The little man in my life; Street star Shobna Gulati reveals how becoming a mum gave her life meaning and direction. By Rebecca Fletcher.
Shobna Gulati has found fame and fortune as shop girl Sunita in Coronation Street but, more importantly, her success marks a personal triumph over adversity. She has overcome racism, bigotry, being typecast as thick and has struggled to launch an acting career while raising her young son single-handedly.
Seven years ago, after training to be a dance teacher and then working as a catwalk model in Paris, Shobna set her heart on an acting career - only to discover she was pregnant.
"Of course, that limited my opportunities," says Shobna, 28, who was determined to keep her baby even though her relationship with his dad ended. "It wasn't planned, but it happened at a time in my life when I'd decided I couldn't just bum around France any more. My father had passed away. I needed to get home to Oldham in Manchester and find some direction. And Akshay, who is now seven, gave me that.
"Yes, it changed my life and, yes, I had to make sacrifices, but I can't say I mind because I can't imagine not having him.
"Once you've had a baby, it becomes your direction and being. And looking at what I have now - a beautiful son and a wonderful job - it all seems worth it."
Unlike her character Sunita, whose parents disowned her after she fled an arranged marriage and sought sanctuary with Dev, Shobna's family couldn't have been more supportive. Her mother, older brother Rajesh and sisters Sushma and Hema, all rallied round when Shobna announced she was pregnant.
"I was nervous about telling my mum, but she was absolutely brilliant," she says. "She just said, `OK, let's get on with it', and still encouraged me to act, babysitting after Akshay was born so I could find work. I wouldn't be here today without her support."
Ironically, Coronation Street helped the Gulatis get to grips with British life after Shobna's late father, a doctor, arrived in Oldham from India in the 1960s. He would sit her mother Asha in front of the TV, so that she could learn how people talked and lived.
"She was hooked," says Shobna, who first found fame in Victoria Wood's sitcom Dinnerladies. "We grew up on Corrie, so you can imagine how pleased mum is to see me part of that legend. And the beauty of being in a soap in your hometown, like I am now, means I see so much more of Akshay.
"Filming Dinnerladies in London was hard because we were apart. I'd drive 200 miles every week just to spend a short time with him. But that's the nature of this business and mum's help in giving Akshay a consistent upbringing has helped him understand that. He's quite happy with my comings and goings. And he loves me being in Corrie. He handles the fame side of things much better than I do. I'll be hiding in the frozen peas and he'll drag me out saying, `Yes, it's her from the telly - it's my mum'."
Landing the part of Sunita was also a relief because, although Shobna won acclaim for her part in Dinnerladies, she feared she might never work again. It seems she had been a little too convincing as the sitcom's nice- but-dim Anita.
"Talk about stereotyping," she says with a sigh. "The character was so formed in the public's imagination that people assumed I was like Anita. If I went shopping, people would talk to me slowly as if I didn't understand. Casting directors thought the same and the work dried up. But Dinnerladies was my big break and I'll always be grateful to Victoria Wood. A British Asian actress has even more of a struggle to prove themselves in this business and to appear as an Asian woman on mainstream TV was a fantastic opportunity."
Shobna has another personal reason to like working in Manchester - it means she is closer to her boyfriend Gary Turner, former Emmerdale hunk Carlos. The pair have been dating for a year.
"I don't want to say too much because I want to keep the relationship just for us," she says. "But we're very happy. The fame game does play a strange part in our relationship - people do a double-take and come up to us all the time. I'm not sure I cope that well with losing my privacy, but it's part of the job."
At the moment in Coronation Street, Sunita is rekindling her gentle, on-off romance with older man Duggie, played by John Bowe. "Let's just say Duggie has sorted out her plumbing in more ways than one," she laughs. "Sunita's always had a soft spot for him. The only reason she finished with him before was that everyone was teasing her about him being an old codger. But she's fond of him and sees him as safe. Little does she know what's about to happen."
Ah yes, their happiness together is to be shortlived as Duggie makes a dramatic exit from the soap in a couple of weeks time, when he is killed off.
"It'll be weird filming those death scenes with John, because the relationship between Duggie and Sunita has become a lot deeper," says Shobna. "But it's a fantastic challenge for me as an actress. I'm usually the comedy bunny who puts her foot in it every five minutes, so it'll be great to do emotional stuff. I'll miss John because he's a great actor and has helped me so much."
Newspapers recently reported a cull of the cast, with favourites such as Dev and the Grimshaws said to be facing the axe.
"Anything like that is unsettling, but it's just press speculation, so we try not to let it affect us," she shrugs. "It's the nature of soap that characters come and go. We can't worry about it because we've all got a job to do."
And her job is harder than most. The victim of racist taunts when she was young, Shobna now uses her fame to try and help overcome existing racial tensions. She is involved in theatre groups aimed specifically at improving understanding between Eastern and Western cultures.
"There's a huge dichotomy between the Asian and white population and the situation in my hometown of Oldham is very upsetting," she says. "That's why I'm happy to have my role in Coronation Street. I'm not an information- type person, or a token Asian stereotypical character such as a doctor or lawyer. I'm a normal shop girl and my increased profile - being in people's living rooms every week - means I can change people's perceptions quickly.
"If viewers see Sunita, or Dev, or Vikram exhibiting the same straightforward emotions as they have, they realise that we're just the same as everyone else. We're all human. We all feel the same, whatever culture we're from.
"I don't know how much of a positive impact I'm making, but I do know that I'm going to keep on trying."
l See Soap Box, page 21.
ROMANCE: With partner Gary Turner; TENDER: As Sunita with Duggie
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|Publication:||The Mirror (London, England)|
|Date:||Jan 19, 2002|
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