Monday , June 24 2024
Sinéad Keenan as DCI Jessica Jones and Sanjeev Bhaskar as DI Sunny Khan (Courtesy of Mainstreet Productions)

TV Interview: Sanjeev Bhaskar on ‘Unforgotten’

PBS Masterpiece fans are likely most familiar with Sanjeev Bhaskar (Yesterday, The Sandman) for his portrayal of DI Sunny Khan on Unforgotten, the hit drama about solving cold cases. When we spoke on Zoom recently to talk about the newest season, I jokingly asked Bhaskar if he always carries a backpack in real life like Sunny does in every Unforgotten episode. The University of Sussex, where the actor serves as Chancellor, would be an ideal place to bring it.

Bhaskar laughed at my suggestion, shaking his head. He said, “How dull is it going to be if a student comes up to me and says, ‘Hey! What have you got in your backpack?’ and they open it but it’s like paper, pencils? They’ll feel so disappointed.”

On University of Sussex Graduations

Since his appointment as Chancellor in 2009, Bhaskar always values his time to connect with students. “I greet, shake hands, hug, and dance with about 5,000 students on graduation week. I meet the families.”

He also listens carefully as names are read out during the ceremony, so he can greet the graduates by name as they walk the stage one by one. Sometimes students use creativity in those personal encounters. “This year, there were more students who wanted to do rock, paper, scissors! I’ve never experienced that before. There were three who did pushups. And I did pushups with two of them.”

With the world shifting to a post-pandemic mindset, Bhaskar reminded this year’s graduating class about engaging in important discussions and supporting each other during any difficult times ahead. And connecting does not equate to agreeing on everything. “Disagreeing after agreeing feels very different to agreeing after disagreeing. I try to find the common areas first. I think we need each other; especially when going through something that’s overwhelming, you lose perspective.”

On Teaming up with Sinéad Keenan

Warning: There are spoilers below about ‘Unforgotten’ Season 4.

Focusing on cold cases, Unforgotten keeps returning to the idea of whether it’s worth spending valuable police resources to investigate those crimes. For Bhaskar, criminality is criminality no matter how far in the past a murder occurred. “You need as much closure as it happened five or 10 years ago as you do if it happened yesterday…The drive for justice no matter the time limit is the spine of the series.”

Photo of Sanjeev Bhaskar standing behind a chair
Sanjeev Bhaskar as DI Sunny Khan (Courtesy of Mainstreet Productions)

Unforgotten fans were shocked when Nicola Walker’s (Annika, Last Tango in Halifax) character, DCI Cassie Stuart, left at the end of Season 4 in a dramatic way. The beloved lead detective was replaced by DCI Jessica Jones, who is played by Sinéad Keenan (Little Boy Blue, Doctor Who). While Jones and Khan clashed repeatedly during their investigation of a body found in a chimney, the new partnership for the actors took on a positive note off-camera.

Bhaskar said, “I contacted Sinéad when I first heard she’d been cast. I said, ‘Congratulations and welcome aboard! Do you want to meet before we start?'”

He actively welcomed Keenan into the fold by Zoom so that she’d have a friend on her first day. It also established their rapport behind the scenes. And the teamwork paid off, with Unforgotten commissioned for a sixth season. He said, “She had the toughest job and I thought she was absolutely fantastic. I’m glad we’re doing it again to see where that relationship goes.” 

On Sunny’s Spiraling

As the fifth season opens, the investigative team is taking Cassie’s death hard nine months on from the car accident. Even though Khan still offers good ideas about their case, the grief is taking its toll on his life and relationships. Bhaskar said, “It hits him in the job and personal life. He felt appreciated by Cassie. You never know what you’ve got until it’s gone. He’s having real difficulty in keeping it together.”

Photo of Carolina Main looking at a laptop as Sanjeev Bhaskar stoops to look at her laptop screen
Carolina Main as DC Fran Lingley and Sanjeev Bhaskar as DI Sunny Khan (Courtesy of Mainstreet Productions)

Khan engages in crucial conversations with his coworkers, DC Fran Lingley (Carolina Main) and pathologist Dr. Leanne Balcombe (Georgia Mackenzie). “He’s very lucky in having work colleagues he can do that with. He can do that better with them than his partner.”

Bhaskar commended creator and writer Chris Lang for the emotional honesty in the scripts. “It was quite a bold decision for him to put Sunny in what he felt the audience might be going through as well. It’s a strange thing when you feel grief for a fictional character, but you do feel it because you become close to them.”

On Friendship with Richard E. Grant

In his personal life, Bhaskar witnessed grief in a powerful way with actor Richard E. Grant (The Lesson, Can You Ever Forgive Me?), his friend of 25 years. Grant’s wife, Joan Washington, passed away from lung cancer two years ago this September. Bhaskar has read his friend’s memoir, A Pocketful of Happiness, which details Washington’s charge to Grant to find happiness after her death.

He said, “Joan was an extraordinary person in her own right. She and Richard were a team, so Richard has been going through real-life grief.”

Bhaskar and his family saw Grant two or three times in the last year and offered support to him in other exchanges. He recognized that as anyone would, at times Grant struggled with the newfound daily goal. “But he absolutely kept to his word and has looked for happiness with every day and week since. His book is really beautiful because he’s incredibly honest.”

“Getting a handle on your own grief is really hard because it’s so overwhelming. I think the fact he was able to do that and put it down to paper is extraordinary.”

Photo of Sanjeev Bhaskar

On DI Khan vs. Mrs. Sidhu

To end on a light note: Bhaskar is not the only actor in his family with a detective TV series out in September. His wife, Meera Syal (The Kumars at No. 42, The Split), stars in a new comedy called Mrs. Sidhu Investigates. He listened to the radio version when it aired on BBC Radio 4 from 2017 to 2019, and he’s looking forward to watching the TV series.

I asked Bhaskar how DI Khan would fare against high-end caterer Mrs. Sidhu in solving crimes. He said, “She’s a part-time detective so she wouldn’t know the law as well as Sunny would. Crucially, the real difference is she doesn’t have a backpack.” 

Then he smiled. “She’s my wife. I’m going to have to say she wins, right? I want to eat tonight.”

We’ll have to ask Meera Syal for her thoughts someday.

After you watch the Unforgotten trailer, visit the PBS Masterpiece website for more tidbits from Sinéad Keenan and Sanjeev Bhaskar about the fifth season.

About Pat Cuadros

Pat Cuadros is Pop Culture Editor for Blogcritics Magazine. She frequently covers TV, film and theater. Her portfolio includes interviews with Ndaba Mandela and actors Juliette Binoche, Fran Drescher, Derek Jacobi and Brent Spiner. She's also spoken with notable voice actors Petrea Burchard, Garry Chalk, Peter Cullen and Brian Drummond.

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