Interview: Sanjeev Kohli

Sanjeev Kohli in the Barras, Glasgow. Kohli plays Navid in BBC's Still Game, Ramesh Majhu in the radio sitcom Fags, Mags and Bags and AJ Jandhu in the BBC Scotland soap, River City
Sanjeev Kohli in the Barras, Glasgow. Kohli plays Navid in BBC's Still Game, Ramesh Majhu in the radio sitcom Fags, Mags and Bags and AJ Jandhu in the BBC Scotland soap, River City
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The Still Game star tells Janet Christie about swapping a career in medicine for a role as Scotland’s favourite shopkeeker, getting serious in River City and why he’d love to play a hard man

Hey Sanj, gies a selfie,” shout the lads crossing the road as the Still Game actor poses for a photoshoot in Glasgow’s East End. Kohli obliges, posing and chatting with fans as we walk around the Barras, an appropriate setting for Scotland’s most famous shopkeeper. It’s testament to the popularity of the BBC show that Kohli, who plays Navid Harrid, shop owner and richest man in Craiglang, is still immediately recognisable without his trademark shock of grey hair, furry caterpillar eyebrows, sporran beard and argyle-patterned sweater and tie combo.

Kohli (far right) with the rest of the Still Game cast, Boabby (Gavin Mitchell), Winston (Paul riley), Victor (Greg Hemphill), Jack (Ford Kiernana), Isa (Jane McCarry), Tam (Mark Cox), Navid (Sanjeev Kohli) - (C) BBC Studios - Photographer: Alan Peebles

Kohli (far right) with the rest of the Still Game cast, Boabby (Gavin Mitchell), Winston (Paul riley), Victor (Greg Hemphill), Jack (Ford Kiernana), Isa (Jane McCarry), Tam (Mark Cox), Navid (Sanjeev Kohli) - (C) BBC Studios - Photographer: Alan Peebles

In the flesh Kohli couldn’t look more different, salt and pepper stubble, trendy glasses, jeans and brogue boots, and at 47 a lot younger than sixty or seventy-something Navid. Only his height gives a clue to his shopkeeper alter ego. He’s much more like his other screen persona of the past two years, that of AJ, Amandeep Jandhu, the former banker reborn as a baker in BBC Scotland soap River City.

Kohli has been in Still Game, written by stars Greg Hemphill and Ford Kiernan, since the beginning in 2002, running Harrids Convenience Store through seven series. Husband of Meena, his foul-mouthed backroom boss and wife, he’s also the employer of beaky-nosed Isa, shop cleaner of 20 years.

Back on our screens in series eight, Still Game has finally succumbed to the ever present threat of the grim reaper with the death of octogenarian Eric (played by Jimmy Martin). Cursed by Craiglang’s sinister new undertaker, played by Bruce Morton, the popular pensioner was seen pegging out over the puggy machine in The Clansman. Does Kohli think this means things have taken a turn for the darker this season?

“No, it’s always been pretty dark. They’ve never shied away from that, because death is always there. Boabby is always saying ‘you’ll no’ see another winter’ and they joke about it among themselves. It’s horrible. Darkness was always a selling point.

Sanjeev Kohli as Navid. Picture:  (C) BBC Studios: Alan Peebles

Sanjeev Kohli as Navid. Picture: (C) BBC Studios: Alan Peebles

“If you watched Still Game with the sound down, you’d probably think it was Last of the Summer Wine. But turn it up and suddenly someone’s got an erection and they’re swearing – it’s edgier than you think, and people are pleasantly surprised.”

Kohli puts a lot of Navid’s popularity down to his accent. “Weegies are funny,” he says. “So if you just put a spin on that, the Glasgow Asian accent is funny. Add a very slight twang, maybe on the way you say ‘qwality’, and it’s funny.”

And what of the elusive Meena, will we ever get to see Navid’s foul-mouthed wife in the flesh?

“No, she’d be hounded out of the country because of the things she says. Oh my god, the conversations about what Urdu word she’s going to use. And sometimes it’s so egregious and offensive she can’t say it. Needless to say, there’s no idiomatic Urdu translation for the word ‘fanny’.

“And Navid resonates because a lot of those shops are in quite kicked in parts of the world and the people that run them are often the only brown faces in the place and get a hard time. They’ve earned their dues, been there for decades, and develop this patter, because they have to. They’ve got to disarm people – you can’t take a baseball bat in there anymore, it’s not fashionable. They’re all characters, they have to be.

“It’s really cleverly written because if you’re going to put an Asian in a sitcom, you can’t ignore his cultural background, equally you don’t want to front load it with a brick through their window in week two and they’re victims. Navid and Meena are nobody’s victims, they’re doing very well. There’s graffiti and abuse, and it would be disingenuous not to mention it, but don’t bang on about it. So it’s aye, he’s Asian, aye he’s Muslim, but it’s not what defines him. It’s the fourth or fifth thing that he is. He’s sarky, arrogant, has a brilliant relationship with his wife, oh AND he’s Asian, oh AND he’s Muslim.

“And what I can bring to the party is realism, because I can do the accent and physicalise it to make it authentic. Hats off to Ford and Greg for having the bravery to think aye he’s Asian and Muslim and people will like him, because I might not have had the confidence to be honest.”

Kohli knows what he’s talking about and has written and acted the part of another Glasgow shopkeeper in his comedy series for Radio 4, Fags, Mags and Bags, and also wrote Karen Dunbar’s lonely shopkeeper in Chewin’ the Fat. Much of it is inspired by personal experience.

“I’ve been obsessed with corner shops ever since we had one when I was ten or 11,” he says. “It was an eye-opener for me. My mum was always scrupulously polite to the customers who were quite shocked her English was so good. But my parents are middle class educated Indian, and also my mum was a social worker, and helped them fill in forms and stuff.

“So I got a sense of the community element of the shop, which I channel more in Fags, Mags and Bags. The shop is a hub and shopkeepers know your business, see that you’re not buying fruit, that you might buy a Tracker bar, know the specialist magazines you buy, what you’re up to. And everyone goes in. It doesn’t matter who you are, if you want one Toffee Crisp, you’re not going to buy it online. You know the Wall of Crisps, the chocolate stanchion, the cardosel (carousel of 50p cards), where the Pot Noodles are, the lottery machine, it’s a home from home.”

Was Kohli ever concerned about the danger of stereotyping the Asian shopkeeper?

“That was my worry, but there’s a good reason why such a high proportion of shopkeepers are Asian. A lot of Asians weren’t getting employment. My mum and dad were a teacher and a social worker and they weren’t getting promoted…”

Was that because of racism?

“I think so, but they just lived with it, never complained. There’s also a very hard work ethic there, so if Navid is the richest person on the estate it’s because of the hours he puts in. So as a stereotype, it’s a positive one. I don’t have an issue with it; it reflects reality. If the shopkeeper wasn’t Asian it might have jarred. We’re not really commenting on it, it just is.”

Not only has Kohli written about corner shops and seen his parents’ first-hand, he’s done the job himself, albeit reluctantly.

“I was 23 and unemployed and my dad said ‘right, you’re running the shop’. I thought ‘oh god!’ I ran it for three months and it was horrible. My respect for shopkeepers went through the roof. Honestly, having ten year olds coming in and judging your crisps, I’ve never been at a lower ebb. They were going ‘where’s your Outer Spacers, man? So I had to get Outer Spacers…”

Kohli grew up the third of three brothers to a father from the Punjab in north India and a mother from Nairobi, Kenya.

“I was incredibly shy, happy to be in the shadow of my brothers, which is a very long and wide shadow. Our parents sent us to private school and I did the work, got to medical school and then thought ‘why am I doing this?’ My mum and dad had never put pressure on me but I knew it would make them happy – they’re still obsessed with doctors.” He laughs. “I did Holby City once, playing a patient, and asked if I could pretend to be a visiting haematologist so I could send the tape to my family. They said no.

“Anyway I came back to Glasgow, then after jacking in my PhD, signed on, travelled and thought, consign yourself to a life in accountancy. But then I got a call from a radio producer friend who was casting, did an audition and presented a radio show and that felt really natural.”

The show was Shredded Wheat, a listing show on Radio Scotland that moved to BBC Choice then late night on BBC2, with his co-writer on radio sitcom Fags, Mags and Bags, Donald McLeary. The pair have written around 20 comedy series for BBC Scotland and Radio 4 together over the years and the new series will air in September.

Also coming up for Kohli is the Stan and Ollie biopic, with Steve Coogan playing Laurel, John C Reilly as Hardy, and Shirley Henderson as Hardy’s wife Lucille. The film follows the duo on their tour of the UK in the twilight of their careers.

“I play the manager of the Glasgow Empire. I nearly talked myself out of the job, saying ‘ would he be Asian?’ Shut up! Take the job, idiot! I was in one scene and that’s it, but Steve Coogan is a hero of mine, and I really like John C Reilly.”

With Still Game wrapped up, Kohli is enjoying the routine of River City, in a part written for him that tempted him from his comfort zone.

“They said it was pretty much a version of me, so I play myself – although I would never get Dawn Steele to marry me,” he says. “But in terms of visually and vocally, it’s me.”

Soap being a new discipline for Kohli, it’s been a learning curve running lines every night for a rolling schedule. Not that his three children with Fiona, who works at Radio Scotland – Ruby, Bel and Vinay – will be watching.

“In River City I’m married to someone other than their mother and kissing other women, so they just can’t do it. And because I’m quite Dickensian at home, for ages I didn’t let them watch Still Game – there I am on telly swearing in two languages. But they watch it now and love it. Although they didn’t like it when I kissed Isa, ‘cos she was Granny Murray in Me Too! on CBeebies.”

River City is also giving Kohli the chance to extend his range beyond comedy, where he feels more at home. “But having said that I had a scene with Dawn when I’d found out she’d been cheating on me and I started crying. We did another take and I cried again, proper tears. I thought, ‘f***ing knocked it off!’

“As someone that fell into it and isn’t a proper actor, I’d hear actors talking about methodology and think, come on, but sometimes you do have to go to dark places. It’s all about authenticity... I worked with James McAvoy on Filth (I was cut!, but anyway...) and he’s a really nice guy but would flip just before a dark scene. Dawn, too, can turn on a sixpence. It’s ‘cut’ and we’re talking Tupperware and Toffee Crisps, then ‘action’ and she’s back on again. She’s brilliant. Same with Jane [McCarry] on Still Game, how she transforms to become Isa, it’s astonishing. And when you watch what Ford and Greg do, it’s up there with Laurel and Hardy. I’m more of a wordsmith than a physical comedian,” he says.

Come on Sanjeev, we’ve seen Navid bhangra dancing behind the counter.

He laughs.

“It’s weird. I’m better at bhangra dancing as Navid than I am as myself. It’s got to the stage where I go to a wedding and just channel Navid. People are disappointed when I turn up hairless.”

Looking ahead, Kohli would love to do more TV and films and confesses a hankering to play a heavy.

“You always want to be the things you aren’t, and I’m as soft as shite. I couldn’t punch a hole in a meringue, but I’d love to play a hard man. And I’d love to play an Asian heavy metal star ‘cos I grew up on heavy metal – I love Deep Purple,” he says.

Kohli has also been working on a documentary about turbans to be broadcast this spring.

Unlike his father and brothers – broadcaster and writer Hardeep, and Randeep, a chief superintendent in the Metropolitan Police – Kohli has rarely worn one.

“I rejected God pretty early doors, so what was the point? I think Sikhism as a religion is the coolest because it preaches all the right things: tolerance, defending your right to believe what you want whether that’s Sikhism or not, men and women working together, abolishing the caste system and not standing back when people are being oppressed... so I like it as a philosophy, but because God’s in the equation, I rejected it. I still have massive respect for Sikhs..

“So my eldest brother grew his hair then my other brother, but when it came to me it was always ‘how strongly do I believe in this?… not sure’. It always meant I felt like the adopted kid... people would say ‘who’s that?’” He laughs.

Another project Kohli has been involved in recently is a film short he wrote himself, “low budget, sci-fi, a bit weird, it might lead to a longer feature, again independent. You do jobs that aren’t well paid, but are good for the soul.”

As for Still Game, if there’s another series, no one will be happier than Kohli.

“I’d love to still be playing Navid, when I’m his age, whatever that is. That’s the beauty of Still Game, it started out with young people playing old, but we’re getting closer all the time.”

@JanetChristie2

Still Game continues on BBC1 on Thursdays at 9:30pm; River City is on BBC1 Scotland on Tuesdays at 8pm. Catch up with both on iPlayer, 
www.bbc.co.uk