by Amit Roy
WHEN she appeared on Who Do You Think You Are? on TV last year, British actress Olivia Colman spoke about discovering she had Indian ancestry.
“I’m much more interesting than I thought I was,” was her reaction.
Such openness has not always been the case.
At 45, Colman is one of Britain’s most talented and versatile actresses. This is confirmed by her Best Actress Oscar last Sunday (24) for her role as Queen Anne in The Favourite.
She seems to have cornered the market in playing royals – she is currently portraying Queen Elizabeth II in The Crown on Netflix.
Colman expressed delight when she discovered on a trip to Kishanganj in Bihar and to Kolkata that her “great, great, great, great maternal grandmother”, Harriot Slessor, was
the child of an English father and an unknown Indian mother.
Harriot was sent to England as a child in 1810 after her father – an officer with the East India Company – died in a shooting accident. She returned to India in 1832, married
an Englishman she met on the six month sea voyage, but he died, aged 29, within a year of their marriage.
“India Harriot”, as she was called, came back to England, remarried and had four children, one of them Colman’s ancestor.
Farrokh Bulsara, born on September 5, 1946, to Parsi parents from Gujarat, was brought up partly in Bombay (now Mumbai) and took the name Freddie Mercury. He was thanked by Rami Malik when accepting his Oscar for Best Actor for his portrayal of the Queen frontman
in Bohemian Rhapsody.
And the man best known for playing the Mahatma in Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi in 1982, Sir Ben Kingsley – now 75 and a pillar of the English acting establishment – was born Krishna Pandit Bhanji in Yorkshire. He is the son of Anna Lyna Mary (born Goodman; 1914–
2010), an actress who appeared in films in the 1920s and 1930s, and Rahmitulla Harji Bhanji (1914– 1968), a doctor.
Kingsley’s father, born in Kenya, was Gujarati. Kingsley’s paternal grandfather was a spice trader who had moved from India to Zanzibar, where the actor’s father lived until moving to Britain at the age of 14.
As a young actor, Bhanji was told he would not get very many jobs if he retained his Indian name, so he changed his name to Ben Kingsley.
The 72-year-old actress Diana Quick, who made her name playing Julia Flyte in the 1981 TV adaptation of Evelyn Waugh’s 1945 novel, Brideshead Revisited, revealed her
Indian roots in her 2009 autobiography, A Tug on the Thread.
But the Indian connection was hushed up. As a young actress, Diana was photographed by Cecil Beaton and described as “the most beautiful woman in the world”.
For her book, she traced her family history back to her great-grandfather, Christopher Quick, who enlisted in the army as a teenager and sailed to India in the early 1870s. At the age of 32, he married an Anglo-Indian woman and had three children. One of them was Bertie, Diana’s grandfather who ended up in Surrey but was never mentioned in her family.
There is still some way to go, but these days diversity can be a plus point on a CV in a multi-ethnic, multi-religious, multicultural Britain.
It is certainly something celebrated in Eastern Eye’s Arts, Culture & Theatre Awards (ACTAs).