By Sairah Masud
A BBC adaptation of an award-winning journalist’s life growing up in a traditional Sikh Punjabi family in England while dealing with mental illness will be broadcast next week.
Sathnam Sanghera’s 2009 memoir, The Boy with the Topknot, tells his story as a second generation immigrant in 1980s Wolverhampton, as he juggles family commitments, his love life and career while coming to terms with two of his family members suffering from schizophrenia.
Subtitled “a memoir of love, secrets and lies in Wolverhampton”, the book exposes Sanghera’s “personal crisis” after discovering in his late 20s that his father and sister suffered from a serious mental illness, a fact that was kept from him his entire childhood. Sanghera said writing about mental illness was “particularly challenging and painful” yet important. He became more involved in the TV production than he had initially anticipated, to ensure that the illness was accurately depicted in the BBC adaptation.
“It’s (mental health) particularly a taboo in Indian communities – quite often when someone has a severe mental illness, people start talking about black magic. One of the things I found out about my family is that my great grandfather probably had schizophrenia too and he was literally tied to a bed until he died,” the author and columnist for The Times told Eastern Eye.
“I had to get involved to a certain degree – just to make sure my family were portrayed
well and to make sure that they got schizophrenia right, because it’s such a misunderstood and complicated illness that it’s quite easy to get the tone wrong.”
Leaving a successful career in London as a news journalist for the Financial Times, Sanghera returned to his home town to live with his family once again and make sense
of the shocking family revelation.
“I spent the whole of my 20s interviewing people and then I suddenly realised I didn’t know anything about my family. So I found myself turning my training and career onto myself and my family – it was a very intense experience, but I’m glad I did it.
“I think one of the most common regrets people have when they die is that ‘oh, I didn’t sit down and get their story’. No one’s dying, but I feel very fortunate that I got a whole year to get my mum’s story and different perspectives.”
Sanghera is a first-class graduate in English and literature from Cambridge University,
but said he did not consider writing a book. Penning his emotional memoir was an idea encouraged by his publisher and it turned out to be a process of catharsis for the 41-year-old.
“I didn’t know any writers, I didn’t grow up in a household with books – it seemed like books were always written by other people. She (my publisher) coached me to the whole experience which turned into this incredible act of therapy for me over two years,” Sanghera said.
He anticipates how the process could have been “horrendous,” were it not for the support of his family.
“I had an agreement with myself that I would not publish anything they weren’t happy with. I showed it to them before it went to publication and I did take some things out. I’m glad I did that because it meant they could be supportive. I think if they weren’t, it would have been horrendous.”
Sacha Dhawan, who plays Sanghera in the one-off 90-minute BBC drama, said it was after reading the book and discovering parallels in his own life and Sanghera’s that not only attracted him to the role but alsomade him reluctant to audition for the part.
“I read the script and just got totally frightened. I’m so used to playing characters that are so different to me and stories that are completely away from me. This was so similar and I got really frightened to put myself out there,” the actor said.
“Yes, I’m playing Sathnam, but there is a lot of me in that role as well. I can genuinely relate to the relationship between mother and son and siblings because I’ve gone through
it. I just wanted to give an honest performance, which I think the film really captures.”
Dhawan recalled that in his own life, finding himself in circumstances similar to that of Sanghera, helped him to give a “truthful performance”.
“It’s nice to see a story about a guy who is very much part of the western world as it was and has distanced himself from his roots, which I have done in the past quite a few years ago.
“I felt like a part of me was missing and it got to a point where I was running away from my family and past. I confronted it and I couldn’t feel more proud of doing that. My mum will watch the performance and she’ll know where it’s coming from.”
The film, which also stars Bollywood veterans Anupam Kher and Deepti Naval as Sathnam’s parents, remained “very specific” in capturing the true essence of life in a Sikh Punjabi home – something Dhawan said was a crucial aspect of the production.
“We were very adamant that we were very specific – there was so much work going into making it accurate that when I was on set it was like being in my own living room at home.
“Anupam and Deepti both speak Punjabi in the film and I’m really proud that my mother tongue is being used,” Dhawan said.
With many British Asian actors having spoken about being typecast into stereotypically Asian roles, Dhawan said it was both a “blessing and a curse”.
“It’s a very relatable story. It’s not just about arranged marriage and mental illness, it’s about family and that’s a universal theme. I’m happy as an Indian actor to represent that.”
The Boy with the Topknot is on BBC2 on November 13 at 9pm.