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EDITIONS
Friday, 22 November, 2002, 09:59 GMT
Bhaskar takes the limelight
Sanjeev Bhaskar in Anita and Me (Icon films)
Dancing star: Bhaskar plays Papa in the film

Sanjeev Bhaskar, star of Goodness Gracious Me and The Kumars at No 42, possesses charm in abundance.

Within minutes of meeting him at London's Dorchester Hotel, I am lounging on a four-poster and sipping bubbly.

But Bhaskar is a perfect gentleman - and the bubbly in question is just a spot of fizzy water. That said, it is certainly more relaxing than the usual stiff-backed celebrity interview.

Perhaps it is because the self-deprecating 38-year-old has only been in showbusiness for seven years.

Fame came late to the comedian, who joined the cast of Goodness Gracious Me - then on Radio 4 - in 1995.

Anna Brewster and Chandeep Uppal
Anita and Meena (Anna Brewster and Chandeep Uppal)
Since then, his career has soared, initially on TV and now on the big screen, with three films out this year and a script-writing deal with Miramax.

Anita and Me, which opens in the UK on Friday, is the screen adaptation of Meera Syal's bestselling novel about an Asian girl growing up in a mining village in the north of England in the early 1970s.

Meena, the only child of the only Punjabi family in the village, longs to be like brash blonde bad girl, Anita.

"It's a film about the two girls and I think they carry it," says Bhaskar who plays Meena's poetry-loving Papa.

Racism

"I really put it down to Meera's writing and Metin Huseyin's directing - we were allowed to have fun and the set never ever felt pressurised."

The comedy is partly based on Meera Syal's own experiences of growing up as a second-generation Asian in Britain, but it also tackles darker issues like racism.

"I had the urban version of Meena's experience in that I was one of just three Asians at my primary school," says Bhaskar who grew up in Hounslow, west London.

"I was a kind of Noel Coward kid, I spoke better English than most of the other children anyway," he explains.

"But I was popular because I did impressions and stuff."

Anita and Me actress Ayesha Dharker
Ayesha Dharker's skills impressed Bhaskar
"There's a line at the end of the film when Anita tells Meena 'you're not like the others' - that was a line I heard a lot."

Bhaskar's wit has served him well, but he says even as a child he had "a slightly left-field take on things".

"I think acting is about wanting to fit in, wanting to be accepted."

He insists he doesn't feel any pressure to be funny: "It's entirely down to the vibe of the conversation, it's down to response and banter."

"To me the most interesting stuff has always been a mixture of comedy and drama, which is why I'm a Woody Allen fan."

'Epiphany'

This year Bhaskar has moved toward more dramatic roles, including his theatrical debut in the West End play Art.

"There's a scene in Anita and Me where Mama has a breakdown and that was a real epiphany for me," he says.

"Ayesha Dharker is one of the most naturally gifted actors I've ever met. When we were rehearsing that scene I looked up and she had tears rolling down her face."

"I thought if I don't get into that headspace, I'm going to be pretending - I had to find a route into that."

With the proliferation of films like Anita and Me and The Guru, comedians like Sanjeev Bhaskar could be accused of trivialising Asian culture.

"I, as an individual, represent my culture as much as Saddam Hussein represents all Iraqis everywhere in the world," says Bhaskar.

"You have to be ever so slightly dim to extrapolate a notion of a culture or race from a half-hour comedy programme. It's a very dangerous road to go down."

Anita and Me is now on general release in the UK.

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