'"

Bhaskar is also very much showbiz royalty - he co-starred in and co-wrote Goodness Gracious Me and The Kumars. And when he was invited to Buckingham Palace for an informal lunch with the Queen and Prince Philip, he was delighted to discover that he has fans in high places. "The Duke and I were trading a lot of jokes," says Bhaskar, 40, "and both of them laughed out loud, which I was told is unusual. One of the butlers sidled up to me and said he is under orders to video The Kumars for the royals, so I assume they like it."

Syal and Bhaskar may not be a double act that rolls off the tongue as easily as, say, Morecambe and Wise, but this pair possess major-league clout. They are bound to gain even more acclaim when they star in a new BBC1 adaptation of Syal's novel, Life Isn't All Ha Ha Hee Hee.

They play a married couple, Akaash and Sunita. Akaash is a drippy psychotherapist who has no idea that his intelligent but desperately unfulfilled wife is going into emotional meltdown. This is a marriage that has raised suffering in silence to an art-form. "Most Asian families think that therapy is a waste of time," intones the voiceover. "They reckon most things can be cured by not talking about it over a nice cup of tea." Syal's dialogue is replete with these juicy one-liners.

She explains that Sunita is "like an awful lot of women. She puts her life on hold for her husband and her children until she reaches a point where she thinks, 'Is that it?'. Nobody suspects that anything is wrong until it all falls apart because Sunita has always been the one who copes."

She goes on to explain what inspired her to create the tormented character of Sunita in the first place. "One day, I opened Eastern Eye and I saw two headlines side by side. One read, 'Asian women top the graduate league', and the other read, 'Asian women top the suicide and self-harm league'. I thought, 'what's going on here? Why are we capable of creating so much and at the same time of destroying ourselves?'

"In the Hindu religion, there are two manifestations of womanhood: Sita is the creative goddess of bounty, while Kali is a black-faced, many-armed demon, the personification of female anger. Kali gets into rages and drinks the blood of her victims.

"Most women are expected to be like Sita, but there's always a Kali within. If you're made to behave like Sita, Kali will eventually explode. The book is all about getting in touch with your inner Kali."

As well as Sunita, Life Isn't All Ha Ha Hee Hee focuses on her two childhood friends from Ilford: the meek and obedient Chila (played by Ayesha Dharker from Star Wars II), who is marrying the suspiciously suave Deepak (Ace Bhatti), and Tania (Laila Rouass from Footballers' Wives), a loud and opinionated "Asian babe" who works in the media. When Tania films her friends for a documentary about the area she left behind long ago, she opens a can of worms.

Syal believes that in TV drama women such as her central trio have for too long been overlooked. "Part of my motivation was to show a generation of women who aren't written about very much. Everyone seems to be interested in stories about twentysomethings trying to get boyfriends - 'ooo, is it going to be Mark Darcy or Daniel Cleaver?' Well, I wanted to depict thirtysomethings who have got the boyfriends, but for whom it's now all going horribly wrong. Where's it all gone wrong? And is it too late to change?

"As I sat around with friends, I'd think, 'yes, you've got children on your laps, yes, your hair is greying and some bits are sagging, but you're more beautiful than ever and you've got so many fascinating stories to tell'. I'm hacked off that we're not seeing that reflected on our screens."

Syal doesn't believe that Life Isn't All Ha Ha Hee Hee will speak only to a British-Asian audience. "Women have come up to me and said, 'it highlights parts of my own life that I never thought I'd see in a book'. That's very flattering.

"These three characters all reflect elements of my own personality. In my time, I've been all of them - the innocent blushing bride, the hardened media babe and the depressed mother. I think that every woman will identify with one of these characters. It's not written for one specific audience. It should appeal to everyone.

"The central theme - can friendship withstand the truth? - could apply to anybody. If people notice we're Asians, great, but it's a love story that should resonate with everyone."

The couple first worked together a decade ago on Goodness Gracious Me. At first, Bhaskar recalls, "we had to overcome the prejudice of execs who used to say to us 'you want to do a comedy show? I didn't know Asians could be funny'." But "it soon gained momentum. We were part of an explosion of British-Asian culture. The British-Asian community came of age in the 1990s, and that new sense of confidence was expressed through music, film and what we were doing."

They went on to collaborate on The Kumars at No 42, which is now going down a storm in the States, and is making a high-profile transfer to BBC1 next month.

Despite the couple's success, it hasn't all been plain sailing. Syal sighs that, although she is playing the lead in a new film about Joyti De-Laurey, the PA who stole £4.3m from her employers at Goldman Sachs, "I actually get very few offers because people think I'm too busy. That's one of the myths I'd like to remove. I'm definitely available for work. Somebody give me a job - I'm tired of writing my own!"

The couple are also keen to play down all the hoopla about them as a "golden couple". "We're not a celebrity couple - we're not very good at all that," Bhaskar says. "We're not the new Posh and Becks. We've never courted publicity, and we're not going to do Hello!."

To stress what he sees as the limited nature of their fame, Bhaskar says: "Yesterday, I went into the local chippie. I've been going there for two and a half years, and yet the woman behind the counter still said, 'Hello, mate. How's the mini-cab business going?'"

'Life Isn't All Ha Ha Hee Hee' starts on BBC1 on 10 May. 'The Kumars at No 42' starts on BBC1 later that month