Sanjeev Bhaskar talks ‘Kumars’ and ‘Unforgotten’ leading up to S4 premiere on PBS ‘Masterpiece’
If you’re a fan of the PBS series Unforgotten, which series 4 premieres on Sunday night at 9pET/8pCT on PBS, you may or may not be familiar with the early career efforts of series co-star, Sanjeev Bhaskar. Bhaskar, who stars as DI Sunil ‘Sunny’ Khan in the popular British crime drama series, has early acting roots in comedy that date back to the late ’90s series Goodness Gracious Me, a sketch comedy series starring four British Indian actors.
In 2001, Bhaskar moved on to The Kumars at No 42, the British sitcom about a fictional British Indian family with a central premise being that Sanjeev’s parents have supported his dream of being a television presenter by having a TV studio built on what used to be their back garden.
What now seems a lifetime ago, we had the great good fortune to sit down with Sanjeev Bhaskar for a pre-COVID interview about his time on Kumars, his thoughts on Unforgotten and a number of other topics such as The Indian Doctor and his choices for Desert Island Discs. Even though we talked in mid-2019, the Kumars star and Unforgotten co-star left me with a long-lasting impression of being one of the most genuine individuals who truly loves what he does and who also possesses a passion and curiosity that is not only rare in today’s culture but plays a large role in the success of both Kumars and Unforgotten.
Tellyspotting: Thank you so much for sharing a little bit of time with us.
Sanjeev Bhaskar: Not at all. It’s a real pleasure.
TS: I’d love to go through a few things on Kumars and a few things on Unforgotten which American audiences will see the fourth series premiere this Sunday on PBS.
SB: No, I don’t mind at all.
TS: Starting with Kumars and looking back at it, what were you most proud of about Kumars?
SB: I think the fact that it felt like a fresh idea. I’m proud of fact that the elements came together, which consisted of the talk show part of it, the improv part of it and the comedy structuring part of it. Looking back, probably about 60% of it was scripted and 40% was improv.
And that was really exciting to do. The fact that we managed to get big names, interesting names, most of whom got the idea, some who didn’t. I thought that the idea behind it was really that most talk shows are prepped in some way. And I didn’t know whether you really got an idea of who that person really was.
The guests coming through the door and mingling with the family was kind of disarming. They couldn’t really extrapolate from any experiences that they had had of being interviewed.
So that was one part of it, and then the other part of it was that I also figured there were certain questions that as a relatively young man, I just couldn’t ask but an older person could, an older lady certainly could ask anything. And those elements came together quite well.
Now that I’m thinking about it, the thing I’m most proud of is that Vincent Ebrahimi played my dad. I first went to a drama workshop when I was thinking about acting and considering acting. And everybody at this drama workshop was universally horrible to me except him.
We were casting the Kumars about 6 or 7 years later and I remember saying to the producers, let’s see if we can find this guy because I think he’s good, but also he was very nice to me. So, let’s get him in and audition him. They did and he obviously got the part. And until then, he’d never done TV or film. Even with stage work, he’d never done anything big, never played in the West End in London or anything like that.
He’s originally from Cape Town in South Africa. And he had a family, and he could only go and visit his mom and his sisters once every three or four years just to get the money together to go. And, firstly, this gave him the money to go every year, which is great, but also he didn’t know that they had started showing the Kumars in South Africa. So, on one of his visits when he landed, and got mobbed and that’s just fantastic. I’m so proud of being part of that story.
I guess that’s not directly related to the content of the show, but I think that’s probably the thing I’m emotionally most proud of.
TS: Do you think comedy output has changed today much to where an idea like this would be difficult to commission?
SB: That’s a really good question. I think in some ways, especially with streaming services there are bigger risks that have been taken in drama and comedy.
I think the nature of comedy is pretty cyclical. I think that there was a time when sketch format shows, skits and stuff, were pretty in and then it was out for a long time. I think satire was absent for a long time, I think that’s kind of making a little bit of a comeback. But it’s very difficult to tell in terms of would get commissioned. I think that the Netflix’s and the Amazon Prime, HBO, etc.
I think the fact that they started taking risks. I think absolutely helped, because I think, until then, a lot of the network’s we’re trying to second guess what the advertisers and the audiences would respond to.
I think you have to take a risk. Basically, what ends up happening, especially with network commissioning is they want to commission the last successful thing they had. And so it becomes very, very narrow in terms of what they’re trying to replicate and it never works quite so well.
At some point somebody needs to take a small leap, maybe not in the dark, but maybe just very, very low lighting. Either it hits or it doesn’t hit. I do think that we were very lucky. I had the idea for the Kumars about five years before it got made. Everybody turned it down. So I guess the timing and who’s willing to make that leap becomes all important.
TS: When you look at the fact that you you’ve been involved on both sides of the camera from writing, producing individual episodes of both Kumars and Goodness Gracious Me, does it help you from an acting standpoint to understand that side of the business, or vice versa.
SB: I think so. I hope so, anyway. I think that it certainly puts a sort of check on my ego, because you kind of know why you’re doing it. The Kumar’s is possibly a good example of that in that I created the show and I wrote it but I didn’t think I was the funniest character.
So, for me, it was where does my character fit into this scenario. I think that I apply that to everything I do. So I think, in that sense, it certainly helps. But even within that, I didn’t think I was the most important character, or maybe I was, but kind of a linchpin of sorts.
So yeah, it certainly helps me. Also, I’m just interested in the entirety of the business and I think also starting at a late age I think kind of also helped with, you go into something older, you kind of know why you’re doing it.
And I think I was lucky. I was 34 when I started and it was from scratch. I hadn’t been to acting school or taken classes or anything. I had a business degree, can you believe it, Bill?
I think, in that sense, I think that understanding the business absolutely helps me. I think you have to be driven by passion, you have to be driven by curiosity and, for me, I was curious and passionate about the whole business.
TS: When you talk about Kumars and you not being the funniest character, I think that’s one of the things that is most striking about a lot of British television from this side of the Atlantic is the importance of the supporting cast. It’s an ensemble cast more than there is one star that really drives everything.
You look at Vicar of Dibley, you look at Keeping Up Appearances and a lot of the older classic series and they are very driven around an ensemble cast.
SB: Traditionally, I think there are two reasons for that. First of all, it’s situational comedy to where I think British comedies focused on the situation more. And so the gag count was not necessarily as high as it was an American shows. American shows traditionally going back to I Love Lucy and Dick Van Dyke had teams of writers and those teams come up with gags, they’re gag writers.
The British ones focused on the situation more. I think that comes from theater. I think that the traditions of theater where you very rarely have a star vehicle, you do now, but traditionally in theater, it was always an ensemble cast. There would be kind of 2, 3, or 4 prominent characters, but they all had to kind of fit. And I think that maybe those are the two reasons. I think the same with drama as well in that I think that British drama has always focused more on character. I think, traditionally, American dramas focus more on the plot.
I think American dramas were always faster because of that because the plot was driving the action where as I think traditionally in British dramas, it was character, character was driving the plot forwards, which was generally a little slow.
I don’t know if that still holds probably still does, I think.
TS: I think it does. I think the interesting thing in what we’ve seen over here for a number of years is that most of the comedies are driven around an individuals stand up comedy act. You look at Ray Romano you look at a Roseanne you look at, you know, it’s just an extension of what they’ve done, singularly for years as opposed to the situation that you’re talking about.
It’s been interesting to watch the transformation over here. Originally, it was American television trying to replicate British drama by remaking everything. And thankfully, for those who air a lot of British television, both drama and comedy, everything failed within a couple of episodes.
SB: I remember when the Kumars format was bought, I think it might have been NBC, and they did a couple of pilots and the pilots didn’t work. I remember going to LA to do some press stuff and I got asked by journalists about why do Americans take British formats and screw them up?
I said well first of all, it’s a two way street. We screw up lots of American formats. I said the problem is that when you buy a format, You buy the end result, you don’t buy the experience that went into developing it.
And so with the American pilots of the Kumars that I saw. to me they were really easy fixes and that was because I had a reservoir of mistakes. I had a reservoir of errors and stuff that I’ve tried or I’ve thought about and which had brought me to the format in the end.
So I think that’s partly the difficulty is that you don’t buy the experience of development you just find the end result. And if you try to replicate that then it’s never going to quite work.
TS: One of the most striking examples here is Coupling which was done by Steven Moffat, a number of years ago NBC bought it, they bought the scripts verbatim, set it in a bar in Chicago, and they read the scripts verbatim. But the problem was they took a 30-minute script and read it in 23 minutes speeding everything up and didn’t allow any time for anything to breathe and not allow the situation to develop. It was just let’s hurry up and get the laugh and move on to the next thing.
SB: The counterpoint to that is The Office. That worked because Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant were involved. They were involved in that transition, so they could understand where the beats were, what their intentions were, and sometimes conveying that can just fix the problem.
TS: Earlier you talked about comedy versus drama. From your standpoint as an actor do you consider one more difficult than the other, do you prepare differently if it’s a comedy versus a drama?
SB: I don’t really approach the two any differently at all. For me there’s a character, and either funny stuff happens to the character or serious stuff happens to the character so I always just start with the character.
In fact, it was only when I did Unforgotten that I got asked over here about the difference was there a difference. I started from beginning to say no there isn’t. I then gave a 10 minute answer explaining why there was. Comedy is harder. Comedy is technical.
You know sometimes the gag isn’t in a line, it’s not in a word, it’s in a pause. And if that pause is one second too long, it’s not funny if it’s one second too short, it’s not funny, it’s like hitting a sweet spot on a tennis racket. And that is instinctive.
It’s very, very difficult to teach that. And also you’re looking for a very specific response for comedy, you’re looking for laughter. With drama you’re not where you’re looking for people to weep and wail.
I think there’s a lot more projection that goes on in drama from an audience. You know we can zero in on someone’s face, looking completely impassive.
We can burst into tears because we’re projecting at that point. And I’m trying to emphasize in that dramatic situation. With comedy, it’s much more technical than that. And so I think comedy is harder because of a because of it. “A”, because you’re looking for that specific response, and “B” because there is this kind of unknown X Factor sweetspot that you got to hit for it to work.
TS: I would have to think from the Kumars standpoint, given the fact that there was a fair amount of improv and with it being done before a live studio audience or before an audience, you may get a reaction where you didn’t expect it, or you may get one at a different location.
SB: Not only did we do in front of an audience, we shot it as live. We didn’t stop unless there was a technical problem of some kind. Someone’s mic needed batteries changing or something like that.
We shot it as live and we stayed in character. So even in the moments where we had to stop for technical reason, the family stayed in character. We carried on talking to the guests, whether it was Donny Osmond, Tom Jones, David Hasselhoff. We kind of stayed in character and that was important to keep the belief of where we were.
To keep that going and keep it consistent was as much for us as it was for the cast and as it was for the audience. Because it was improv we never prepared the guests. They could come up with stuff, and we had to react in the moment. And that would bring a laugh when it wasn’t expected. That all helped, it really helped.
TS: When you talked about getting into this later in life, which amazes me for you to consider 34 as being ‘later in life’ but then you understand in the comedy business standpoint that that can be later in life. What were you able to draw upon, from an improv standpoint, when it came to the ability to naturally improv as opposed to being able to just do a script?
SB: I guess given the lack of options, I’d have to go with natural ability. It was just something that I felt I could do. I could think in the moment. I think the challenge was thinking in the moment as a character and not as myself.
In the Kumars, in particular, my character was the butt of most of the jokes. And if somebody improved a really good joke, it was very difficult not to laugh I had to look kind of slightly hurt or have some kind of pathetic response.
And that was sometimes difficult because sometimes, I wanted to respond with a better line, but the character wouldn’t. So, so yeah I think it was just that, I think it was just natural abilities to be quite honest. That sounds a but arrogant, I’m afraid.
TS: Not at all, as I think there’s a there are very good actors that cannot improve and good improve people that can’t act.
SB: I think that’s very true.
Turning the page from Kumars to Unforgotten….
TS: One of the first things that drew me to Unforgotten obviously when it was picked up by PBS was the fact of both you and Nicola Walker were in it and I think I remember years ago saying I think I could listen to her read the phone book as whatever show she was in she’s fabulous.
Looking at your character of DI ‘Sunny’ Khan, now that you’ve done three seasons and series four is coming up (premieres Sunday on PBS), how do you think your character has changed over the course of the series or has it?
SB: I think it definitely has changed. I think in the first series that we did I think there was a slightly lighter relationship between Nicola character and mine. And I think as the kind of weightiness of the cases over the next two series have kind of happened I think there’s a kind of a kind of deeper relationship there but it’s kind of a little more serious than it was.
And I think that has been the change. I mean, in the last series (series 3) we didn’t do as much together whereas in the first series there were very few scenes of our investigation when we weren’t together. And I think by the last series (series 3), we were doing separate things a lot of the time pursuing different leads and such.
In terms of structure I think that’s right because you wanted to introduce that relationship at the beginning. You know what’s really been lovely and flattering is that audiences have believed in our relationship. They believe that it’s a kind of mutually affectionate and respectful relationship as well.
So, the seeds were sown in that first series, I think. That’s where it’s changed. I think there greater depth because I think the audience has also seen as we have actually through the scripts have seen the stuff that they’ve had to go through.
TS: Looking back at the beginning of Unforgotten, does it help you in preparing for a role to where you find that you want to learn more about the character, whether it’s a backstory, or something that’s not just the words on the page in the script to understand kind of how you would approach things as your character?
SB: It does help, absolutely. It’s a strange combination, Bill, between accessing what aspects of that character are in yourself and using that and then building some kind of history to help navigate that and it’s a combination between the two.
So, with Sunny, there was a little bit of background that I kind of thought about but I kind of tried to cull a lot from me, really, trying to kind of find those elements of me that was similar. And I think we probably are quite similar. I think I’m probably funnier than Sunny is (laughing). He’s a lot more serious than I am.
I think those elements of dedication and loyalty I think I do have and accessing those became more important, and also just the space and the connection between Nicola and myself, which was which was incredibly easy. We didn’t have to work at it at all.
I remember the very first thing we did, which is the first scene that I appeared in the first series. I remember when we were shooting it we I think we were about halfway through shooting it and I said to Nicola at one point I said, I can’t believe that we’ve known each other 20 minutes. I feel like I’ve known you for years.
And she said, yeah I feel exactly the same. And so we had a connection anyway, and our relationship on screen is not dissimilar to our relationship off screen. We kind of hang out, and we go to lunch and enjoy each other’s company and great affection for each other or at least I have for her, she may well hate my guts…but that’s not important right now. But, yeah, we kind of we got really close, she felt like an ally.
Also, she’s so good that very quickly I kind of also remember thinking I have to raise my game. You know, I have to exist in the universe she’s existing in because her universe feels right to me.
TS: One of the things from my standpoint is that what sets British television apart from American television is the idea of the one writer versus the team of writers.
Do you get the opportunity now to sit down with the writer (Chris Lang) and, I don’t want to say offer suggestions, but now that you’re coming up on the fourth season do you kind think of taking it off in this direction or this is what Sunny would do?
SB: I think one of my dubious gifts is that I will offer up suggestions from day one on anything. I have to say the directors, feel free to tell me to shut up because I’m just interested, that’s it. I’ve done it with camera shots. I tell the camera guys, you can tell me to stop, if I’m suggesting anything, it’s just coming from a place of deep curiosity and passion.
So yeah, Chris was really open from the beginning, but the script is so good. In fact, when I auditioned for the first series and they called me in and I remember thinking, I said to my agent, they’re not going to cast me as a detective, that’s ridiculous, I wouldn’t cast me as a detective.
But, I thought that this was a great opportunity to meet Chris and just tell him face to face just how good I thought his scripts were and how I’m really looking forward to seeing this. And so I was kind of somewhat surprised that I got cast. The script are that good.
Series 4 is really exciting. It’s really exciting. It’s exciting to kind of open up that world and see where Chris is going to lead everyone, because so far they’ve been fantastic. They’ve been interesting, there’s nuance in them, It’s not just a regular sort of gung ho who done it.
There’s so much else going on. I always thought from the beginning actually that the structure was so smart that it was really four mini-dramas, hiding within a who-dun-it.
The who-dun-it is just one part of it. Each of those stories with the suspects, you could do mini-season of all of those separately, because I think there’s that much depth to them. But we’re certainly at the stage where we can suggest things. On the last season, I did I went in and had a few hours with him where I made notes and said you know what about this and what do you think about this and how about that. Some of which he took on and most of which he ignored quite right.
TS: When you talk about the different storylines within the episodes, one of the things which on the surface it may sound like an apples to oranges comparison, but I would compare Unforgotten to Line of Duty which I think it’s just a brilliant series also, very different, but you have so many different stories within each episode to where you just can’t wait for the next one.
SB: I’m a big fan of Line of Duty but I see what you mean. But the differences are guns. Once you introduce guns, there is a different kind of tone and energy. Think about the difference between Starsky and Hutch and Columbo. They were both kind of detective shows about detectives. For one, action was part of this fiber. And, for one, it wasn’t.
And so I think with Unforgotten and Line of Duty, that’s one of the differences, I think, as I said I’m a huge fan of Line of Duty, I think it’s fantastic and the first three seasons in particular were absolutely outstanding.
I think most shows now try to do that. You have to at least a ‘B’ plot that you can cut away from the main action to. It then comes down to how good and how much depth that that ‘B’ plot have. The lazy thing is in dramas is to have a romance. Some kind of romance that’s happening somewhere, which is tangential to your main story, but I think that one of the things that Jed Mercurio does with Line of Duty and Chris Lang does is that none of the other stories are tangential, they all play a part they’re all kind of feeding like tributaries feeding into a river. And I think that’s what I kind of enjoy.
TS: Regarding Unforgotten, something that I hope doesn’t go unnoticed and something to be very proud of is the diversity in Unforgotten not just from a cultural standpoint but age, gender, just about everything involved with the series,
SB: I’m really glad you really glad you said that Bill, because when I did interviews over here after the first series. I said in interviews I said this is the most diverse thing I’ve ever been. And it’s exactly that, across age, across culture, across gender. I think that it’s obviously deliberate from Chris’s point of view. None of it feels tokenistic. They all feel like characters that exist and live. Usually, I’m the diversity. It was fun being kind of part of that whole setup.
With that, I had to come to the realization that I had been deep in conversation with one of the most genuine and gracious individuals that I had crossed paths with in some time. We talked a bit more about his role in The Indian Doctor and his choices on Desert Island Discs before it was time to stop occupying more than half his day.
Just as Sanjeev talked about his first meeting with Nicola Walker and how after 20 minutes it felt like they had known each other for years, I felt that same way during our conversation. While I’m still having difficulty getting past his comment of how he embarked on ‘a new career path in acting at such a late age of 34’, I felt like we had know each other for years even thought it had only been 20 minutes.
Unforgotten S4 premieres Sunday at 9pET/8pCT as part of the Masterpiece series on PBS.