Meera Syal on the power of being a leading lady at 61: ‘For the first time in years, you’re free’
The actor, writer and comedian on leading roles, the secret of her marriage to Sanjeev Bhaskar and why she couldn’t live without netball.
You’ve been married to actor Sanjeev Bhaskar for 18 years. How did you get together?
Sanjeev and I had known each other for years because we worked together. But the turning point was when we were both invited to Australia to promote The Kumars at No. 42. We got this amazing free trip to Sydney and Melbourne, and well, it’s a long flight – and there was vodka! So as we crossed the equator we also crossed the border from friendship to something else. One of those weird things where you look at each other and go, ‘Oh, there you are!’
What makes a good marriage?
Having a laugh, being able to talk about anything, and choosing your battles. It’s ideal to marry your best friend. If everything else fades, that friendship will always be there.
You’re about to appear as the lead character in a detective series, Mrs Sidhu Investigates, and Sanjeev will soon be playing a detective in Inspector Singh Investigates…
Yes, it is quite hilarious. We joke that it’s a job share. The difference is that unlike Singh, a police inspector who works from Malaysia, Mrs Sidhu isn’t trained. She is a caterer who doesn’t set out to be a detective but gets sucked in. She becomes the Miss Marple of Slough.
How does it feel to be taking on a leading role at 61?
We are in a golden age for older women in terms of roles, but it’s still a tiny proportion. When we knew the series was transferring to TV [it started on BBC Radio 4] we were keen on creating a woman in her prime, and for many women in their sixties it is their prime.
It’s a golden period when your kids are grown up, you’ve still got your health and for the first time in years you’re free. Women like Mrs Sidhu are redefining ageing. For our mums that was feet up, slippers by the fire, don’t do anything that might crack a hip.
We’re not like that any more. She’s widowed and had the choice to curl up and look sad or dye her hair red and find a new purpose.
Are there any similarities between you and the incredibly nosy Mrs Sidhu?
Who isn’t nosy? There’s nothing as fascinating as other people’s lives, especially in our sixties. And let’s face it, who is more invisible than an older woman? You stand in corners and eavesdrop because no one is looking at you any more. The main thing we have in common is our love of food. I even cooked a bit on set.
How do you feel about being 61?
Turning 60 was quite a thing. I’d spent six months planning a huge 60th party, which had to be cancelled when lockdown was extended. Much as I love it, there are loads of things about ageing that suck. I’ve been looking after ageing parents for the past decade so you are seeing 20 or 30 years into the future with them, and thinking this is really tough. But I think we’re looking after ourselves better. A good walk and laughing with friends become important for your health and mental wellbeing.
Your parents arrived in Britain from India in 1960. What was it like growing up as the only Asian family in a West Midlands mining village?
My mum was a school teacher, my dad an accountant, and I was a fish out of water. We stuck out like sore thumbs. I learned to be a chameleon: an Indian girl inside the house, a Midlands girl outside of it, and had to bridge those two cultures all the time. I didn’t fit in with the English kids and I certainly didn’t fit in with the nice, well-behaved Indian girls. I was my own new kind of creature and that’s where the root of my creativity was.
How did you feel when Rishi Sunak became the UK’s first British Asian Prime Minister?
It was huge to see the Prime Minister lighting Diwali candles [to celebrate the Hindu festival of light] outside Number 10. It wasn’t something I thought I’d see in my lifetime. Whatever your politics, there’s something comforting and optimistic about it. You want to reach a point where it’s not mentioned any more and people are there because they are good at their jobs.
What’s the one thing you can’t live without?
Netball. I’ve been playing since I was aged 11. Sometimes you are lucky enough to find the one thing you absolutely love and that makes you happy. If I could play every day I would, but my family might get annoyed.
Your 30-year-old daughter is in theatre. Are you happy she’s following in your footsteps?
It’s a double-edged sword. I can’t say, ‘Don’t join the circus’, because I ran away to join it myself. I understand that impulse because when you are creative it’s the thing that gives you joy.
You were 44 when your son, now 17, was born. How was it being an older mother?
You are a lot more tired with much less energy, so the sleepless nights really do rock you. But you are more solvent, a lot calmer and you’ve already done it once. The best thing is it keeps you incredibly young. It’s lovely to have a house full of young people. They bring so much energy.
If you were Minister for the Saga generation, what would you lobby for?
To keep our ageing population healthy and not a drain on the NHS, you need to make things more accessible, such as free theatre tickets, free art galleries, free yoga classes and walking groups. All of those things encourage people to take their wellbeing into their own hands.
What keeps you awake at night?
My husband tells me I can be a worrier, but what I find has really helped me is meditation.
What would you tell your younger self?
Life is a marathon, not a sprint.
Mrs Sidhu Investigates is on Acorn TV later in 2023.
This article first appeared in the May 2023 issue of Saga Magazine. Like what you’ve read? Subscribe to Saga Magazine for just £29.95 and receive a FREE National Trust Family Pass*
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Written by Pam Francis