Television viewers will recognise Oldham actress, Shobna Gulati, for ground-breaking roles in our most popular programmes. During our recent catch- up, she reminds me of her first featured role on television was in Victoria Wood’s popular comedy series, dinnerladies.
“It wasn’t the most glamorous role I’ve ever played,” laughs Shobna. “But it was my first big break and I later appeared in its reincarnation as a stage play. I learnt about working in front of cameras by simply watching Vicky and the cast”. With award-winning actors like Julie Walters, Anne Reid, Celia Imrie and Maxine Peake - it’s no wonder!
Featured roles followed in two of our most popular soaps for Shobna. But now, for the first time, she’s entered the world of animation along with fellow actor and friend, Sanjeev Bhaskar, who’s previously been in Paddington 2, The Kumars At No 42, and Unforgotten. They both appear as animated characters in the brand new CBeebies series, Treasure Champs.
“Sanjeev and I have known each other since our boys were small,” Shobna explains. “It’s always a pleasure to work with someone you know as we are relaxed in each other’s company.
In each episode, there’s a traditional story from one of the main world religions. Both actors are providing the voices for comedic, animated figures called Barry and Kari. The series explores values like generosity and honesty aimed at children aged four plus using their lovable characters alongside heart-warming films.
“That’s what appealed to me,” Shobna confesses. “Also, I was able to choose which character I wanted to play.
It’s made by a Manchester-based independent company, Three Arrows Media, which means I’ve been able to work and spend time in my hometown and see my family.”
Shobna, who was raised in Oldham, appeared on the Channel 4 Special, Empire’s Children, tracing her family's history during the partition of India. Her grandfather arrived from Bombay to Oldham where the family became part of the community in which her father was a doctor.
“Growing up in Oldham then was difficult as there was a great deal of racism around, “Shobna admits. “Although now there’s an increased presence of ethnic minorities in the media – much as I would like to say racism has changed dramatically for the better - I’m afraid it still exists in this country today.”
Divorced many years ago, Shobna has raised her 24-year-old son Akshay, who is now following in his mother’s footsteps. He teaches drama in London while studying for a career in theatre and Shobna hopes she’s impressed on him her core values.
“When I was a child, along with my siblings, we were raised with a strict work ethic, which I hope I’ve passed on to Akshay. We’re a family of high achievers. I went to Manchester Metropolitan University and studied drama and dance, as well as various languages, eventually becoming an actor and lecturer."
Perhaps best known for her role as Sunita Alahan, in Coronation Street, Shobna’s now a household name. She’s also one of few actors to have appeared on both Coronation Street and its rival series Eastenders, as Ameena Badawi.
Film seemed a natural progression and Shobna appeared in the BAFTA-winning short film Shadowscan. In 2004, I nominated her for a Manchester Evening News Theatre Award for a wonderful performance in Dancing Within Walls at Contact. Other stage performances were the tour of Girls’ Night and Pretend You Have Big Buildings at the Royal Exchange Theatre.
On television too, Shobna’s appeared on Loose Women among others. She was in Where The Heart Is, New Street Law and Magnolia as well as the revival of Jackanory. When she finally left Coronation Street she wanted to do more comedy. So she appeared at the Royal Albert Hall in The Secret Policeman’s Ball. In a sketch with American actors Chevy Chase and Seth Green, she and co-star Nitin Ganatra are under the mistaken belief Guantanamo Bay is a holiday resort!
“I’ve had the most amazing career which has lasted 32 years so far and afforded me wonderful opportunities,” Shobna reminisces. She’s made her debut as a film-maker, producing the short film Akshay, shortlisted for an award. She’s appeared on programmes as diverse as the BBC’s Celebrity Masterchef and Countdown. In 2016, she appeared in the ITV/Netflix series Paranoid while last year she played Saba in the British romantic comedy film, Finding Fatimah - and she shows no sign of slowing down.
A vocal supporter of Asian women's rights and various anti-racism campaigns, Shobna lectures and works with women’s groups. “I wake each day not knowing what it will bring or where it will take me. I’d no idea I would be voicing an animation and I’ve loved the experience of working on Treasure Champs where you are part of a team and view the world through the eyes of a child again.
“What next? I’ve no idea. I seem to live on trains at the moment. So, as the song says – Wherever I lay my hat - that’s my home!”
Treasure Champs is on CBeebies