This article first appeared in our January 2016 issue and is a part of our extensive archive.
She is probably one of the most famous of her generation of British Asians to impact mainstream culture. She has written and starred in the awardwinning television series, Goodness Gracious Me, and had the audience in splits in The Kumars at No 42. While she began her career with theatre and then went on to television, the need to share, express and communicate more has made her take ink to paper several times by now and each time, she has been applauded for her artistic flair. Be it the screenplay for Bhaji on the Beach or the script for Andrew Lloyd Webber’s hit musical, Bombay Dreams, or her bestselling books Anita and Me, Life isn’t all Ha Ha Hee Hee and the most recent The House of Hidden Mothers… Meera Syal has been a superlatively creative artist since her first job that made her tour a one woman show, One of Us, around the country in her first summer after university. That show won her an award and after that she only moved forward and escalated with every performance or writing she did. She is inspirational, ballsy, experimental but above all extremely proficient. And she does what she does as she very passionately says, ‘I’m not much good at anything else! And what I do is not a job, it’s who I am, the urge to tell stories and through them find meaning and reach people ancient and primal.’ I connected with her to learn more about her journey, her choices and about the various roles she plays…
You are an actor, writer, playwright, producer, singer and journalist—how challenging is donning all these hats?
Well, singer and journalist are probably misleading, I did sing in a jazz band for many years and have done musicals but I really wouldn’t out it down as a profession! Similarly though I’ve written for fair few publications regularly over the years, I wouldn’t describe myself as a journalist either. The main two strings on my bow are acting and writing. And I started writing really because there were so few good roles being offered to me when I first became an actress; when I was faced with the usual stereotypical downtrodden Indian woman kind of stuff I thought, I’m sure I can do better than this as it couldn’t get much worse. I didn’t begin with prose writing until the later 1990s but I do love having the two disciplines to choose from, as one feeds the other continually, it’s the variety that keeps both fresh I think. Also both disciplines feed each other, when you read so many scripts as an actor, you do get a feel for story, and dialogue, character, and I try and feed that into my scripts or novels. Also when I write, I try and make every part as complex and layered as I can because as an actor, I have played the small roles and I know how frustrating it is to have a few lines that you can do nothing with!
Let’s journey back—you were born in Wolverhampton, West Midlands and grew up in Essington. What were your growing up years like?
Strange, unique and wildly funny a lot of the time which is why I wanted to write about my childhood in my first novel, Anita and Me. We were the only people of colour in a tiny rural village so of course there were misunderstandings, prejudices mostly from ignorance rather than hostility, but mainly it was a happy childhood as I wasn’t policed by the Auntie brigade like most of my friends living in urban areas around other Indians. I got to be feral and unfettered and I’m sure that freedom encouraged freedom of thought and expression. There’s no one specific event. But the whole experience of growing up in a white working class mining village as the outsider, belonging and yet not belonging, I think is what awakened all my creative desires. Most artists are outsiders in one way or another and always seeking to see the bigger picture, to find their place in it, to communicate, to tell the stories that no one may have heard before.
What made you decide to immerse yourself in the arts?
The desire to tell the stories in my head that no one else seemed to be telling and hoping by sharing them, a dialogue could begin. And from that dialogue, comes understanding, empathy, and illumination. I’ve certainly seen it happen through much of the comedy I have done, Goodness Gracious Me and The Kumars. Comedy can break down barriers and challenge preconceptions in a really powerful way. And same goes for the screenplays like Bhaji On The Beach or my books. That moment is thrilling when you, as a reader, open a book; and the intake of breath as you step into someone else’s world. It sustained my entire childhood; books have given me some of the best journeys of my life without ever leaving my chair and it’s quite a privilege to know other people might want to read your book and travel with you on yours.
You wrote the screenplay for Bhaaji on the Beach. How did that culminate and what was the experience like?
It was one of the quickest commissions I ever got! I walked into the commissioning editor’s office and told her I wanted to write a film about the day trips to the seaside I used to take as a child with my parents and their family friends. We usually went to Blackpool—the most traditionally English seaside town, but took our roti and achaar with us, and all the mums would paddle in their saris in the freezing sea. I loved that juxtaposition of the most British location with us, the new community, and it was also a perfect way of getting a snapshot of what was going on amongst the women of our community too, beneath the dutiful wife and daughter surface was a whole world of pain, anger and hidden desires that needed to be explored. It’s amazing to think that 23 years later, it is still the only British mainstream movie to feature Indian women in all the lead roles and is written and directed by an Indian women again. And sadly some of the issues like domestic violence are still ongoing issues that need to be addressed and solved. But I’m really proud of that little film; it had so much heart and righteous anger which is maybe why it seems to still hold a special place for many people.
Goodness Gracious Me and The Kumars at 42 were both very ambitious projects. How were they conceived and did you expect the kind of acclaim you got?
GGM was a life changing experience for all of us involved. We got to work with likeminded creatives, finally finding our tribe after so long felt like coming home in many ways and I hope the comedy we loved doing really broke down some barriers and proved that we have the confidence as a community to laugh at ourselves as well as others. I think the reason for the success of both shows was because we didn’t write to second guess audiences or for ratings or to try and get some big message across. We genuinely showed what we found funny and hoped everyone else would do. I think audiences could feel that they were both honest and at times really silly and at times satiric and pulled no punches. But above all, we were ourselves and we invited everyone else along for the ride and luckily they came.
As a writer you have written three books, the most recent being The House of Hidden Mothers—can you tell us about the novel and what inspired you to write it?
I was channel surfing one night and came across this very arresting image of a group of Indian women, all obviously pregnant and poor, sitting in a dormitory and being interviewed. This turned out to be a documentary about a surrogacy clinic in India, and until then I had no idea that India was the world centre for surrogacy, a massive industry worth 4.5 billion dollars annually. It’s the most popular place for surrogacy because it’s the cheapest and as yet not regulated. What would cost you 100,000 dollars in the US will only cost about 20,000 dollars in India. The surrogates are paid between five and seven thousand pounds, not much for anyone in the West, life changing for a poor rural woman. And I also thought surrogacy was a really interesting way to explore the complex, ever changing relationship between India and Britain. Have the West just outsourced fertility as they did with call centers? Is India merely filling a gap in the market as is there right as a growing tiger economy? Is it exploitation or a solution in which both sides get something they need? And above all this I really wanted to explore this fascinating relationship between Shyama, the British Indian woman who wants a child and Mala, the poor Indian woman, who needs the money to escape poverty. How weird is that a stranger 5000 miles away holds the key to your dreams and what is that relationship like, so intensely connected for just the nine months it takes to carry a child and then you just walk away? Is Shyama just a fertility tourist or giving something back to the country her parents left? Is Mala being horribly exploited because her womb is the only thing she has to sell, or is this the lucky escape she needs to change her life? I wanted to explore that power balance and how it unexpectedly shifts and changes as unexpected events unfold. I always knew that I wanted this to be a gripping human story, part psychological thriller as the power balance shifts between the women, and that what would be paramount is the human emotional journey rather than write an “issue” book. I really want the reader to care about both women, see the journey from both their points of view. And also see the ripple effect on the entire family that this surrogacy journey provokes. Of course the book is set in 2012 before the recent changes in law that propose to limit surrogacy to only married Indian couples. However my character, Dr. Passi did see this coming! I should also mention the story of the grandparents in the book because it is one that has had more reaction from desis than anything else. In the book Shyamas parents bought a flat some years ago in Delhi for their retirement. The father had agreed to let some of his relatives live in the flat until they needed it, but well you can guess what happens—the parents reach retirement and ask their relatives to vacate and they refuse. So the parents spend years fighting through the Indian courts to try and get their property back but the damage is done, the father’s heart is broken by this betrayal by his own family. Nearly every desi family I know has had this happen to their family somewhere. This plot was inspired directly by something that happened in my own father’s family in India and my father has never got over it. I really wanted to bring this issue into the spotlight because it seems to affect so many families who have virtually no protection or support when it happens.
All your books have elements taken from your own reality—how easy or difficult is it to write characters or instances so close to you?
Inevitably, I get inspiration from seeing and feeling what’s going on around me, amongst my friends, in the news. A TV documentary sparked off the idea for this initially but many of the issues Shyama is facing, her feelings about ageing, her declining fertility, being part of a blended family and deali with the reaction of her teenage daughter to the news of a new sibling, these are stories in mine and so many women’s lives. So Shyama ended up being a blend of a few women I know and no doubt I have thrown in some of my own stuff somewhere in the mix. With Mala, it was the thought of the parallel life I could have had, had my parents not emigrated here, I often imagine what would my options have been? I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t have ended up in rural poverty as Mala has, my parents were urban educated city dwellers, but going on that path of ‘what if’ can bring forth some interesting things. I did know right from the start that Mala would be as strong and spirited as Shyama, that you could imagine given different circumstances, Mala could have had Shyama’s life and as the story progresses, that is indeed what starts to happen. I will say no more!
You have worked in theatre, television and film—how would you differentiate your method of acting for each?
The root of acting for all those three is the same; tell the story and tell the truth of your character. In film, it’s all about trusting that the camera will pick up what you are thinking and feeling, on stage it’s about the live connection you have with your audience. I’m still learning all the time but I do think every actor should cut their teeth in theatre because it’s on stage in front of an audience that you really learn all the basics about timing, technique and feeling a moment.
You have also written for television, film, theatre and radio, apart from doing novels. In the written world, the guidelines are pretty direct, however which medium have you most enjoyed and why?
I think I find prose the most satisfying, just because I love that intimacy of the connection you have with your reader, that thrill of knowing someone is opening your book and you are speaking just to them. It is the loneliest of all writing forms though, in film and TV it’s much more an ongoing collaborative process which is great fun and sometimes involves great compromise. Prose is the purest expression of you.
Lastly how easy or difficult has the journey been?
I still keep thinking someone’s going to tap me on the shoulder and say “Time’s Up”, like I am going to be found out really soon because it’s such a tough business and you need a healthy dollop of luck along with all the usual stuff like hard work and being pro-active and trying to create your own opportunities, not just getting whiney waiting at the end of a phone call. Who was it that said, The Harder I Work, The Luckier I Get? So yeah, I take nothing for granted and try to enjoy every moment.
Text Shruti Kapur Malhotra