interview

Unforgotten’s Sanjeev Bhaskar: ‘Rishi Sunak as prime minister reveals latent racism in people – like my show Goodness Gracious Me did’

The actor is reprising his role as DI Sunil ‘Sunny’ Khan in the hit crime drama. He talks to Charlotte Cripps about Nicola Walker’s shock departure, casual racism in TV, and being labelled ‘white man’ by fellow students

Monday 27 February 2023 06:30 GMT
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Bhaskar: ‘We got regularly accused, and still do, of it being an anti-white show, anti-British’
Bhaskar: ‘We got regularly accused, and still do, of it being an anti-white show, anti-British’ (Anthony Harvey/Shutterstock)

Since that finale, Unforgotten star Sanjeev Bhaskar has been bombarded with questions. “A lot of people on Twitter were saying to me, ‘Why did she have to die?’, ‘Why couldn’t she have just retired and lived with her boyfriend?’” He is talking, of course, about DCI Cassie Stuart – his indomitable sidekick in the cop drama, played by Nicola Walker, who was killed off in the fourth season’s final episode.     

The pair were a detective duo with a special spark, the beating heart of the show since it first aired on ITV in 2015. For many, the idea of the series without Cassie and Bhaskar’s DI Sunil “Sunny” Khan is unthinkable. The shock twist left fans in tears – she never recovered from a car accident. But now the hit police procedural returns for a fifth series, and Sunny has – sniff – a brand new partner. How did Bhaskar take the news that Walker would be written out of the show? She was the one, in fact, to first inform him of her surprise exit.  

“I didn’t have to fake a level of emotional response to it [in the show] because it was really sad,” recalls Bhaskar gravely. The Olivier award-winning Walker, who reportedly felt “guilty” about how gloomy her character’s departure was in 2021, said that if they had known about the oncoming Covid pandemic, they would have chosen a more upbeat ending. But Bhaskar, 59, believes, “life’s not like that... life’s really horrible sometimes”.

The Irish actor Sinéad Keenan takes over the reins as DCI Jessica “Jess” James, Sunny’s new boss. She is all guns blazing on her first day at work, immediately putting his nose out of joint with her cost-cutting plans and bossy no-nonsense attitude. We don’t need to worry about disliking her; Sunny does that for us. Jess has our sympathies, though: she’s been dumped by her husband exactly 54 minutes before starting her new job. She’s struggling emotionally – as is Sunny. By the end of the first episode, he’s losing his cool and uncharacteristically kicking the toilet cubicles. “He kind of doesn’t know what to do with that weird energy that grief brings,” says Bhaskar. “He’s always been Cassie’s rock.”      

In person, the actor has such a calm aura that it’s as though he’s been meditating all morning. Dressed in a chunky knit cardigan, his beard neatly groomed, he brings warmth even to the soulless backroom at the ITV headquarters in west London where we are speaking. A younger audience might know him best as Sunny, but it was hit BBC sketch show Goodness Gracious Me that made him a household name 25 years ago. It memorably lampooned British Asian stereotypes, in sketches such as the famous “Going for an English” send-up, and Bhaskar’s recurring character “Mr Everything Comes from India”. The show was the first of its kind, featuring an ensemble of British Asian actors, including his future wife, Meera Syal, and by 1988 it had moved from Radio 4 to primetime TV, as part of an explosion of British Asian culture in the 1990s.      

Goodness Gracious Me is significant in the same way that Rishi Sunak is, as the first person of colour to become prime minister in this country,” he says, recalling the show that launched his career. “I think as much as these are landmark moments, and that there is some impact on society, equally, it reveals a latent racism in people.”      

“We got regularly accused, and still do, of it being an anti-white show, anti-British. ‘These people are making fun of us, and they should be grateful to us that we gave them a home’,” says Bhaskar. The reaction, he believes, is similar to how some people view Sunak. “They will kind of go, ‘Well wait a minute. He’s the wrong colour to be representing my country’.”      

Bhaskar’s DI ‘Sunny’ Khan and Nicola Walker’s DCI Cassie Stuart had been the beating heart of ITV’s ‘Unforgotten’ until Cassie was killed off in the season four finale
Bhaskar’s DI ‘Sunny’ Khan and Nicola Walker’s DCI Cassie Stuart had been the beating heart of ITV’s ‘Unforgotten’ until Cassie was killed off in the season four finale (ITV)

Throughout our conversation, Bhaskar is so earnest that it’s almost hard to believe he’s the same man who could produce a laugh a minute in his early skits. He was 32 when he quit his job as a marketing executive at IBM in order to do musical comedy with college friend Nitin Sawhney, under the name The Secret Asians. Despite the corporate start to his career, he had known that he wanted to act from the age of four, having been glued to his TV set as a child idolising Roger Moore’s James Bond, Monty Python’s Life of Brian and Benny Hill – although he later realised how the comedian “objectified women”.       

His childhood comedy heroes clearly inspired him to make shows like Goodness Gracious Me and The Kumars at No 42 – the Emmy Award-winning sitcom. He starred as a spoof chat show host in the series – reportedly a favourite of the late Queen – which ran on the BBC for six seasons from 2001, before being briefly revived by Sky in 2014. A cringy evening introducing a girlfriend to his Punjabi parents inspired Bhaskar to make the show, in which he interviewed celebrity guests from Daniel Radcliffe to Minnie Driver in his front room at home in Wembley. Surrounding him was his interfering fictional British-Asian family, who spent more time talking to his guests than he did.      

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When guest Jennifer Saunders appeared in 2004, Bhaskar’s onscreen granny, Sushila “Ummi” played by Syal, says slowly, in a tell-tale voice: “Jennifer, Sanjeev said that he doesn’t think women are funny.” The comment goes down like a lead balloon – but it gets some laughs. “It was reflecting our experiences of being British and Asian and being unapologetic for being both,” recalls Bhaskar.    

He was to later move into dramatic roles – including a turn as the high-flying Delhi GP in BBC period comedy The Indian Doctor in 2010. In the show, Bhaskar’s Dr Sharma relocates to Wales in the 1960s and can’t get to grips with his new community. But, even in more serious parts, there’s always something comforting about him, from the absent-minded Dr Jafri in Paddington 2 (2017) or the oblivious father of Himesh Patel’s Jack Malik in Danny Boyle’s Yesterday (2019), with Syal playing his wife. His pointy-eared Cain in the hit Netflix adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman (2021) is as blackly humorous as he is murderous, as he tries to kill his brother Abel, who refuses to stay dead. Bhaskar is also set to play the lead in BritBox’s forthcoming Inspector Singh drama, playing Singapore’s top detective who is unfit and loves a curry. It’s a three-part adaptation of Shamini Flint’s book series, Inspector Singh Investigates.

Growing up, the Ealing-born Bhaskar lived above a launderette in Hounslow with his parents – his mum, Janak, and his dad Inderjit, a factory worker. His father had sacrificed his dream of becoming a film director to support his widowed sister and her four children. It was when Bhaskar was about 15, he says, that he started having a “rough time” with racism at his local state school. But finding the comedy in it helped him to get “a new perspective” and shaped his career.      

Bhaskar became a household name 25 years ago in his BBC sketch show ‘Goodness Gracious Me’ with his future wife Meera Syal – the show memorably lampooned British Asian stereotypes
Bhaskar became a household name 25 years ago in his BBC sketch show ‘Goodness Gracious Me’ with his future wife Meera Syal – the show memorably lampooned British Asian stereotypes (Source)

“I got the ‘why don’t you go back home’ thing,” he says. “The ‘P***’ stuff was going on anyway, you got that on the way to school, as a matter of course, from other kids and adults.” Bhaskar later found himself isolated by the Asian kids; they told him not to talk to white people anymore.      

“I said, ‘Well, given you know which country we’re living in, and which continent we’re in, that might be quite difficult’,” recalls Bhaskar, who now lives in north London with Syal, whom he married in 2005, and their son Shann, 18. “They told me, ‘You’re either with us or against us’.”      

He could see how “ridiculous” the situation was, which, he says, gave him “a choice” over how to react to it. “Their chant for me was ‘white man’ when I walked by,” says Bhaskar. “And I remember thinking, that is so lame. I mean, I would have come up with something better than that,” he chuckles.       

Bhaskar as the spoof chat show host in ‘The Kumars at No 42’, which ran on the BBC for six series from 2001, interviewed stars including Daniel Radcliffe
Bhaskar as the spoof chat show host in ‘The Kumars at No 42’, which ran on the BBC for six series from 2001, interviewed stars including Daniel Radcliffe (Source)

Racism didn’t stop there. Early on in Bhaskar’s career at an audition for the detective series Frost with David Jason in the mid-1990s, he was asked to read the part of a 33-year-old man who had been hit over the head and robbed in a post office.      

“I read the lines and they said, ‘Yeah, could you do it in an Indian accent?’ And I said, ‘Oh, I didn’t realise the character had just come from India because that’s not in the script’. And they said, ‘No, he hasn’t’. And I said, ‘Well my cousin runs a post office. And so I don’t understand where the accent thing is coming from?’ And they said, ‘Well, the way you’re doing it, we just don’t think it’s very Asian’. And I said, ‘Well, I’ve been an Asian for 34 years. How about you?’” says Bhaskar.       

He didn’t get the job. While the scenario sounds like it could have come straight out of a Goodness Gracious Me sketch, Bhaskar is more pragmatic. “I don’t think they were being necessarily horrible or nasty or mean,” says Bhaskar with a compassionate glint in his eye. “It was just ignorance.”

Bhaskar as the pointy-eared Cain in Netflix’s adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s ‘The Sandman’ in 2021
Bhaskar as the pointy-eared Cain in Netflix’s adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s ‘The Sandman’ in 2021 (Netflix)

By the time he got the role in Unforgotten, things were very different. “I don’t think I would have been called up for Unforgotten had [creator] Chris Lang not written the character Sunny Khan – but he’s not representative of his culture. You know, Chris didn’t go, ‘I think I’ll stick an Asian character in this because I think it’s important to have diversity’. He did it because it’s part of our society. So, I think, the credit goes to him.”   

Now, though, the show must continue without Walker – but Cassie’s ghost is lurking through the first episode, and Keenan’s Jessica has a big pair of shoes to fill. I’m curious as to whether returning for series five felt, to Bhaskar, almost like starting a new job.   

“I miss Nicola [Walker] because she’s such a good friend... [but] part of the story this time is that Cassie is not there, and Sunny is trying to deal with it. So, in that sense, it kind of felt like that’s just my job,” he says. “My job is to tell the story.” Bhaskar is getting back to work – just like Sunny. 

‘Unforgotten’ airs 27 February at 9pm on ITV1

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