Acclaimed actress and author Meera Syal has paid tribute to pioneering figures in the arts who paved the way for Asian actors and urged future generations to continue telling their stories.
The star made the remarks at the inaugural Eastern Eye Arts Culture and Theatre awards (ACTAs) where she was recognised for her outstanding contribution to the industry last Sunday (22).
Syal has enjoyed a successful career in films and television as well as on stage. She is one of the team of four actors, including her husband Sanjeev Bhaskar, who broke the mould for Asians in show business when they created hit comedy series Goodness Gracious Me, which was first broadcast on the radio in 1996.
During her acceptance speech, Syal also made a plea to philanthropists in the community to dig deep and back new creative projects. She told the audience at the Royal Festival Hall in the Southbank Centre: “We owe a great deal of debt to the people
who came before us. We think we had it bad – for Saeed Jaffrey and his generation, we can’t imagine the creative frustration they must have gone through time and time again.
“They truly are the people that opened the doors. We have pushed them a little further so I would like to accept this (award) on behalf of that generation to thank them, and for the generation to come who, I hope, will keep telling the stories.
“For me it has always just been about telling our stories because they are so rich and there are so many of them.”
Syal, who has also penned three novels, is currently performing in Kenneth Branagh’s production of Romeo and Juliet at Garrick Theatre.
She reflected on how the generation of Asians who broke into the industry before her would have faced endless setbacks during a time when work was scarce for ethnic minorities in the arts.
Syalyal singled out screen icon Saeed Jaffrey who passed away last year, and mentioned the creative frustrations he would have faced due to the lack of meaty roles for Asian actors.
The veteran actor, who starred in 150 films including A Passage to India and Gandhi, was awarded a posthumous editor’s special award which was collected
by his widow Jennifer.
In an emotional speech, she spoke about how her husband had inspired many young actors who were now “doing so well”. In total, 21 artists including dancers, photographers and actors picked up gongs for their distinguished body of work.
Popular music producer and songwriter Naughty Boy, who was mobbed for selfies following the event, said that Asians in the creative industries no longer needed a helping hand in order to succeed.
“Success should breed success. I’m not standing here as an Asian producer. Even though I’m brown, I want us to feel like we are standing alongside everyone else in this industry whether it’s in acting, film, music,” he said.
“We don’t need a helping hand any more. Music is a universal language, any kind of art is a universal language. It’s not bound by what colour you are. I believe that I make music for everyone,” he added.
Watford-born Naughty Boy, whose real name is Shahid Khan, has collaborated with an array of creative talents including Beyonce and Emeli Sandé.
He dedicated his award for music to well-known Asian acts who inspired him when he was growing up, including Nitin Sawhney, Bally Sagoo and Apache Indian.
The 31-year-old added that he would love to see Goodness Gracious Me revived and would happily make a cameo appearance
Comedian Nish Kumar, who has become a familiar face on TV screens, also paid tribute to husband and wife power team Syal and Bhaskar, adding that they were the reasons he went into comedy.
Bhaskar also took part in a question and answer session with the artistic director of the Southbank Centre, Jude Kelly, and claimed that opportunities afforded to Asian actors were still limited.
The 52-year-old, who received an ACTA for Best Theatre Actor, revealed that he had never played an Indian character on stage.
“It is the one area where the audiences completely buy into colour-blind casting. It is the one place where it is completely
experimental,” he added.
“I have never had a review that said they didn’t buy me as a French person, and in terms of diversity, I think that is a huge step forward.”
The Dinner with Saddam star said he was struck by the number of successful productions that had been staged over the past two years, including Behind the Beautiful Forevers and Dara at the National Theatre and Bend It Like Beckham in the West End.
“Although this last year has shown that there are big shows and small shows that can sustain audiences, it also suggests that with our actors, we can go on to do some of the Western classics,” he said.
Bhaskar urged theatre producers and directors to keep taking “those steps because they are incredibly encouraging and incredibly important.”
Hosted by the Asian Media and Marketing Group, publishers of Eastern Eye and Garavi Gujarat news weekly, the ACTA ceremony was the first of its kind in Britain.