There’s more to Meera Syal than just being funny. This writer and actor has stayed unashamedly rooted in her British-Asian identity, using wit to introduce her culture to a wider audience. What’s she up to now? Joyeeta Basu goes visiting
Meera Syal has just rushed home after picking up her daughter from school, so she starts the interview a little out of breath. “I’ve just completed shooting for Woody Allen’s film. I play Freida Pinto’s mother. The film also stars Anupam Kher,” she says in her clipped accent. Woody Allen film? We’re listening. “Well, he’s always been my favourite director. I love all his films…Radio Days, Manhattan, Annie Hall... gosh there’re so many to mention. It was a joyful experience working with him. He gives his actors so much freedom. He casts very carefully and then trusts his actors with their instincts. I think that’s a great way to work.” She’s also just finished working on comedy series Beautiful People for the BBC, which will air in October. So has writing taken a backseat? “Not quite. I’m actually working on the final draft of a drama that I’m writing for BBC1,” Meera says.
“Being in a girl band was an experiment really”
What wit is to laughter, Meera is to creativity. Injecting the world of showbiz with a much-needed dose of intellect, she made Asian lifestyle accessible to an alien audience by tickling the funny bone. She’s had a stint with almost all areas of showbiz—radio, stage performances, films, TV and singing. And is also a columnist with The Guardian. (Just when we think that’s the combined talent of about three people, we learn she also plays the guitar!)
But what is quite interesting and little known, is that Meera was once a part of a girl band. Pakistani pop sensation Nazia Hasan (remember the ’80s hit Aap Jaisa Koi?) and composer Biddu were behind forming the band Saffron in the ’80s. But the stint had been short and the memory is now vague. “It was an experiment really. And Nazia Hasan, very sadly, has passed away. It was Biddu who actually brought us all together. He had been way ahead of his times. There were so many international girl groups at the time but no Asian ones. But it was so long ago, I’m surprised people even remember.” But there is clearly a suppressed singer in her? “I’ve sung at a French musical and performed with a jazz group. I love to sing and I would like to do a musical if something came up,” Meera agrees.
“Humour is a good glue to keep any kind of relationship together”
It’s not surprising that Meera had to resort to so many forms of self-expression; it’s probably a need that arose because of the experiences she faced in her childhood. Her life had not been simple. Her parents, a Punjabi couple from New Delhi, had moved to England in 1960. Meera was born in Wolverhampton and grew up in Essington, a mining village in Britain. Her family was the only coloured people in a pre-dominantly white neighbourhood. And Meera had taken recourse to humour at a young age to keep away any taunts. Later, she studied English and drama at Manchester University, unknowingly choosing a path that was to later become her career. “I really don’t know what drove me to study drama, except for a passionate need to communicate. We were the first generation of children born to Indian immigrants and people didn’t understand us. More than anything else, I had felt the need to explain myself artistically.” And the methods she used were intelligent, while co-writing Goodness Gracious Me and The Kumars. She delved into what seemed like the peculiarities and eccentricities of the Indian community by laughing at them with the audience.
Meera married funny man and co-actor on many projects, Sanjeev Bhaskar. So what is it like to have two funny people in the house? She laughs, “Well, it’s good. Both our kids have a fantastic sense of humour and it’s a great balm. Humour is a good glue to keep any kind of relationship together.”
“There is some very interesting cinema happening in India”
The mention of family steers the conversation to India. She hasn’t been here since the birth of her son four years ago and a visit is due. “It’s a good and interesting time for India right now. I have worked in Bollywood and the expertise and brilliance of the crew is amazing. India is changing so fast with no adjustment period really. There are so many issues, families breaking up, questioning of identities. A film is the right medium to represent it all. Bollywood is after all one of the world’s biggest film industry and I’ll always have a place for it in my heart.”
Meera also reacted to Slumdog Millionaire. “Much like other Indians did—there was nothing in it that I didn’t know about. But it was made for the international audience, for people who don’t know anything about India. I am pleased that the film has given the industry a boost.”
Speaking of the industry, is there any particular director Meera would like to work with? “No one in particular but there is some very interesting cinema happening in India. Among recent films, I watched Loins of Punjab and Hello. There are many Indian women filmmakers who are doing good work too. It’s an exciting generation to work with and given a right project I would love to work in it.”
“I’ve always been a woman’s activist”
So does she miss playing the sassy grandmother in The Kumars? “I miss it a lot. There was such a high level of improvisation. We had the most amazing guests on our show like Charlotte Church, Minnie Driver and Phil Collins. It was funny to have people like them eating a samosa on the sets.”
Meera also supports Newham Asian Women’s Project that works for violence against women. “I’ve never been a political spokesperson, I don’t think that’s my job. But I’ve always been an activist for women’s issues. That’s very close to my heart.” There is obviously a lot on her hands and here’s wishing Meera Syal comes up with a show again that keeps us hooked to the TV.
Five things that make you cringe
1. Being over-flattered by anybody.
2. People trying too hard to be someone they’re not.
3. Some of the clothes I buy.
4. Lots of politicians.
5. Reality shows. I really can’t stand some of them.
Five things that make you angry
2. Bullying of any kind.
3. Believing feminism is irrelevant. Don’t understand how people think it is an insult. I think any intelligent woman would be a feminist as far as I’m concerned.
4. Pollution of any kind. Simple things like keeping the lights on when not in use.
5. Seeing children not being able to blossom because of added responsibilities.
For BBC magazines.
1. My children and my husband
2. Laurel and Hardy
3. Pompous people
4. Listening to my mom and her friends gossiping. That always cracks me up
5. Watching TV serial You’ve Been Framed. Its low-brow comedy, but I love it.