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Sanjeev Bhaskar finally makes the grade

It is, according to award-winning writer and performer Sanjeev Bhaskar, a "supreme irony" that he is the new Chancellor of the University of Sussex. When he was applying for a university place in the 1980s, he put Sussex as his first choice, not just for its academic standing, but for what he regarded as its "irreverent and challenging reputation".

Unfortunately, his A-level grades didn't match the admission requirement and so he took up a place at Hatfield Polytechnic (now the University of Hertfordshire), where he gained a degree in marketing. He worked in that field for eight years before exploring his gift for comic irreverence.

With a raft of TV series to his credit, such as Goodness Gracious Me, The Kumars at No 42, India with Sanjeev Bhaskar, an impressive list of honours and awards, including an OBE, and films and projects in the pipeline, the disappointment Sanjeev felt at the age of 18 is long behind him. In fact, he has turned it into a 'positive'. "If I look back at all the negative experiences I have to realise that they have taught me something as well. I always wanted to write and perform. My journey took me somewhere else, but I still found a way back into what I love doing."

Sanjeev is refreshingly honest about his strengths and limitations, and has a deep admiration for those who have a go - even if they fail. "I am a great believer in the dignity of survival over the dignity of success," he says. "I have met a lot of people who drive mini cabs and who tell me their business failed and I have respect for them because, you know, there are plenty of people who make the choice not to get out of  bed.  Certainly within what I do now I made it clear when I first got an agent that I wouldn't be sitting and waiting for them to give me an acting job, or a writing job."

His first public outing as Chancellor will be for the University's summer graduation in July. He acknowledges that his predecessor, Lord Attenborough, for whom he has enormous respect, will be a very hard act to follow.  It was a common occurrence for the distinguished actor and director to receive hugs and kisses from admiring graduands at every ceremony. With this is mind,  Sanjeev says:  "It's important to be respectful and keep with the tradition and pomp and circumstance of the day...but I am going to attempt to hug everyone!"

Indeed, forging a good relationship with the students is one aspect of his role that Sanjeev is determined to take seriously. He says: "When I first met the Vice-Chancellor Michael Farthing I said it was an enormous honour to even be asked, but I wanted to do something tangible, something relevant. I thought there were people out there who, justifiably, should be in place rather than me.

"But I have always valued education; the greater education rather than just the academic path.  My journey through academia was not a particularly smooth one and so I found it very difficult to relate to those who were straight-A students.  Hopefully I might be able to lend an ear to those students who are more like me."

He also wants to be involved in student debates and act as a conduit between the students and the University's governing bodies.

Just being on the University's stunning campus reminds the 45-year-old actor of the thrill and excitement of student days. "It's not just the academic side of it but everything else that comes with it.  It's an experience that cannot be replicated anywhere else.  You're surrounded by people within a few years of your age - it's so great."

He may not have got to the university of his choice, and he has received a few other knock-backs since, but Sanjeev has had a meteoric rise in the entertainment world.  He was 32, and had been working in marketing for eight years, when he joined up with musician and old college friend, Nitin Sawhney, to create The Secret Asians, a musical comedy duo. After taking their act to various arts venues, they were spotted by radio producer Anil Gupta, who was looking for people to write and perform a comedy sketch series, 'Goodness Gracious Me'. The show, for which Bhaskar wrote and performed, successfully transferred from BBC Radio 4 to BBC TV in 1998, won a British Comedy Award, the Bronze Rose of Montreux and was BAFTA-nominated. Sanjeev followed this with his own spoof chat show, The Kumars at No. 42, which also starred actress Meera Syal as an interfering granny. Meera and Sanjeev are now married with a three-year-old son. The show picked up two International Emmys, a British Comedy Award and a Peabody Award and Bhaskar was also a 2003 BAFTA nominee in the entertainment performance category. In 2005, with his shows reaching an enormous audience internationally, he was honoured with an OBE for services to entertainment.

The hallmark of much of his comedy is subverting racial stereotypes. Born in Hounslow, Middlesex, Sanjeev has obviously drawn on his experience of growing up as a British Asian. One of the now classic jokes from Goodness Gracious Me is a sketch about a group of Asians "going out for an English".

But all experience can be relevant in comedy, he says. One of its  most powerful uses is in making something hurtful benign.  He recalls that one of the worst periods of his life was when he sued a company for breach of contract.  "For two years I couldn't get any kind of job because my references were tied up and it was during that time that I got really depressed - watched loads of films. But it's also when I started writing.

"I haven't fully forgiven the people who were involved because they were bullies. But what I thought was the worst thing that ever happened to me I now have to acknowledge is part and parcel of the success I have had. One of the things about humour is that it makes any pill a lot less bitter. You can express a lot of truth and a lot of depth with humour and it allows you to keep a perspective as well."

As for new projects, his latest sitcom, Mumbai Calling, about an Indian call centre, recently began ITV. He has also been making a comedy thriller film set in the 1970s in which he plays a ghost who comes back to haunt a serial killer. The film, entitled It's a Wonderful Afterlife, is directed by Gurinda Chadha, who also directed Bend it Like Beckham.

Never one to be complacent about success, he is also busy "writing and pitching".  Although he and his wife are comfortably well-off, he doesn't see wealth as a motivator - or a necessity. "After I stopped being a student I worked out what was the minimum I needed to survive a year.  It's not as much as society tells you you need and I have done that ever since. I don't need to spend much money because I know what makes me happy - and one of those is spending time with family and friends."

By: Jacqui Bealing
Last updated: Tuesday, 21 July 2009