London’s Creative Divas: Meera Syal
She has made British-Asian actors appear cool and has put them on the global map. Meera Syal, known for reinventing herself in new avatars, is an actress, writer-producer and singer who has achieved critical acclaim for the BBC television series Goodness Gracious Me and The Kumars at No 42. She was also appointed a CBE (Commander of the British Empire) in January 2015 for her contribution to drama and literature.
Her latest film, Amar Akbar and Tony (inspired by the classic ’70s hit Amar Akbar Anthony) is a coming-of-age comedy about three childhood friends — a Sikh, a Muslim and a Catholic — taking charge of their lives in London. Syal is currently acting in the successful play Behind the Beautiful Forevers.
Describe your experience of playing the lead in Behind the Beautiful Forevers.
I loved Katherine Boo’s book which has such integrity and truth. She spent three years recording the lives of the residents of Annawadi (a slum) and captures their courage and ingenuity without the usual patronising attitude and sentimentality that often occurs when anyone writes about the poor of Mumbai. The source material, plus the chance to work with the amazing team of director Rufus Norris and writer David Hare, made it an easy decision to do it . And, I love working at the National Theatre which is really a creative powerhouse where you feel part of a passionately engaged family.
What was your reaction on being awarded the CBE for your contribution to drama and literature?
I am obviously honoured, and a little shocked! I really feel I’m accepting the award on behalf of my parents — and their generation — who grew up during the British Raj. There is a pleasant circular irony that their daughter ends up getting an award from the establishment. It helps to validate their decision of leaving the homeland to seek better opportunities for their children — the pleasure and pride they get from this is everything.
What is your earliest childhood memory?
Walking through a field of corn with my father in our Midland village home; he was holding my hand and I must have been very small because the corn was as high as my head.
Which of your stories is closest to your heart?
I am hugely excited about my new novel The House of Hidden Mothers which is being published by Transworld/Penguin. It is about a divorced British-Indian woman in her late 40s with a grown-up daughter. She has a new, much younger partner and is desperate for a child with him; so she goes to India to hire a surrogate — the act has unexpected consequences. It is set in 2012 — at that time, India’s surrogacy industry was the largest in the world and was bringing in millions of pounds annually.But, for me, the story explores all the issues that passionately interest me — relationships between women and their friends, mothers and their daughters, the shifting power balance between India and England, the legacy of colonialism, the ongoing sexual exploitation of women and the growing protest against it. I feel this is the story that I have wanted to tell for a long time, so I really enjoyed writing it.
What would you do if you were Mayor of London?
I would make all tube and bus fares an affordable flat rate irrespective of where you travel, which would encourage more people to use public transport. I would also set up free theatre and drama schemes for all schoolchildren during the long, leisurely summer holidays.
Drama — and the habit of attending theatre — is vanishing from British schools; and it’s a tragedy because young people grow so much in confidence and empathy from accessing drama and live theatre.
Which is your favourite place to hang out?
Apart from my own home, where I relax in my pyjamas, the South Bank (in London) where I am currently working at the National Theatre. Having a fantastic view of the River Thames from your workplace, and being next to so much culture — the Royal Festival Hall, the Tate and the Globe — is really quite exhilarating.
Would you name any individual as your hero?
Too many to choose from — the Rani of Jhansi, Sophia Duleep Singh, Sarojini Naidu, Rosa Parks, my mum! And, that question should really read ‘heroine’!
What do you collect?
Books and suns — I have a collection of hand-painted suns which I have gathered from my travels in India, Mexico, Greece, Spain and more; they are on my kitchen wall.
Music has been part of your performances in the hit television series Goodness Gracious Me and The Kumars at No. 42. What type of music do you like to listen to?
All sorts! My taste is very eclectic. Right now on my iPod are Abida Parveen, Adele, The Jam, Sister Rosetta Tharpe (an American blues singer), Ed Sheeran and Gold Spot.