As she publishes a moving memoir, the Corrie, Dinnerladies and West End star talks about her three-decade battle with typecasting – and almost dying of Covid-19
Shobna Gulati is speaking about this past horrendous year in surprisingly serene tones. Her mother died last autumn, and a few months later she contracted Covid-19 along with a secondary infection that turned out to be pneumonia. It might have killed her had it not been for a swift diagnosis. “That doctor saved my life,” she says.
Coronavirus left her holed up at home for several weeks, on her own and only opening the front door to gulp in the fresh air. Yet in the maelstrom of grief, illness and social isolation, she managed to write a book, published this month. Remember Me? is a memoir about her mother, Asha Gulati, an indomitable, Southport-born woman who was diagnosed with dementia in 2017. Gulati became her live-in carer at their Manchester family home, juggling life as an actor, dancer and TV presenter with the daily unpredictability of that care.
How did she manage to write such a lucid and probing account of her mother’s illness when she was laid up with coronavirus and in the midst of grief? She wrote it while in recovery, she says, in even tones that belie a steely force of will. It felt important to write for many reasons but the biggest was the lack of voices like hers. “There are very few of our stories on the shelves, especially in non-fiction.”
What does she mean by “our”? “Women’s voices, women of colour. Dementia is universal and crosses cultures. Yet the voices that are given the chance to speak about it are hardly ever people of colour.” To that end, Gulati’s book not only describes the complexities of caring (we must not forget its joys, she says, alongside its difficulties) and her mother’s dementia, it is also an exploration of identity.
Gulati was born, the third of four children, into a middle-class British Indian household in Oldham, Lancashire. Her father, a doctor, died when she was a teenager, and it was her mother who then raised the family. She subsequently helped Gulati raise her son, Akshay, whose father is of Caribbean heritage, after she became a single mother. This support meant all the more to Gulati in the face of judgment from some quarters of the British Asian community.
She writes movingly of a mother who identified so strongly with Britishness – why wouldn’t she? – that she asked for her ashes to be scattered in Southport rather than India. “We are often identified by others as black and brown people without having the facility to identify ourselves.”
Since her breakthrough role as Anita in Victoria Wood’s Dinnerladies, Gulati has worked on Coronation Street and acted extensively in theatre, on screen, and as a dancer and choreographer. The past few years have been busy: in 2018, she was cast in the West End musical Everyone’s Talking About Jamie and has since made a film version of the show. Last year, she played the Duke of York in Adjoa Andoh’s acclaimed Richard II at Shakespeare’s Globe, London; this year, she was continuing with Jamie until the pandemic put a stop to it. Even so, she has been filming Best Home Cook for the BBC (with social distancing) during lockdown.
From the outside, her professional life couldn’t look rosier. Behind the scenes, the story is far more complicated. The lack of diversity in the publishing world that Gulati speaks of extends to her industry, too. Her career to date has a dizzyingly broad range across stage and screen but she has battled unremittingly against stereotyping during her three decades in show business. Her book recounts some of the pigeonholing, from directors telling her she either looks too Asian or not Asian enough, to the way she can never escape the albatross-like legacy of her Coronation Street character, Sunita. “There was once a makeup box for brown and black skin in a TV production I was in. On the label of the box, it said: ‘Black and brown makeup. Please put back in the box.’ It was a metaphor of my life!”
We are speaking the day after historian David Olusoga delivered the MacTaggart lecture, in which he spoke powerfully of the hindrances – not so much glass ceilings as stone walls – for people of colour in TV. Gulati feels the truth of his words keenly. Both as an actor and a viewer, she feels that very few stories on TV cover how modern British Asians live now.
“It’s still very steeped in stereotype. As David said, for much of his career it seemed like the industry wanted to have black people in the room but remained unwilling to listen to black perspectives or tell black stories. I agree with that wholly. I have been seeing this for 30-plus years.” Take a recent adaptation of Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy. She loved the book, set in post-partition India, but it feels “wonderfully historic” to her, from the point of view of British Asians wanting to see contemporary experiences reflected in culture. “Sometimes,” she says, “we need a little less sitar and a little more Prince.”
She has been on the receiving end of typecasting throughout her career. “I’m rarely cast as a character that hasn’t already been identified as a South Asian. When I’m cast as a person with a name like Rebecca or Sue, I’m often a doctor, lawyer or nurse – a person who has a profession, and whose character breakdown is about their profession, not their personality. Character breakdowns that most black and brown people receive are often described in terms of professions and what heritage they’re from.”
She has friends and colleagues of colour who have become artistic directors, writers and actors, she says, and it has not been easy for them either. “I understand the struggle for people in my peer group – Nina Wadia, Meera Syal – and hats off to them. Every one of us has faced a struggle. We will continue to come through, innovate and create. But why is it our responsibility to do that all of the time? Why can’t we just be actors?”
Despite these limits, Gulati has always tried to infuse her characters with extra dimensions. She remembers, as a teenager, seeing Art Malik play Pip in Great Expectations at the Royal Exchange Theatre in Manchester, which inspired her to become an actor “because I saw a possibility”. She then became involved with Theatre Royal Stratford East while the visionary Philip Hedley was artistic director. “The vision was to explore what we, from different heritages, could bring to the table. I’d call myself a graduate of that vision. It really did resonate with audiences.”
Does she think theatre is doing diversity better than the small screen? “The gains that we’ve made are small victories and we just need to keep focused on carrying on. I don’t want to go backwards. There’s [recently]been a trend to have mono-cultural theatre. So you have an all-black cast, for example. But where does that put everybody else?”
The best and broadest experiences for her have been on radio. “I’ve been able to play Margaret Thatcher, the Queen and the Virgin Mary.” She was most recently in the BBC comedy, The Break, currently available on BBC Sounds, alongside Alison Steadman. “There’s the ability to play any character on radio because nobody thinks that the stereotype – of the slightly odd-looking South Asian woman who was in Dinnerladies – is set in stone.”
In lockdown, she has been part of a Zoom repertory, created by Matt Ryan, tour director of Everybody’s Talking About Jamie. “Before lockdown, he asked me what plays I’d like to do and what characters I’d want to play. I said I’d like to be Olga in Three Sisters, or in a farce, or an Alan Bennett Talking Heads. I’d like to be in all of those things that are out there, but I haven’t had access, because nobody’s thought, ‘Well, that could be played by a person of colour.’”
With her level of success, does she still feel it to be a struggle? “Yes, completely. I got my first West End role at the age of 52, after three decades in the industry. And now that I’m 54, I’m told I don’t look old enough. So if the stereotype is ‘the comical Indian grandma’, I don’t meet that.”
She pauses and that steely will seems to resurface, the resolve that has taken her beyond the limits of script and stereotype. “It’s about what appears on the page,” she says. “But it’s also how you approach it that matters. It’s what you bring to the table with the writing. That’s the key to it all.”
• Remember Me? is published by Octopus Books.