Sanjeev Bhaskar on stereotypes, insomnia and the weirdness of beards
As the actor returns in a new series of the hit ITV drama Unforgotten, he talks about his upcoming 60th birthday, insomnia, and why he doesn’t fear failure
You’ll turn 60 this October. How do you feel about that?
Completely celebratory. If you’re happy with where you are at any given moment, you have to accept everything that came before it: the good, the bad and the indifferent, because all of it has brought me to this point.
One of the joys of getting older is you realise you are a collector of experiences.
Will you have a big party?
This may sound odd, but I don’t like being the centre of attention, so I’m not big on parties for my birthdays. I like chatting with small groups.
How did you view old age as a younger man?
When I was growing up, by the age of 50, people seemed to adopt an old person’s uniform and to be interested in ‘old people’ things.
What’s been interesting over the past 20 years or so is that we now have endless examples of people who are older and are actively thriving.
I recently watched a trailer for the new Indiana Jones film and there’s an 80-year-old Harrison Ford riding a horse and punching people and looking great doing it.
There are so many other examples out there and I don’t even think heartening is the right word any more because it feels so normal.
Unforgotten, in which you play DI Sunny Khan, is back for a fifth series. Could you ever have predicted that his rucksack would become an online phenomenon?
DI Khan’s bag is not often opened unless it’s in the scene. Early on I told the costume department to just fill it with stuff and surprise me.
It became so funny that I thought I’d photograph the contents and put them on social media as a bit of background fun, and it became its own thing. Now I do it every series.
I think what it suggests is a really happy set, because the costume department is basically making fun of me.
At the end of the last series, the last picture I put up was Nicola Walker stepping out of it, as it was her last day as DCI Cassie Stuart.
Sinéad Keenan is your new co-star. Have you missed filming with Nicola?
The great thing about working with Nicola was that it was one of the few times that the on-screen relationship mirrored our actual relationship – although our actual relationship has more jokes in it!
From the first scene that we shot nearly ten years ago, we felt like we’d known each other for years. It was an incredibly close relationship and still is. It did feel strange filming without her.
Did you know your comedy show Goodness Gracious Me would have a lasting impact?
It certainly wasn’t designed that way! When we were making it, we just wanted it to be funny.
On the one hand, it’s heartwarming that a lot of those sketches are now on TikTok, but on the other hand, it’s slightly depressing that we haven’t moved on.
I’d like to think the sketches would always be funny, but they should look like the past, and a lot of the attitudes we see in them, whether towards age or towards women, don’t.
How does it feel to know the late Queen was a fan of your creation The Kumars at No. 42?
We had conversations about it whenever we met – but I didn’t know it was one of her favourites until a journalist revealed it last year. Perhaps she related to the grandmother, Ummi.
Everything I’ve done has been about playing with preconceptions, and I knew an old Indian lady would be viewed socially as the weakest, so I made her the person with the most agency and the funniest.
You’ve been married to Meera Syal, who starred alongside you, for 18 years. What’s the secret to a successful relationship?
I wish I knew! There are always three entities in a marriage: the you, the me, and the us, and for us, we have always been clear that we are a team.
Meera has her own interests, experiences, friends and work but we come together as a team and that’s key. There’s no hierarchy – although if there was, she’d be at the top of it anyway.
What qualities do you think your son, Shaan, 17, has inherited from you both?
It’s difficult to tell. He’s got a great sense of humour, which is somehow learnt from my sister. And my sister’s brilliant at never holding grudges, so he doesn’t hold grudges.
We have our arguments, but the tension doesn’t last beyond it, so those are definitely things he’s picked up.
How significant is it for you that we now have a British Asian Prime Minister?
It’s absolutely a moment of change, in the same way it was when Margaret Thatcher became [the first female UK] Prime Minister.
I didn’t align with Margaret Thatcher’s politics, and nor do I particularly with the party policies of Rishi Sunak, but it’s still absolutely a marker.
It’s also been significant in other ways. One of the many interesting things about the time Obama was elected is that it revealed a level of racism in the US that had previously been argued away as existing only among the uneducated.
His presidency exposed how deeply engrained and up and down the food chain those attitudes are. A similar thing was possibly unveiled here and, as a society, it’s important to know these things.
What did you learn from your upbringing?
The women in my family – my mum, sister, aunt and maternal grandmother – were extraordinary, and that side of the family never lost their sense of humour.
Something I got from my mum was that in any moment that overwhelms us, whether it’s by fear or grief or even love, humour is the one thing where you can give yourself perspective. It’s an incredibly handy tool to stave off that feeling of being overwhelmed.
What is the most significant life lesson you’ve learned as you’ve got older?
That it’s important not to put a full stop on your own story. When things go wrong, I see it as a comma, a pause. We all have those moments where you may feel – or society may be telling you – that you’re a failure.
I started late in this industry, at the age of 34, so from when I was 16 until then, anyone could have pointed to me and said with some justification in that context, ‘He’s a failure’. But they didn’t know what was coming up next and nor did I.
It’s got me to the point where I can’t fail. I know that may sound arrogant, but I mean it in the sense that I’ve decided that whatever happens, I will either enjoy it or learn from it.
What is your best piece of advice?
Don’t be scared of not knowing what’s coming up next, because that blank page, that unknown, can turn out to be positive.
The closest thing I have to faith is knowing that things will change.
There are probably a million decisions I wish I had made differently, but that’s a wiser me looking back at a less wise me.
Instead, I think of life as a river and the travel along it is everything. Everything that happens to you on the way is a stepping stone.
Do you sleep well?
I am an insomniac, so I find it very difficult to go to sleep: the lights switch off and my brain switches on because I suddenly have a blank canvas in front of me and dreams and ideas spring forth.
If you were Minister for the Saga Generation, what would you do?
I would lobby for someone aged 50 and above to be part of absolutely every organisation, be it commercial, creative, a school, or a community group.
Having that voice that has seen and collected experiences that other people haven’t is essential.
What do you think people would be surprised to know about you?
I had quite a tough time in my late teens with bullying at school. It left me quite isolated, but because we lived close to Heathrow Airport, one of the things that I really enjoyed doing was going to the airport for the day.
I’d get a sandwich and a drink, and I would basically sit between departures and arrivals watching people because I thought that’s where you got the purest drama.
You got the joy of people seeing each other again, and the pain of separation. I used to be fascinated with these stories happening right in front of me.
You’re about to take on a new detective role, playing the titular character from the Inspector Singh Investigates books by Shamini Flint for BritBox. Could this be a new Unforgotten?
Well, I’ve grown a beard. I’ve never done that before and it feels really weird. It’s certainly a completely different character to Sunny Khan.
We’re filming it in Malaysia and the fact that it’s in Malaysia and I’ve got a beard immediately means it’s going to be a new experience, which is fabulous. It’s the first of a series of books, so who knows what may happen?
What was a perfect moment in your life?
Funnily enough I was recently talking to my son about perfect moments, and I think I’ve had one.
I’m a huge Elvis fan – Elvis and the Beatles are still my go-to playlists – and just before I started acting, my sister, who was working as a producer in music television at that point, said she’d heard there was a private gig happening at a London studio by Elvis’s original guitarist Scotty Moore and drummer DJ Fontana.
They played on all the early hits, they toured with him, and it was about the closest I was ever going to get to being in a room with Elvis. So I get there and there’s only about 30 people and they’re up there playing these pieces of music that I’ve loved since I was a child.
Some of The Rolling Stones were there as well as various musicians who were getting up and jamming with them. Then one of the organisers came up to me and asked me whether I would like to get up and sing an Elvis number with them.
To be asked was something that’s so beyond anything I would have imagined, but I actually said if I’d got up there I’d be so nervous, I’d sing out of tune, I’d get the words wrong, and then all I’d remember is that humiliation. But just to be asked made it a perfect moment.
What inspires you?
Two of the most inspiring people I’ve ever met and have huge dizzying privilege of being friends with are Alan Alda and his wife Arlene.
Alan, who was Hawkeye in [American sitcom] M*A*S*H, is a really good friend. He and Arlene are both well into their eighties, and they are constant inspirations.
I’ve been friends with them for about 20 years and the thing that I learned from them is that they are constantly curious, and they are driven by their curiosity.
They wake up with a question that needs to be answered, and then they like to talk to people, they’ll read things, they’ll look up stuff.
Alan does a podcast [Clear+Vivid], which is about communication and compassion, and it’s brilliant. He’s funny, he’s kind of erudite, he’s smart, he’s kind. I’m really lucky that I have two examples of people I really admire.
Unforgotten airs on ITV and ITVX from 27 February at 9pm
This article first appeared in the March 2023 issue of Saga Magazine. Like what you’ve read? Subscribe to Saga Magazine today.
Written by Kathryn Knight