Shobna Gulati: value judgements

Shobna Gulati is drawing on her past for her role as the voice of Kari in a new CBeebies programme, which explores values such as generosity, empathy and honesty in a child-friendly way

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Shobna Gulati is in reflective mood. Not just because when we talk we are on the cusp of the new year but because of her latest venture, a new CBeebies show, Treasure Champs. Gulati and co-star Sanjeev Bhaskar will be providing the voices for two comedic animated figures called Barry and Kari.

Treasure Champs explores values such as generosity, empathy and honesty. In each episode there is a traditional fable or a story from one of the main world religions: Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, Judaism and Sikhism.

“Every culture, every faith was explored in our house. We were part of a community.”

Gulati, who was brought up Hindu, says never has the time been so right to get across the fundamentals of human values to children. “There is a lot of judgement in the world right now. There are a lot of very divisive people and movements. A lot of people, especially our children, get really confused. So Treasure Champs is quite out there because these values are abstract values, like hospitality, democracy. Can you imagine discussing that? I think in the light of the referendum and such, children have heard their parents talk about it – heard other things – and they are trying to rationalise what is going on in this world.”

An avid Twitterer herself, she’s aware of the negative impact of social media on young people. “Social media will always have certain perspectives which often come with something extra, a hidden agenda which often is quite unsafe at times because it’s always somebody’s else’s opinion. We have 24-hour news and 24-hour social media; children hear parents and guardians discussing the day. I don’t advocate sheltering children in any way but it is more difficult now to remove a child from what is going on and let them have a childhood. In essence I believe this programme lets a child into what’s happening in the world through their eyes.”

Gulati, 51, grew up in a household she describes as the Asian Von Trapps. “My father and my mother actually encouraged us to explore our artistic side. There was lots of singing and dancing. My father died when I was a teenager, but he was the most hospitable man in the whole world, as far as I can remember. Everybody was welcome to our home and to our lives. Every culture, every faith was explored in our house. We were part of a community and then a wider community that was all embraced.”

It’s a trait Gulati’s father, an NHS GP, passed on to her. “Anyone who comes to my house will have a very hospitable welcome. I love to cook, I love to entertain people. I know it sounds quite strange but I’m quite shy in groups so I overcome it through my food. It’s my way of being hospitable; to make sure everyone has something to eat and drink and be sure somebody knows somebody so they can have a social exchange. I can hide in the kitchen,” she laughs.

Despite the singing and dancing, neither parent saw acting as a “proper job” and Gulati, who was born and grew up in Oldham, obtained a degree in Arabic and Middle Eastern politics from Manchester University. “Ah yes but I did a side course of drama,” she says with a twinkle. “I knew what I wanted to do.”

Her big break came in the late Victoria Wood’s Dinnerladies, playing the somewhat slow Anita. “To say my career is largely down to Victoria Wood isn’t right, it’s completely down to her. She was very instrumental in my career, even after Dinnerladies. She was always on the phone if I needed her and she’d check up on me and she came to see things I was in. It was also great fun to go to watch things with her. Being in the audience with her was always really nice.”

Indeed, Gulati has used Anita as the base for her voiceover as Kari in Treasure Champs, which has been commissioned from Three Arrows, the Sale-based company that is the only producer of CBeebies content outside Manchester. “Kari’s voice is very reminiscent of Anita’s. She had a very childlike quality which I also very much used with Kari. And she had a great enthusiasm for life, which was lovely.”

After Dinnerladies, she played Sunita Alahan in Coronation Street for nine years, a bittersweet experience. As much as she loved the job and the people, she was never comfortable in the bright spotlight of being a soap star. In the past she has said: “I was generally happy within Coronation Street, but it was people outside the confines of the set that brought me down. People felt it was OK to come up to me and say anything. They would say things without thinking, such as how tired I looked or how fat and ugly I looked on TV. I’d also get racial abuse on networking sites.”

Having interviewed Gulati throughout her Coronation Street years, it’s clear to me that she is much more relaxed and settled away from the soap glare. She’s happier with herself than when she was younger.

“If we are talking about values, the most important value young Shobna needed to know was the value of herself. You’ve got to learn that you yourself as a human being have a value. It’s all very well being lovely to others but value yourself. Young Shobna needed to know that. I was probably too quick to agree to things. Saying that, I wouldn’t have done anything differently.”

She used her soap stardom for good, campaigning for women’s rights, especially Asian women, and was particular vocal over the death of Warrington teenager Shafilea Ahmed, killed by her parents because she refused an arranged marriage. Gulati became part of Because I Am A Girl, set up by charity Plan UK to lobby political leaders to step up the fight against the age and gender-based bias endured by many girls around the world.

Although press-friendly, Gulati has tried to keep her private life just that, private. She’s never revealed who the father is of her son. Twenty-three-year-old Akshay, now also an actor, is clearly the most important person in her life.

“We’ve always talked and I’ve always listened – listening and having a discussion, and him being able to tell me how he feels and for me to be able to tell him how I feel. We’ve found a way of communicating, on a very small microscopic level. We’ve had a democracy in the home,” she laughs.

Before the regular income of TV work, life was not always so easy for Gulati. Indeed at one point she ended up being homeless for a short time. She got married at 23, but it ended after a year. Gulati then found herself homeless, sleeping in her car in London.

“Then some friends – angels – took me in. Spare rooms and sofas until someone who became my dearest friend took me in until I was able to get back on my feet.

“Basically life can knock you. All sorts of consequences can manifest. What being homeless taught me is that you cannot make judgements about people and their circumstances. I came to London, I had only my little car. I was depressed, upset and embarrassed and could not share my situation with my family at the time.

“London rents are high and at the same time the price of a deposit was the issue. Also, when your life is in a mess how far is it possible to rely on friends? In my case I was lucky after eventually plucking up the courage to share my difficulty and they really helped me. Without their kindness who knows what would have happened?”

Five years later she became a mum and has raised Akshay single-handedly. “We had a very simple life. There was lots of talking and playing in the park. Some people don’t talk to babies but I did. I think it’s really important. I read to him and I made up stories which he loved. He was always the hero of the story.

“Our story was called Akshay Gulati The Bright Blue Smartie, and I’d always leave each story on a cliffhanger so I could say to him the following night – there was serious jeopardy involved – ‘Do you want to know what happened to Akshay Gulati the Bright Blue Smartie? Well, you’d better go to bed then and you’ll find out!”

For Gulati 2017 has been a good year. She worked with Bhaskar for the first time, despite them having been friends for 30 years, toured with Bhaskar’s wife Meera Syal in Anita & Me, has just finished a stint in the Scottish drama River City and is currently starring on the London stage in Daisy Pulls It Off.

“On a personal level, I feel like I’m still growing and evolving. I’m still learning lessons that I thought I’d learned but I haven’t. I also learned losing and winning. You can still win and lose and you can still lose and win. Personally growth will continue with me. I’m still open for business!” she jokes.

Ask her what she thinks of 2017 globally – Brexit, Trump, the rise of the far right – and she’s overwhelmed. “A massive question, a huge question!” Laughing out loud, clearly not wanting to get drawn into a political discussion, she thinks and answers carefully. “I just believe that the wonderful thing about being a human being is that we possess humanity. Whatever opinions you hold or whatever places people are from, if you hold on to our humanity, we’ve still got somewhere to go. There is a Stella Adler quote that I am really into at the moment. ‘Art reminds me that you still have a soul.’ I’m grateful that I am an artist and that artists exist in our world, irrespective of what has happened in it.”

Treasure Champs is on CBeebies and available on the BBC iPlayer

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