Actress Zita Sattar tells Alison Jones why she was so eager to play a 'Pakistani Nana Mouskouri lookalike'
If ever there was an actress who was entitled to say “It should have been me” after seeing a role she helped create taken by someone else on screen, it is Zita Sattar.
The Solihull-based star, who is probably still best known for her role as nurse Anna Paul in Casualty, had helped to develop the character of Meenah Khan in East is East from the workshop stage and then played it for a year in theatre.
The play was first performed at Birmingham Repertory Theatre Studio in October 1996, but was then transferred to the big screen, becoming a hit British film featuring Archie Panjabi in Sattar’s original role as a spirited sister to six brothers in a mixed-race family living in Salford.
Surprisingly Zita does not seem bitter about missing out, particularly as it left her free to take a key role in the sequel West is West and to travel to India to film it.
“I wasn’t devastated about not being in the first,” says Zita chirpily. “That is just the way it goes with that sort of thing.
“I was doing something else, another film, at the same time they were making East is East.
“It was really meant to be that I did this one rather than the other one. And I had such an amazing time in India, I really want to go back, and I wouldn’t have got to do that of course.”
East is East was a hugely successful comedy drama set during the early 70s about family dysfunction, with the children torn between the traditional Islamic beliefs of their father, George (Om Puri). and the more liberal attitude of their Irish Catholic mother, Ella (Linda Bassett).
In West is West the youngest son Sajid (Aqib Khan) is suffering an identity crisis over his Pakistani/English heritage. So George takes him to Pakistan where they stay with his first wife and join the second youngest son Maneer (Emil Marwa), who is failing hopelessly in his quest to find a wife.
It becomes evident that Maneer is nurturing a secret passion for the square frames and centre parting of certain Greek chanteuse – which is where Zita comes in.
“That was how it was billed to me ‘Do you fancy playing a Pakistani Nana Mouskouri lookalike?’. I was like ‘God, yeah. Bit of polyester and a big pair of glasses and I’m there’.”
Her stay in the Punjab proved to be an emotional one as she was able to visit the place where her grandfather had been born.
“It was about 50 miles from where we were filming. There were no relatives, all his people fled in one night because of partition. I was the first person in the family that had managed to make it back there since that time, so it was really special,
“I don’t even know where the house was. It’s probably razed to the ground now. But I found a tree and just sat under it on this dusty road for a bit, thought about them, then got back in the car.”
The two films are partially autobiographical, based on the childhood and adolescence of the writer and actor Ayub Khan-Din.
Zita, who was born in 1975 and raised in Birmingham said she and the rest of the East is East cast all responded to its theme of duality, although they had not experienced such an extreme cultural clash as the fictionalised versions.
“I don’t define myself, I have stopped ticking the ‘other’ box, but I used to ponder over it in my early 20s “My God, which one do I tick?’
“Now it’s ‘You know what. Sod it. I am Asian, I am brown, but I am a different type of Asian to the traditional. I’m mixed and I am cool with that.
“I find it frustrating when people still try to put me in a box. I remember working in my dad’s shop when I was in my teens and the customers used to go ‘Aren’t you Brummie!’ and I was like ‘Why the hell wouldn’t I be?’.
“But I have gone through my crusading, trying to change the world. I am quite happy with the way I am.
“I think that is why all the kids from the play, Emil, Jimi (Mistry) and I have all stayed in touch because we were all from mixed backgrounds. When we were together we actually looked like siblings, literally the same shade as each other.
“There was a great solidarity because for the first time we weren’t playing Indian or Spanish or whatever we vaguely looked like, we were playing ourselves, proper mixed race kids, and that was revolutionary.”
West is West is released in cinemas this Friday.