Broadchurch and National Theatre star Meera Syal on her battle for dramatic diversity

Meera Syal in Behind the Beautiful Forevers. Picture: Richard Hubert Smith

Meera Syal in Behind the Beautiful Forevers. Picture: Richard Hubert Smith - Credit: Archant

As her latest play, Behind the Beautiful Forevers, prepares to be screened around the world, the actress tells Alex Bellotti about India, receiving a CBE and why she’s not a comedian.

Strong, complex female characters, as Meera Syal reasonably notes, are still a rare commodity in drama, so when you see a play as chock full of them as Behind the Beautiful Forevers, it’s a welcome shock to the system.

Written by Sir David Hare, this tale of poverty-stricken bottle pickers in Mumbai is based on a book by the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Katherine Boo, who spent three years in the city’s Annawadi slum district documenting the lives of its residents.

Life here is as gruelling as it comes – murder is commonplace, work is hard to come by and, despite Mumbai’s increasing westernisation, the poor still live under the shadows of billboards erected to hide them from tourists. Yet in a world which in many ways seems more unequal than our own, the matriarchy here is afforded more respect, with women assuming roles of authority in communities while their husbands are away finding work.

“You feel the emotional arc of the story is through the women in this play, who are all mothers,” explains Syal, who lives in Highgate with husband and fellow actor Sanjeev Bhaskar.

“It’s one of those interesting dichotomies I suppose, and always has been in India, that we had equal pay before a lot of western countries. My mother was shocked when she came over here as a teacher in 1961 and found out she wasn’t going to be paid as much as her male counterparts.

“We had a female prime minister before Britain, we had female independence revolutionaries fighting alongside men, we have goddesses, but then on the other hand we also have hourly deaths and female infanticide. It’s an odd blend.”

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Syal’s character, Zehrunisa, is a firework of a role. Based on a real woman Boo met during her travels, she is initially seen as the foul-mouthed general of a plastic and metal collection workforce, though it quickly becomes clear that this is all just a means to give her children the best prospects in life.

“It feels like playing Mother Courage every night. That was the first thing I noticed when I read the book and the play actually. Here is a mother of 10 who does everything she possibly can to save her family against an increasingly corrupt system.

“It’s an extraordinary story. I have pictures of Zehrunisa and her family in my dressing room and pictures of the slum; it’s important they’re there because before you go out every night – and I’m sure we all feel this – you want to honour the journey that these people have been on and are still living.”

The real life counterparts seem to have taken to the play – talking to David Hare recently, he noted how after each night, the slum families sit in their bunks looking over the latest show reports.

Next Thursday (March 12), their story will venture beyond London when the National Theatre screens the show live across the world (though not in India, so as not to disrupt the families it depicts). Considering this is the first time the theatre has staged a completely South Asian cast, Syal sees the play as an important step for the entertainment industry and praises the National’s incoming director, Rufus Norris, for “making the National Theatre truly a national theatre”.

The actress is an active campaigner for greater diversity in the arts and it shines through in her work. You only have to look at her recent appearance in Broadchurch, where she presides over a court case contested by two female barristers– one black and the other gay – to realise as much.

“I think that was very deliberate on (Broadchurch creator) Chris Chibnall’s part. I think, considering the first series was very much set in this tiny village which was almost a little bubble, it was to say, ‘Now we’re venturing out into wider society.’”

Reflecting on Behind the Beautiful Forevers, she adds: “I think what we all want to see is more integrated casts as well. You don’t just do the one Asian play and don’t call back for 10 years until the next Asian play comes along. I think it is about having a truly integrated theatre which is what we’re all working towards, because we can all tell the same stories more or less.”

On a personal level, however, Syal must feel that progress has been made. In the latest round of New Year’s honours, she was surprised to find herself awarded a CBE.

It was “completely unexpected”, she says, but dedicates it to her mother and father.

“To be honest for somebody like me, the daughter of immigrant parents, I really accept it on behalf of my parents and their generation. They grew up under the empire – my dad was a refugee from partition. For them, it’s some indication that all the sacrifices they made were somehow worth it, so I think they get a great deal of pleasure out of things like this.”

It’s an impressive achievement and acknowledgement of the wide range Syal has built up over her career, spanning from the comic innovations of sketch show Goodness Gracious Me to Shakespearean classics like Much Ado About Nothing.

Interestingly, Syal has always defined herself as an actress who does comedy rather than a comedian, citing Julie Walters, Kathy Burke and Imelda Staunton amongst her inspirations.

“It’s that line between the laughter and the tragic that’s so compelling in a lot of things. I’m a huge fan of Christopher Guest and all of his movies tread that line so beautifully. He uses a lot of the same actors, all of whom are brilliant actors who do comedy, but can absolutely deliver all the emotional punches too and get a kind of naturalism and sense of timing that probably a purely straight actor couldn’t. So I’m all for that.”

With Behind the Beautiful Forevers ending in a matter of weeks, it’s going to be an interesting time for the actress. On the one hand, she has her third novel, The House of hidden Mothers, coming out in June and is soon to appear alongside Jack Black and Tim Robbins in upcoming HBO drama The Brink. On the other, she and her husband take turns to stay at home with their children and work respectively, and it’s now Bhaskar’s time to take to the stage.

It must be nice to have a break though?

“Yeah… well you know actors, a break for a few weeks is lovely and then you get that twitch, thinking ‘Am I going to work again?’ You never get used to the insecurity, it’s an odd thing. But I suppose that’s why we’re all eternal optimists, because we always, like Mr Micawber, expect something will turn up.”

Behind the Beautiful Forevers screens live across cinemas on March 12. Visit