Meera Syal had one reaction when she heard that an award-winning play she’d starred in was to be adapted for the big screen.
“Don’t find someone younger and more glamorous from Bollywood. Let me do it!” she exclaims.
There was never really any question that she wouldn’t reprise the character of Lopa Dutt, the matriarch of a dysfunctional but loving family in All In Good Time.
But Meera, who’s been working in the industry for almost three decades, remained cautiously realistic.
“You know the world of television and theatre is very different and there are different criteria sometimes when people are casting films.
“For women it’s generally, ‘You’re too old’, but luckily I was playing an older character anyway.”
At 50, she’s looking great in a black outfit and with a slash of bold, red lipstick.
All In Good Time, directed by Calendar Girls’ Nigel Cole, is centred on a son and his new wife as they begin married life living with his parents and find it increasingly difficult to consummate their marriage.
The film’s started life as a play in 1963, and three years later was adapted for the screen as the film The Family Way.
In 2007, it was updated for the theatre, by East Is East’s Ayub Khan Din, where the focus became a British-Asian family living in Bolton. It won a prestigious Olivier Award for Best New Comedy during its run at The National Theatre.
The actress says: “This story is about family and the sacrifices and compromises we all make, and the fact that keeping a marriage going is really hard work.”
Meera herself is married to her former Goodness Gracious Me co-star Sanjeev Bhaskar with whom she has a son, Shaan, six.
She also has a 19-year-old daughter Chameli from her first marriage to journalist Shekhar Bhatia.
What really appealed about the part is the dark secret Lopa has kept to herself for decades.
“You only find out towards the end of the film and it suddenly gives you a window into this woman. You think, ‘My God, there’s this whole generation of women that had dreams, and lost loves and expectations they just had to chuck away for the sake of the family’. It gave her a real poignancy,” she says.
Meera grew up in the Midlands. Born in Wolverhampton, her family lived in Essington and Bloxwich and she attended the girls’ grammar, Queen Mary’s High School, in Walsall.
“We were the first Asians that anybody had ever met so I was a real fish out of water. I didn’t have that thing of walking out the door and everyone knowing my business the way a lot of my friends did who lived in very Asian areas.”
Looking back, she says that the fact she grew up as “an outsider” helped hone her creativity.
“I think it’s a very good thing. You’re always slightly outside all camps and therefore you get a sense of perspective and see the oddities.”
She might have harboured a dream of becoming an actress but the young Meera considered it a pipe dream.
“I mean who would employ me? I didn’t see anyone like me out there and thought there’s no place for me, so I’ll do something sensible,” she says.
“I was going to do an MA at Leeds University in drama and psychotherapy and then do a PGCE and work with children with learning difficulties. I had it all mapped out.”
In the summer before she was “due to go and live my sensible life”, a director at the Royal Court Theatre saw her in her student one-woman show and offered her a job with an equity card.
“Suddenly, it was one of those real sliding doors moments where you go, ‘I can have this life or I can have this life’ and I had nothing to lose,”
She’s rarely been off the screen or stage since, rising to prominence as part of the team who created the ground-breaking and award-winning sketch show Goodness Gracious Me and later playing Bhaskar’s grandmother Ummi in The Kumar’s At No. 42.
“Some people think ‘character actress’ is a demeaning term but I think it’s brilliant because you’ve got a much longer life,” she says.
“You’re not hung up about the way you look because that’s not what you’re marketed for and it leaves you free to do so many brilliant roles.”
Meera’s also written screenplays, novels (including the semi-autobiographical Anita & Me) and was awarded the MBE in the 1997 New Year’s Honours. A keen jazz singer, she has even performed at Ronnie Scotts.
Today she is probably the country’s foremost British-Asian comedian and actress. However, in an interview in 1999, she mentioned she was fed-up with being a spokesperson for the community.
Now she sees the likes of Freida Pinto and Archie Panjabi winning awards and it gives her a great sense of satisfaction.
“A whole generation of people are doing stuff I couldn’t have imagined when I was a child,” she says.
“I guess it was our generation’s job to sort of kick the door open...to be trampled in the rush afterwards. And do they say thank you? No!” she laughs.