She arrived in Scotland as a 14-year-old child bride from Pakistan, got involved in a high-profile campaign to win justice for the family of a murdered Asian waiter and went on to play one of the nation’s best-known TV comedy characters.
For 17 years Still Game fans have been unable to see the face of the shopkeeper who has delivered some of its funniest lines – until now.
Meena Harrid, who has been played by Shamshad Akhtar since its very first episode, was fully seen for the first time in the closing scenes of the final episode of the hit comedy.
The surprise glimpse made good on a long-standing promise from creators Ford Kiernan and Greg Hemphill that Meena would not be seen fully until Still Game was being wrapped up.
She revealed how winning the role helped turn her life around, after losing two of her five children shortly after they were born, fleeing an unhappy and oppressive marriage and becoming homeless.
Akhtar, 69, said: “When I was first told about the part in Still Game and the way that the shopkeeper treated his wife, I knew I was ready for it. I worked in a shop with my ex-husband for 33 years.
“I started my own life when I left him. Beforehand, it was just the shop, the house, the school and the cash and carry. I couldn’t go anywhere. I didn’t know the language. I didn’t even know how to say ‘hello’.
“I once had a nervous breakdown because of the isolation. I had to stay in the same room. We didn’t even have a TV or radio. It drove me crazy. I was such a lively child.”
Akhtar, who first acted in school shows in Pakistan, was put forward for a role in TV comedy drama Overnite Express, which was co-written by Sanjeev Kohli, now best known as Navid Harrid, the shopkeeper she trades barbs with in Still Game. Other roles have included Ken Loach’s Ae Fond Kiss.
However, she insists all her earnings from the show and other acting work are given away to a Down’s syndrome charity she has been heavily involved in since the birth of her grandson, Mohammed, nearly 18 years ago.
Akhtar became well-known in Glasgow’s Asian community since helping the family of Surjit Singh Chhokar after his murder in 1998. She has also been involved in projects to support Asian women and asylum seekers.
The actress, who regularly treated Still Game’s cast and crew to her home-made curries when she was on set, will step into Meena’s shoes a final time in the third and final live show at the Hydro in Glasgow.
She said: “I feel like I’m a brand new woman since I’ve done Still Game. I’m much stronger now.
“Behind the camera, there is a real family. I have made marvellous friends through Still Game. It’s been a bit like medication for me.
“I know Still Game is watched all over the world now. A lot of people I know just call me Meena. They don’t actually use my real name anymore.
“They told me on my first day that they would only show my face when the series ends, but I’ve really enjoyed delivering my lines over the years.
“I actually think Navid bullies Meena. He’s definitely the boss. But behind the curtain I’m taking revenge. I’d love it if Meena and Navid had their own show.”