The Big Interview: Shobna Gulati

Shobna Gulati in rehearsal
Shobna Gulati in rehearsal
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She may still be best known for playing Coronation Street’s Sunita, but as she prepares to take to the stage in Yorkshire, Sarah Freeman discovers Shobna Gulati is much more than just a soap star.

Shobna Gulati has just arrived for rehearsals at the West Yorkshire Playhouse and she’s barely through the doors before she’s opening a Tupperware 
box stuffed full with homemade sausages.

In another bag there are tins of tuna and sweetcorn and that’s just for starters. The theatre is staging The Jungle Book over Christmas and Shobna, who spends the first half of the show on blades bringing various animals to life, says she has discovered muscles and an appetite she didn’t know she had.

“Honestly, we’re all eating so much, but we need to. Physically, it’s an incredibly demanding show. I reckon I could eat what I like between now and the final performance in January and still be LA thin by the end.”

That might be just as well, since the 47-year-old has a plan. Frustrated with a lack of quality roles for women who fail to fit the white, middle class stereotype, after the curtain comes down on The Jungle Book she’s planning to head Stateside in the hope a brush with Hollywood will do the same for her career as it did for the likes of Idris Elba and David Harewood.

“They’re my contemporaries and yes, I guess I want a bit of what they’ve got. I just think at my age and with my breadth of experience it would be nice to go to the next level, but for women like me there is a glass ceiling. It just seems to me that if you are black or Asian in order to get the recognition you deserve you have to go to America. It takes working out there to be accepted over here.

“At the end of my career I don’t want to look back and regret not having given it a go. Yes, it would been great to have gone to America 15 or 20 years ago, but I’m a single mum so it just wasn’t possible. My son’s 19 now, so I reckon it’s time.”

Shobna is aware enough to realise that the magic she’s hoping for may not happen, but she’d rather try and fail than do nothing at all. Having worked pretty much constantly since turning professional, her’s is CV many actors would envy. Away from her best-known roles of Sunita in Coronation Street and Dinnerladies’ Anita, Gulati has impressed on both stage and screen, yet the variety she craves simply hasn’t been there.

“I would love for someone just to ring me up and say, ‘Shobna I’ve written this part for you’, but no one ever does. I might like to do Shakespeare at the RSC or be in a period drama, but those parts just do not come up and there’s no reason why they shouldn’t cast someone like me. Let me show you a picture of my grandparents.”

Scrolling through dozens of photographs on her phone she eventually finds what she’s looking for. First there’s her grandfather looking every inch the English gent; next there’s a photograph of her grandmother wearing a carefully tailored tweed suit. Like many others, her family moved to England from Mumbai and quickly became part of the community in Oldham, where Gulati grew up.

“People like me haven’t just become part of Britain in the last few decades. We are part of its history, yet so often on television it seems like we have been airbrushed out.”

If Gulati sounds like she’s on a mission it’s because she is and it’s one that was, at least in part, sparked by the suicide of Paul Bhattacharjee in July. The death of the respected Shakespearean actor, who just 10 days earlier had been declared bankrupt, saw a deluge of heartfelt tributes from his peers. For Gulati and others it also drew the harsh realities of a career in acting into focus.

“It’s been a time of reflection. Paul was a wonderful man, a real inspiration, but this is not an easy life. Yes, you can play a part which is emotionally draining, but people forget that it’s also financially draining. It’s a career devoid of any certainty.”

While Gulati admits she’d like the pay cheque which comes with bigger, more high profile parts, it’s not really the money which drives her and she talks of acting almost as a vocation. Brought up in a “nice middle class family”, her doctor father was determined his children should receive the best education possible. He made it no secret that he would like his four children – Gulati has two older sisters and a younger brother – to embrace a profession and become doctors or lawyers. Whatever his hopes might have been, it was also he who unwittingly set his youngest daughter on a very different path.

“There always seemed to be music in the house. Mum and dad would often host parties for overseas doctors and as a child that was just wonderful. We were like the Asian von Trapp family, but dad never saw it as anything more than something you did around proper work.”

Gulati knew her heart lay elsewhere from an early age and after her O-Levels went to India to learn classical dance. However, when her results came out, her dad insisted she return home to study.

“My sisters are really musical and in the 70s had what I think is probably the very first Bollywood pop group. I was always the awkward one, but my parents were really keen that I have a hobby. They took me to all sorts of classes and I just found I had a real affinity with classical Indian dance. Mum and dad just wanted me to have an outside interest and I think they panicked a little when they saw it had become an obsession. It took over my weekends and evenings and at 16 I was determined I was going to go to Delhi.

“I was having a wonderful time, but I made a promise to my dad. He was a wonderful man and was certain all girls should be educated to the max. I didn’t have it in me to rebel.”

For a while at least Gulati did play the role of dutiful daughter and was heading to Cambridge University. However, before she could take up the place, her father died. “That changed everything. Suddenly I didn’t want to be a three-hour train journey from home, so I gave up my place at Cambridge.”

Her decision to reapply to study Arabic and Middle Eastern politics at Manchester University wasn’t entirely driven by a desire to remain close to her family. With a thriving drama department, the city also gave Gulati a chance to fulfil her childhood dream. “I knew what I was doing,” she says with a twinkle in her eye that hasn’t dimmed in the last 30 years. “I took drama as a subsidiary course and that was it, that’s where my career really began.”

Initially Gulati seemed destined to reside more on the fringes of the mainstream acting world working with companies which experimented with Peking opera and puppetry. However, in the late 1990s she starred in the Victoria Wood sitcom Dinnerladies and a few years later became part of a television institution. To her, Sunita Alahan was just another role and she admits the fame which came with Coronation Street didn’t sit easily with her.

“I know it seems naive, but I never thought what appearing in a show like that would mean. No one sat me down and said, ‘Look, Shobna, if you take this part you won’t be able to walk down the street without someone recognising you’. When you join a soap the fame comes almost instantly. I will always remember the first time someone recognised me in the supermarket. I just wanted to dive into the frozen peas. I’m used to it now.” Wary of being categorised a just a soap star, Gulati has deliberately spread her wings. There’s the occasional presenting stint on Loose Women, the odd foray into directing and when she left Coronation Street earlier this year one of the reasons she said was so she could spend more time writing and performing comedy.

“When you’re in a soap you don’t have the time or the space to experiment. You get the script, you learn your lines and that’s it, you’re in front of the camera and then onto the next episode. It is brilliant but it’s also relentless. Playing Sunita in particular was exhausting, one minute she was being bound and gagged, the next you were wondering if she was going to live or die. Someone like Ian Puleston-Davies (who plays Owen Armstrong in the soap) seems to be able to juggle a billion things, but I got to the point where I needed to give myself some space. I miss the camaraderie, but it was the right time.”

For the next couple of months there will be little time to flex her comic writing muscles. However, Gulati tends to achieve what she sets out to and while her thighs may be suffering, working with director Liam Steel was also high on her wishlist. Steel choreographed the film version of Les Miserables and his take on The Jungle Book brings together puppetry, contemporary Asian music and acrobatic movement.

Adapted from Rudyard Kipling’s book, Gulati also plays Messua a villager who raises Mowgli as her own. Most remember the Disney film adaptation, but Gulati says this new production brings much more depth to the story, examining issues of identity.

“I’m not sure my body agrees as the rehearsals have been punishing, but it’s incredibly exciting. That’s why I’m here. It’s really going back to my roots of physical theatre and it’s a play which has a lot to say. Kipling was a child of the Empire and The Jungle Book is all about about identity and asking where you belong and where you fit in. That’s a question I have been asking myself a lot recently.”

Gulati’s mum has already been on the phone asking when she can come to see her performance, but what would her dad have made of her career?

“I honestly don’t know, I like to think he would have been proud.”

The Jungle Book, West Yorkshire Playhouse, November 30 to January 18. 0113 213 7700, www.wyp.org.uk