Asim Chaudhry: ‘Rishi Sunak is not representing us. Neither is Priti Patel. They do not have empathy’

·10 min read
‘I never get cast as the bad guy. Everyone says I have a nice guy face’  (Picture credit: Dominic Marley)
‘I never get cast as the bad guy. Everyone says I have a nice guy face’ (Picture credit: Dominic Marley)

Asim Chaudhry is wincing, groaning, recoiling. I haven’t done anything horrible to him – he’s just thinking about the worst impressions he’s heard of Chabuddy G, the comedy creation who stole scenes in the hit BBC mockumentary People Just Do Nothing and earned Chaudhry two Bafta nominations. Chabuddy G is a hugely ambitious yet inept Pakistani entrepreneur who runs several businesses including an internet café, a champagne steam room, and the pirate radio station at the centre of the show, Kurupt FM. Fans love him. And they love to try to be him.

“In my opinion, if you do an accent well, it can never be racist,” says Chaudhry. “I’ve had white guys come up to me and do brilliant Chabuddy G accents, and what that says to me is they’ve taken the time to research this role, there’s a level of respect there, of detail. But I’ve also had people come up to me and be like” – he puts on a squeaky, OTT Asian voice – “‘I’m Chabuddy G!’ and I’m like, ‘Oh my god. Stop.’ Chabuddy’s accent isn’t just Pakistani. It’s Patois, there’s Del Boy in it, it’s really how people from Hounslow [in west London] talk. If you can recognise those nuances, that’s amazing. I’ll never get angry if someone does a good accent – even an average one is fine – it’s just when someone does one of those ones, I’m like, ‘STOP!!!’”

The 35-year-old is on video call from an apartment in Oslo, where he’s filming an adaptation of Gulraiz Sharif’s bestselling Norwegian novel Listen Up! – he plays the uncle of a second-generation Pakistani boy in the city. Chaudhry likes Oslo, even if “you have to be a millionaire to go out here”, but he’s missing home. “When you’re away for work and you look back at what’s going on at home, it’s like, this is what it would be like if I died,” he says. “Life would just go on. I’m looking at Instagram like, ‘You f***ers, you’re coping, aren’t you?’” He lives in Ealing with his fiancée, just a few miles from where he grew up in Hounslow. “I like to be close to my people – but not that close,” he says, smiling. “Otherwise I get everyone from school coming up to me like, ‘Ah bruv, you’re famous! Get me involved!’ I’m like, ‘Involved in what? Are you an actor? A writer?’ They go, ‘I don’t know bruv, I’ll do anything! Security!’” He erupts in laughter. “I don’t need security.”

Chaudhry is proudly sporting a black and purple Newcastle football shirt. His head is shaved but he’s grown a moustache for the Norwegian film, which he can’t resist giving one ironic stroke. A smile is often dancing on his lips, and there’s a profound gentleness to him that is oddly comforting even through the screen.

We’re here to talk about The Sandman – the very expensive fantasy epic based on Neil Gaiman’s comics, out this week on Netflix – in which Chaudhry plays Abel, a man who is constantly melting down over the cuteness of baby gargoyles. When we first meet him in the show, he’s telling off his pet gargoyle who’s running around on the roof of his house. “Gregory, come down from there right now,” he says, struggling to be stern. “You’re going to slip and hurt yourself.” Chaudhry had initially auditioned to play Abel’s murderous brother, Cain, but he just looked too damn sweet. “I was trying my best mean face,” says Chaudhry. “But I never get cast as the bad guy. Everyone says I have a nice guy face.” He is also the spit of Abel in Gaiman’s original comics: all wide eyes and jet black beard. “My ego was so out of control I thought Netflix had illustrated me as Abel for promotion,” he says. “Then I realised that is literally how he looks.”

The role of Cain eventually went to Sanjeev Bhaskar, whom Chaudhry had grown up watching on the Nineties sketch show Goodness Gracious Me. “He’s a comedy hero of mine,” says Chaudhry. “Growing up, there weren’t many people on TV who looked like me – apart from the odd shopkeeper and the odd dodgy, racist joke in a sitcom. But watching Goodness Gracious Me, it was like, wow, this is what you call representation – a brilliantly funny sitcom, written by Asians.” He points to the role-reversal sketch, about an Indian family “going for an English” and ordering the blandest thing on the menu, as one of his favourites. “It was a change,” he says. “It wasn’t just British white people laughing at Asians because they speak funny. Working with Sanjeev was amazing and I told him all these things. And he was like, ‘But you’re that for your generation!’ I felt proud. I thought, this is what hard work can get you, you get to work with your heroes.”

Baby gargoyle Goldie and Asim Chaudhry’s Abel in ‘The Sandman’ (Netflix)
Baby gargoyle Goldie and Asim Chaudhry’s Abel in ‘The Sandman’ (Netflix)

Chaudhry has been working hard. In the last few years, he’s starred opposite Stephen Merchant in the hilarious Christmas comedy Click & Collect as a nightmare neighbour and agent of chaos. He also popped up in Steve Coogan’s wealth satire Greed, as a character pleasingly named “Frank the Lion Tamer”, played a software company boss in the famous “Bandersnatch” episode of Charlie Brooker’s dystopian masterpiece Black Mirror, and appeared in the superhero blockbuster Wonder Woman 1984 as a museum worker called Roger.

But the character he’ll always be synonymous with is Chabuddy G – and his most famous line: “People ask what does the ‘G’ stand for. I tell them: Gucci, Girls, Girth.” Chabuddy even has his own book: How to Be a Man. The tagline? “Eat like me, dress like me, love like me, smell like me.”

Chaudhry didn’t have to look far for inspiration when it came to Chabuddy G. “My dad was a wheeler-dealer – he still is. He had an internet café – it was called Global Communications and it had two little s*** computers. He had a minicab office. He had an Indian takeaway. He had an Italian restaurant, but only for six months because all the chefs were Indian. Their garlic bread, I swear to God, was a poppadom with garlic paste on it. I was like, ‘Dad, just call it fusion.’ He was like, ‘No! It’s Italian, authentic.’ He’s a sweet man, an eternal optimist like Chabuddy, and an absolute charmer.” Chaudhry’s dad knows everyone. When Chaudhry was walking down a road in Oslo the other day, a Pakistani man selling mangoes approached him and told him he knew his dad. It turned out he’d sold him mangoes 20 years earlier. “My dad probably told him I was there,” says Chaudhry. “He is so proud. He goes up to people and asks, ‘Do you know Chabuddy G? It’s my son!’”

He laughs. “The best thing is my dad thinks Chabuddy is a really great guy. He doesn’t see the deluded part. He’s like, ‘What do you mean? He’s a smart guy! A businessman!’” Would Chaudhry ever do a TV show with his dad? “We were ready to do it… we had the perfect pitch for it: Meet the real Chabuddy G. But I don’t know, I don’t want anything to affect our personal relationship. Maybe in the future. He goes on about it all the time.”

Chaudhry’s wheeler dealer Chabuddy G in ‘People Just Do Nothing’ (BBC)
Chaudhry’s wheeler dealer Chabuddy G in ‘People Just Do Nothing’ (BBC)

When Chaudhry met his People Just Do Nothing co-creators – Allan Mustafa, Hugo Chegwin, and Steve Stamp – at college in London, they were all making music. And Chaudhry had been a battle rapper during his secondary school days. During lockdown, he decided to go back to his “roots” and released a hip-hop track examining the British-Asian experience, “Brown Skin (Drown Him)”. “I thought it would be a good eye-opener for some people,” he says. “I went to a school that was probably 85 per cent South Asian and we knew nothing about our past.”

In the song, Chaudhry raps about the “f***ery” of the “muggy Tories”. He also tweets about them a lot. What does he think of them destroying each other from within these past few weeks, in the leadership contest? “If I was a petty man, I would be laughing,” he says. “But really I just feel quite sad. I feel for us as the British public, as taxpayers. We are a laughing stock. In Norway, people call Boris the clown. But he’s our leader – the person making the biggest decisions that affect our lives. There’s such a lack of empathy in British politics. And with Rishi Sunak, I don’t think he’ll win but, if you told me 25 years ago that there could be an Asian prime minister, I’d be like, ‘You’re smoking crack.’ But this doesn’t feel like the same thing. It’s not representation. Because he’s not representing us. Priti Patel doesn’t represent us. They do not have empathy. They’re not the people I want my children to look up to. The way they got there, through the lies, the horrible behaviour, the bullying. That’s not how you win, not how you get on top.”

Elsewhere in the song, Chaudhry raps: “That’s where they found him/ Face down/ Laid out with the brown skin/ That’s how they clowned him.” He says now that, for years, he felt afraid because of the colour of his skin – something that was intensified when, in the wake of the 7/7 attacks in London, Brazilian electrician Jean Charles de Menezes was shot to death by police who wrongly suspected him of being a terrorist. “There was a lot of police presence after the attacks and it was really intimidating,” says Chaudhry. “It probably makes other people feel safe, but for me, someone who looks like the enemy, what happens if I’m running for my train because I’m late? Am I going to get shot and killed? It was a really scary time.”

Chaudhry and Stephen Merchant as mismatched neighbours in ‘Click & Collect’ (BBC)
Chaudhry and Stephen Merchant as mismatched neighbours in ‘Click & Collect’ (BBC)

Around that time, Chaudhry was on a London bus. “I had a bag and I was sweaty and I had a big beard,” he says. “This woman was there and she was not moving, looking at my bag, looking at me. It made me feel like a terrorist.” When he reached into his bag to get something, she flinched. “It was ridiculous,” he says, “but it wasn’t just her. I could feel the awkward energy on the whole bus. It really made me feel like just getting off and walking. I was just a teenager but very quickly I got used to being treated like that. Things have changed a bit now. We understand about stereotyping and profiling, but it’s still there. I’ve only known a post-9/11 world as an adult. I’ve only known looking like the guy you should be scared of. It’s traumatic. It really stays with you, that feeling of, ‘Oh, I’m this weird, dangerous person everyone.’ Actually, I’m just a normal person, like you.”

“Now, if people are staring, it’s more for Chabuddy.” He laughs in disbelief at how the perception of him has flipped. “They’re staring because they want a picture. Good stuff to unpack with my therapist.”

‘The Sandman’ is out on Netflix on Friday 5 August