Sanjeev Bhaskar has played on his multicultural background throughout his career. As The Indian Doctor returns to BBC One, the actor talks to Sophie Herdman about childhood, Hollywood friends and the return of The Kumars At No 42
Sanjeev Bhaskar is looking dapper.
Sitting in a trailer in a small town near Cardiff, he’s wearing a dark suit, his hair slicked back.
He is currently filming the third series of The Indian Doctor, a Sixties drama about - you guessed it - an Indian doctor, Dr Prem Sharma, played by Bhaskar, and his glamorous wife, who relocate to a small Welsh community.
The locals aren’t hostile to their new doctor - more curious about their new resident.
Indeed, growing up in London, Bhaskar says he rarely encountered threatening racism, merely intrigue.
“Kids would just wonder if I had an elephant, to which of course I said, ‘yes’,” Bhaskar says, with a twinkle in his eye.
Now, he says, racism has changed in its tone. “People are more aware, so there are fewer misunderstandings, but there is more presumption,” he says.
“It’s not nasty, but people assume they know things because they read a blog, and you have to say ‘Well actually, that’s not me’.”
Growing up, Bhaskar says, he did not enjoy being different. “As a kid, I just wanted to fit in,” he says, recalling a time when, aged around eight, a child asked his name and he lied, saying he was called Steven.
But as he matured, the actor began to view his difference as an asset. “Sitting in between two cultures, you see the best and the worst of both, and you see the misunderstandings more clearly,” he says.
The 49-year-old has built his career on comical observations about culture clashes.
Shows such as Goodness Gracious Me and The Kumars At No 42, which Bhaskar wrote and starred in with his comedian wife Meera Syal, play on the differences between traditional Indian culture and modern British life.
And then, of course, there is The Indian Doctor, in which Bhaskar has been flexing his serious acting muscles.
“I’ve never seen a huge amount of difference between comedy and drama,” says Bhaskar.
“Somebody once described comedy to me as drama with its trousers pulled down. It’s drama gone wrong.”
Bhaskar has no plans to chase the big, serious Hollywood roles.
“A lot of people I know have relocated to America. They love the lifestyle, but I’m a dyed-in-the-wool Londoner,” he says.
Although Bhaskar is reluctant to admit it, he and Syal have a number of celebrity friends, such as Wolverine actor Hugh Jackman. “He’s lovely and incredibly grounded,” Bhaskar says.
But he remains apathetic about the celebrity world. “It’s exciting meeting your heroes, but when you realise this is just their job, the celeb side of it wears off quickly,” he says. “Then it comes down to whether you think they’re nice, honest and open.”
Bhaskar admits he has asked a number of his celeb pals if they would like to feature on the new series of The Kumars At No 42, which is returning after seven years. Jackman has already filmed a mock advert for the show.
The eighth series will see the Kumars hit by recession and forced to downsize. Celebrities now enter through the shop and interviews take place in the family’s sitting room instead of the studio they had previously built.
Another change is that Sanjeev, played by Bhaskar, has married and then divorced.
“There is something amusing and also really sad about someone who is bitter about relationships and yet on the pull,” Bhaskar says. “He’s going out saying, ‘I hate women, but what are you doing later?’”
Bhaskar started his working life as a marketing executive. Soon, though, he realised that comedy was where his heart lay.
His breakthrough was with Goodness Gracious Me, broadcast on radio in 1996 and on TV in 1998. The first series of The Kumars at No 42 followed and in 2002 the actor starred in the film Anita And Me, written by and co-starring Syal.
In 2007, he fronted a documentary – India with Sanjeev Bhaskar – to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the independence of India and Pakistan. A year later, he made his musical theatre debut in Spamalot.
And all that is just a snippet of the multi-talented Bhaskar’s work. In 2005 he married and had a baby with Syal and was awarded an OBE.
He accepted it for his parents who, before moving to London, grew up under the British Raj.
“They didn’t have holidays and took horrible jobs so that we could have an education and a stable home, so the award is for them,” he says.
“I don’t say much about political stuff because I’m not that political and there’s never been a party that I’ve completely agreed with,” he says. “But the arts are always the first things that get cut.”
“If science is the mechanics of a country, art is the soul. To cut that off is myopic.”
:: The Indian Doctor returns to BBC One on Monday