Sanjeev Bhaskar OBE on the tricky art of comedy and advice for writers
Updated: Jun 10, 2020
I’ve been a huge fan of Sanjeev Bhaskar most of my life, so when I got the chance to delve into his world and career over a socially distanced video chat, it was a huge honour. The creator and star of The Kumars at No.42 answered my call from his study, where he was undergoing a major decluttering expedition – something that many of us can empathise with right now – and wondering why on earth he had "three copies of the same Avengers film".
The multi-award winning actor, writer and producer answers my burning questions on his prolific career, and generously gives his advice for aspiring writers – revealing the key ingredients for creative success.
I thought we'd start by addressing the current situation, how are you finding it Sanjeev? Have you heard from any peers and how they are coping?
Well, as I'm fundamentally anti-social, it's not been too much of a problem actually. I spoke to Ricky Gervais a few days ago, and asked him how he's dealing with it. He answered, ‘I don't go out anyway.’ It's similar for me actually. I've quite liked the solitude of it. Crowds and traffic jams are going to take some getting used to after this. At the same time I'm absolutely aware of how awful and terrible it is for so many people. I feel incredibly lucky.
Looking back at an incredible multi-faceted career as a comedian, writer, actor and many more. I'm interested to know if it was comedy or acting that came first?
I was always obsessed with films since I was about five or six years old. And the medium of film was one that I was always drawn to. I was at university with Nitin Sawhney who is now a big film composer and all-around super talent and he and I used to do a two-man comedy review which involved comedy and music.
We got a cracking review in Time Out and that brought the BBC along, and they said, 'We're thinking of doing a sketch show and this is the material we're looking for, are you interested?' I tried to play it very cool actually and said 'maybe'. We went along and that became Goodness Gracious Me, which was a sketch show on BBC Radio first, and then TV, and that gave me a platform. It was while working on that, that I had the idea of a chat show where a fake Indian family, including parents and grandmother, all interview real guests.
That took about five years before it got on, but that was The Kumars at No. 42, and that then ran for seven series and it won Emmys and stuff. I suppose that gave me a foothold in the industry or in the business, and I remember in the first five years that I really needed to play catch up because I was way older than my peers, I wasn't trained. Within those first five years, I then did a little bit in film. The first film that I appeared in was Notting Hill as, Hungry Man in Restaurant. I wrote a documentary series and appeared on stage in the West End.
Many aspiring writers (including myself) have had a bash at comedy, and discovered it's a really challenging genre. Do you have any pearls of wisdom to pass on?
It's a good question because I think it requires a certain arrogance when you're writing it, to believe that not only you, but literally millions of people are going to find this funny. It's a weird headspace to be in.
Yes, it is tricky, because jokes – as you will know from socialising – told the first time or a quick response the first time, it's hilarious. That same response the 20th time is just a little bit annoying.
You must believe in it. There are things – certainly when writing – that will make you laugh the fifth time you've read it, or rewritten it. And often by the time you're on your sixth draft, there is a bit of you thinking, 'I don't know if it's any good at all'. That is hard. Also, considering particularly with film, that your actors will bring an additional something to your script, in the moment. In a way, you're writing with a view to also thinking that the performance is going to add to this.
Why do you think Goodness Gracious Me took off as huge as it did, and why it’s still as popular today as it was back then?
I think it was the fact that it was from a British-Asian perspective. There were the five of us that were the key performers, and of those, myself and Mira were two of the writers. I think that we decided that we wanted to be funny first, and political second. Any kind of politics that we may have been trying to push through or commentary that we wanted to push through were only validated if the sketch was funny. That was one rule that we followed.
Secondly, we'd all been born and brought up here, so our comedy touchstones would have been familiar to everybody else. Whether it was Laurel And Hardy, Peter Sellers, or Monty Python. Those were our reference points.
Also, again it comes back to universal appeal. Can you relate to what's going on in the sketch? The fact that it happened to be an Asian face or an Asian name didn't pollute the audience from understanding what was going on. Within the show we also did a real mixture of silly sketches. There was a character called Check Please, who just went on dates and just said the wrong thing. Now, that could be anybody.
It wasn't specifically Asian at all. We had something that took the piss out of our own culture and our parent's generation. Then also took the piss out of society as well.
Our readers will know you are a man of many talents and creative disciplines. You recently wrote and presented documentary Bollywood and Beyond: A Century of Indian Cinema. What was the driving force for that?
I've done three or four documentary series. It was marking 100 years of Indian cinema. For me, it was wonderful because I got to meet and speak to one of the top Bollywood stars of today, Aamir Khan.
I think he's been responsible for three or four of the top 10 grossing movies of all time in India! To spend time with him was fantastic. A good film is a good film. In the same way a good storyteller is a good storyteller.
Films that we still love 40, 50, 60 years later, is because it's a story well-told. Whether it's a Wonderful Life or whether it's Black Narcissus. It's the same with international cinema. Even within Indian cinema, although Bollywood is Hindi – the Hindi language – there are 15 other major languages that produce hundreds of films a year. For me, accessing those was interesting. It's not something I did growing up, but I was able to do through this doc.
On the subject of good stories, well-told, in 2011 you made Lazy Uncle, a short film. Here at Exit 6, we champion the talent of connecting with an audience in such a short space of time. How was your experience with your own short?
It was a learning experience really. I've judged a short film competition twice, and they are incredible works of art. They are the unsung heroes of the film world.
I've judged a one-minute film festival. It was extraordinary. What people were able to do within 60 seconds was amazing.
For me, one of the greatest moments in film is the three minutes in Up, where they tell the backstory of the old guy. That just works on its own. That tells you an entire story on its own. The fact that they then use that to tell this longer story is almost an additional thing. I suppose because I started in sketch comedy, you've got a beginning, a middle and an end of anything between 30 seconds and about three minutes, and so the idea of a short film is not alien to me. There was one film in the one-minute film thing that has always stayed with me because it was brilliant and heartbreaking and as good as anything that could have been done in 90 minutes.
Would you like to do more work behind the camera?
Yes, absolutely. I'm always waiting for the moment. In truth, it's probably easier for me to do that with something I've written. There have been a couple of projects that have been presented to me, but they didn't speak to me.
I really love that whole process. To me, it is utterly magical that you start with a person with a blank piece of paper, and then all these other people come together, and at the end of it, you have this movie.
How was it working with Danny Boyle and Richard Curtis in the romantic comedy Yesterday?
It's the perfect happy storm because the Beatles, I love the Beatles, and then Richard Curtis, great, and Danny Boyle...directed by an Oscar winner?!
It was such a great experience and so much fun. It was mostly shot in Suffolk and Norfolk, with a couple of bits done elsewhere. It was just a joy to be part of.
It's quite an old-fashioned film in many ways. It's got a happy ending and has the element of magic in it. Just to be on set with Danny Boyle, he's extraordinary as a director and it was fascinating to watch him at work. He notices everybody, he acknowledges everyone. His energy is always up. He is always open to ideas and he will film it until he gets it right. His good humour and warmth just never ebbs. It was extraordinary being on set with him.
Speaking of wonderfully delightful films, it would be remiss of me not to bring up the lovable Paddington 2. Straight off the bat – what or who did you act against when in a scene with Paddington?
A small bear from Peru, obviously.
Oh, thank god.
Again, one of those, great moments of good fortune where I got contacted by the director and the writer, and they had a small part they wanted me to do. I didn't have to audition for it, which was nice. Our trailers were next to the set of Fantastic Beasts, so not only was I involved in this really wonderful film, I then got to gawk at this enormous New York set built just outside London.
It was a real joy to do. Hugh Grant was amazing in it, and it was one of his best performances, he did some of the best improvising I have ever seen in my life.He was able to go off-script and mould it but in a way that wasn't self-indulgent, which a lot of improvising can do. He's gone through a bit of renascence in a way with people reassessing him as an actor. On-set watching him work and then seeing the finished product, I thought he was sensational. Absolutely sensational.
Just before we wrap up, I wonder if you have any tips for those aspiring to be part of the filmmaking world, whether it be acting or writing?
Well, the best thing that I heard, was a few years before I started, there was an actor called Richard Briers. He was big in sitcoms particularly in Britain across the '70s. There was a show called The Good Life and Ever Decreasing Circles. I was driving and I heard him on the radio and somebody asked him, 'Have you got any advice?' He said, 'Yes, I have. If you really want to act, if you really, really want to act, don't'. He then said, 'Do it if you have to.' I thought, 'Yes, you're absolutely right'.
The inconsistency is something that you have to deal with your whole life, really, unless you're Tom Cruise, or Hugh Jackman, or Benedict, or all those guys. I think that particularly with writing and with acting actually, but particularly with writing, the more you do, the better you become.
There was a documentary about the band, The Eagles. There was a moment in that where one of the Eagles was talking about how they had written their first song, and they were on tour as a country band doing covers. They had written this song and they took it down to the headline guy and said, 'We've written this song, would you have a look at it?' He had a look at it, and they said, 'What do you think? Is it any good?' He said, 'No, but it will be.' The point was, go back and work on it.
Particularly with writing, that's the key to it. I feel fortunate in that because I wasn't trained and I started much older than my peers. I've never felt that I've not been on a learning curve, and so I'm constantly trying to learn. Auditions are soul-destroying when you don't get them. Again, I still get rejected on auditions and stuff like that. It happens all the time, but I treat each one now as a learning experience. What could I do better next time? That was a practice.
Thank you for your time, Sanjeev.
Not at all. Pleasure.
You can follow Sanjeev on Twitter: @TVSanjeev