Q&A with the creative minds behind The Boy With The Topknot
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Times journalist Sathnam Sanghera’s landmark autobiographical novel “The Boy with the Topknot” has been adapted for television, and airs on BBC Two tonight.
We were lucky enough to attend an early screening at the BFI, and listen in to a Q&A with Sanghera himself, alongside lead actor Sacha Dhawan, director Lynsey Miller, producer Nisha Parti, and screenwriter Mick Ford. Here’s what they had to say:
Photo Credit: Meera Syal
Sathnam, what’s it like to see your life on the big screen in front of an audience?
Sathnam: Weirdest night of my life… These are the most painful things that ever happened to you, and you're watching it, which is painful, and then everyone else is watching you watch it. And also I’m sitting next to someone who’s much better looking than I am, which is awkward. Yeah, it’s really intense, but I’m so pleased with it, and very grateful to Lynsey and Nisha for doing such a compassionate, brilliant job with it. And Sacha, you’re alright too.
Nisha, you must get so many manuscripts, so many books that you read - what was it about Sathnam’s book that made you want to turn it into a TV film?
Nisha: It was a while ago actually, I was just looking at it last week - it was 2009 when I optioned the book. My brother recommended it to me, and I read it, and you know it was really … growing up, I always saw the same stereotypical stories about Indian families on TV, and this was so beautifully written and about a family where its complicated, and I resonated with it so much, because second generation Indians have moved so far away from how their parents were raised, and that spoke to me. But it was just one of the most beautifully written things that I’d read, and a lot of people wanted it, so it was quite tough…
Lynsey: The challenge really was how do you take a memoir, a book with so much detail, that’s so beautiful, and so tenderly written, how do you then decide what to keep in and what to leave out to turn it into a 90 minute film?
Mick: I think everybody on the film had read the book, and had so many things that they wish had been in the film that we just couldn’t use - there is just so much there. I think the challenge was… the book zips all over the place, in time and place, and it becomes investigative sometimes, and I knew that, just instinctively, it had to be a linear story.
So it was a case of simplifying. It’s weird, when you adapt a book, you start working very closely with it, and you move away, away, away from it, so by the end you’re not looking at the book at all.
Nisha: Sathnam mainly trusted Mick and I to just go away and do the script. And it wasn’t until the BBC green-lit it that he actually read it.
Sathnam: Yeah, the BBC asked me for a quote, and my quote went along the lines of “I’m very glad it’s been green-lit — I haven't read the script yet…” And maybe that’s because it’s so painful, but it sat in my desk for months.
Lynsey, how much did you have to embed yourself in the world of Punjabi families before you could direct something like that?
Lynsey: Its what attracted me to the project in the first place: I’m from a very working class background, I was the first one to go to university, the first one to move away, the first one to work in an industry like this, so there’s a threat that runs through it: Sathnam saying he lives in two different worlds, and really that’s what I connected with.
I must say, what an amazing cast. Because for those of you who don’t know, Sacha’s mum and dad are played by some of India’s finest actors: Deepti Navan and Anupam Kher. What a gift as an actor, but also what a gift for this British-Asian character, to have parents played by actors from India.
Sacha: Yeah! I read the book, I thought I’d swot up before the audition, but then I let go of the thought of auditioning because I was so caught up in it. I was so proud that someone had written... about his own family, obviously, but also about my family. There were so many things that I could relate to. And then the script came along and the audition, and I turned down the audition because I was too scared. I’m so used to playing characters that are so different from me, but this was so close to home, I just thought “I don’t think I can do it.”
It was actually my girlfriend who said “You turned it down, but you keep talking about it. You’re scared, which is why maybe this is the project you should do.”
What was so great is that Nisha and Lynsey were so careful to make sure it would represent not only Sathnam’s story, but also so many Sikh Punjabi families, or Hindu Punjabi like myself, so when I got to set, the amount of work they put into it was amazing. It felt effortless, and it felt effortless because it was right.
The Boy with the Topknot airs tonight at 9pm on BBC Two.