When Sanjeev Bhaskar was five years old, a visiting uncle asked what he wanted to be when he grew up. “An actor,” the boy excitedly replied, whereupon his kindly dad, Inderjit, a factory worker at Nestlé, corrected him: “Son, it is pronounced doctor.”
Forty years later, Bhaskar discovered that his dad had once shared his childhood dream. Born in India, he ran away from home at the age of 14 to join a theatre company, and after settling in the UK, used to travel from their flat above a launderette in Hounslow to a film school in Brixton, which ran courses for nascent directors. Life intervened, family duties called, Inderjit dropped out. A stable career, he hoped, would spare his son that heartache of crushed aspirations. Now, Bhaskar has realised his childhood wish, and the father is living his dreams through his son, who dared and won.
I’m interviewing Bhaskar because he is one of the stars of ITV’s Unforgotten – the hugely popular crime drama in which two detectives solve decades-old murders – which returns tonight. The last series, in 2021, reached an audience of more than 9 million and was nominated for major TV awards. Viewer numbers have steadily risen; anticipation is high.
Bhaskar plays DI Sunny Khan; Nicola Walker is (or was) DCI Cassie Stuart. They are not typical TV detectives – they’re sensitive and deliberative, courteous and ordinary. She’s nervy and restless; he is cautious and witty. Their private lives are complicated. His race is neither overemphasised nor denied. When tempers flare, flashes of shame and self-castigation appear on their faces.
Bhaskar thinks that’s what endears them to viewers: “These guys are not heroic nor tragic. At the heart of it is a woman and a man who get on, don’t grab attention, build trust.”
Actors in TV series need to convey a pre-existing relationship. That can be hard. But right from their first scene, Bhaskar and Walker felt they had known each other forever. Bhaskar believes that intimacy and the non-judgemental scripts makes the series meaningful and human: “Chris [Lang, the writer] shows how regular people can do bad things.”
We are made to understand them, because a delicate balance is maintained between high drama and everyday life. Revelations are gradual, and the detectives’ commitment to the long dead feels authentic. And mercifully, the victims are not all young, beautiful women. For me, the most unforgotten murder victim is the Conservative consultant David Walker, whose body was stuffed into a suitcase and thrown into the River Lea in the second series.
In series four, Cassie was looking forward to retirement when she was killed in a car crash. I wept when I re-watched this episode. It felt as if someone in my own life had perished. Fans are upset and will have to be won over.
Sunny now has to grieve as well as gel with a new partner, Jessie James, played by Sinéad Keenan, the versatile Irish actor who was a werewolf in Being Human and a tough DI in the legal drama Showtrial. Keenan recently told the Belfast Telegraph about how Bhaskar had reached out to her: “He was incredibly kind, probably because he was thinking that it could feel a bit weird for whoever was coming in. The nicest man in showbiz.”
Bhaskar is in awe of her already: “She’s brilliant. Strong. I love working with strong, really talented women – Meera [Syal], Nicola, now Sinéad.” And you married one of them, I say – he married Syal in 2005. He laughs. “I would marry them all if I was allowed!”
Landing the role of Sunny was unexpected, and a game-changer. The virtuoso script writer Chris Lang took a chance on Bhaskar, who was until then mostly known for comedy. It paid off. Bhaskar recalls the first script readings “with Tom Courtney, Bernard Hill, Hannah Gordon… Nicola said to me, ‘Do you realise we have to act with them?’ I replied, ‘Nicola, you are one of them’”. Did he suffer from imposter syndrome? “No, I am learning, always learning.”
Bhaskar’s career began with Goodness Gracious Me, the BBC comedy show that was as transgressive and iconic for British Asians as Monty Python sketches were for white Britons. The writers and actors thwarted the expectations of the Motherland and Asian seniors, and freed young minds.
Bhaskar, Meera Syal, Nina Wadia and Kulvinder Ghir vaulted across community walls and snuck into fortified white dominions. How gutsy they had to be. How surefooted. The Kumars at No 42, Bhaskar’s next creation in 2001, was again subversive and phenomenally successful. Famous stars were invited to his Asian suburban home, stuffed with food, and asked unsuitable questions. Syal, whom he married in 2005, played the granny.
Most immigrants, even today, want their offspring to go into business, become doctors, lawyers, accountants, or now, city highfliers, like Rishi Sunak. Asians in the showbiz firmament threaten that life plan. To an Asian businessman I know: “Sanjeev and Meera, Nish Kumar – not a good example. Life is serious, not a joke. Our young people, now they want to be like them, my grandson also. We must stop them.” No chance of that.
Bhasker has grown into a fine, all-round character actor. You feel he controls his life and career intelligently and avoids overexposure, the curse of our times. I’ve known him for some years, but I am still a little nervous in his presence because he is so centred, so self-assured.
His creative journey began at Hatfield Polytechnic, where he fortuitously met Nitin Sawhney, now a phenomenal musician and composer. They became lifelong friends, and wrote and performed some cheeky, inventive sketches. When he graduated, Bhaskar went into marketing and was bored. In 1995, the mates, older but still audacious, agreed it would be fun to write and perform an unpredictable show to overturn preconceptions about British Asians: “We called ourselves The Secret Asians,” he recalls, “booked the now defunct Oval House theatre, and did a gig called the Pappadam Preachers.”
Two BBC chaps – Anil Gupta and the late Sharat Sardana – dropped in, were impressed, and offered the team a radio show. Three years later, it moved to BBC2 and became a huge hit. Until then, “Asian accents and voices were comical, to be laughed it,” he says. “We were humble, really apologetic.” Goodness Gracious Me’s brio gave British-born Asians permission to be rebellious and proud. They would never be humble again.
Back then, there were hardly any Asians on TV. If one appeared, however briefly, Bhaskar remembers the family rushing to the TV. Controversially, he defends It Ain’t Half Hot Mum, which the BBC has pulled forever because of its racist content: “It reflected Indians – that mattered back then,” he says. “It solidified our existence.”
Art Malik – an early breakthrough Asian actor – embodied what young Bhasker wanted to be: a brown man who commanded the screen, without hiding or disguising his ethnicity. Bhaskar is in that league now. Unforgotten is validation of that.