Grab an icepick, start climbing the ladder: Nina Wadia on breaking through & giving back to society

Grab an icepick, start climbing the ladder: Nina Wadia on breaking through & giving back to society

Nina Wadia, who rose to fame in the 1990s with the iconic comedy sketch show ‘Goodness Gracious Me’, received an OBE for contributions to entertainment and charity in the Queen's New Year’s Honours List 2021.

'iGlobal' caught up with the former ‘EastEnders’ star to hear about her life and achievements, and how she came to be one of the most pioneering Global Indians on British television, inspiring millions around the world to pursue careers in acting and comedy.

In this exclusive interview, Nina shares anecdotes of her rise in the industry and some guidance for aspiring artistes and changemakers who hope to break through the glass ceiling in entertainment.

Dare to dream

Nina was born into a Parsi family in a humble one-bedroom flat in the Dadar Parsi Colony in Bombay. It was a pleasant arrangement, but at the age of nine, her parents packed them all up to start a brand-new life in Hong Kong. They opened an Indian restaurant on Wyndham Street called ‘Ashoka’. It is in China that Nina made her first fast friends, whom she is still very close with today.

From learning classical Indian dance as a child, her passion for performing continued long into her teenage years. Unsurprisingly, the ‘Vyjayanthimala Bharatanatyam School’ that she attended in Bombay did not have a Chinese branch for her to transfer to, so she took up tap dancing instead.

Her love of dance turned to acting when she had the opportunity to bring one of her writing sketches to life in college. “It was the biggest buzz I’d ever had in my life. Even though I had no experience in acting, I did it and I had such a blast doing it.”

Much to her mother’s dismay, she decided there and then, that she was going to be an actor. After roping in reinforcements in the form of her brother to convince her mother of her choice in career, she came to the UK to attend drama school. “I loved Shakespeare, and so there was no contest between the UK and US about where to study. I needed to be in the home of classical theatre.”

Unpredictable industry

In the early 1990s, Nina moved to Sutton, south London, and attended a small theatre school in Richmond. Despite having already lived in the UK in the 1950s and returning to India less than enamored by the cold weather and tough conditions, her parents followed her to the UK to support her during her studies.

In an ironically dramatic turn of events, the director of the school ran away with the students’ fees and Nina’s mother seized the opportunity to warn her against pursuing a career in a “rough industry”. Yet, Nina took it in her stride and decided to use it as ammunition to succeed. “If the worst of it had already happened, it meant that the good things were yet to come.”

In an unlikely extension of generosity, Barbara Buckmaster, who ran a theatre school in Wandsworth, took two students on from Nina’s cohort to mentor through acting. Nina was one of them, and during her time with Barbara, she started to audition for roles.

Nina wrote to all the acting agents on the back of the ‘Stage’ newspaper, as was common practice then. She received one response. Sue Hammer, now Swami Satvikananda, became Nina’s agent and confidant for the formative years of her entry into the entertainment industry.

D’Yer Eat with Your Fingers?

For six years, Nina trained diligently in her craft and bounced between English and Indian theatre. At Stratford East, she played a Sindhi girl in a production with Tamasha Theatre Company, and worked years later with Mark Rylance. Philip Hedley, the Artistic Director encouraged Nina and Mark to write together. Following a funny incident in a local Indian restaurant where all diners on the table, bar Nina, were offered cutlery, she went on to co-write a comedy production called ‘D’Yer Eat with Your Fingers?’ “I asked the waiter, “Mujhe kyun nahin diya? (why didn’t you give me cutlery?)” and he replied: “You?! You eat with your fingers!”

It was around this time that Nina and Sanjeev Bhaskar’s paths crossed. Despite having lived just down the road from each other in Hounslow, west London, for many years, they met all the way on the other side of London, where he approached her with an opportunity to audition for a new show with the BBC. Their work in earlier versions of ‘Goodness Gracious Me’ with Nithin Sawhaney were scouted by the team behind ‘The Real McCoy’, and before long, GGM became a national blockbuster and they were labeled “role models” by avid fans across the UK.

“I was visiting my sister in Alberta, Calgary, in Canada, where I met my husband for the first time. I told him I was an actress, and he asked me if I was famous. I laughed and said no, but when I returned to the UK after that trip, I walked along Oxford Street and people were calling my name. It was so surreal!”

Embrace of the underdog

“We had no idea how big ‘Goodness Gracious Me’ would get. We were just happy for it to be appreciated by the Indian, Pakistani and Parsi community, but the British really embraced us too.

“There is a great sense of supporting the underdog in the British mindset, and I think they appreciated that we left no stone unturned – we made fun of everyone, but we did it with positivity and love.”

Nina describes comedy as a “universal language”, which has allowed her, over the years, to convey serious messages in a palatable way. During lockdown, she created an online skit on her Instagram page called “Lockdown Mutha” which allows her to vent her frustrations about being trapped in a house with two teenagers through humour.

“In ‘Goodness Gracious Me’, we wanted to share our experiences. If you listen to what we’re doing in the ‘Going for an English’ sketch, we’re turning the narrative on its head. We didn’t know how ahead of our time we were, and it’s for this reason that British viewers embraced us.”

Maternity leave to Mrs Masood

After finishing the iconic GGM in 2001, Nina went back to back working on sitcoms. She played roles in ‘Perfect World’, ‘Chambers’, ‘All About Me’, ‘Vagina Monologues’ and many more before she fell pregnant with her second child.

It was six months after her father had told her to try out for “that show about east London that all [my] friends watch” that the casting director of ‘EastEnders’ got in touch with a proposal for the perfect role for her on Albert Square. In a laughable misunderstanding with her agent, the executive producer hadn’t been informed that Nina was eight months pregnant and therefore unsuitable for the immediate start that they’d hoped for. “I turned up to meet him and we both looked at each other like “Uh oh!””.

Much to her surprise, ‘EastEnders’ were keen to introduce Zainab Masood to the Square, and waited until Nina was ready.

When her son was just six weeks old, the BBC provided her with a nanny and dressing room to breastfeed in, and rushed her onto set for her inimitable and iconic performance of Mrs Masood.

“I wanted to stay for six months, and I ended up staying for six years.”

Charity and giving back

Nina’s roaring success in acting has led her into acting opportunities all over the world, winning critical acclaim as a global comedy pioneer. However, she is not celebrated solely for her creative talents, but also her tireless dedication to charity.

“Success was never about money for me, or anyone in my family. We started with very little, but we knew how to make the most of it. It’s taken a global pandemic for most people to understand the value of family, but for me, it’s a general Parsi thing, to know that community is more important than anything else, so when it came to any opportunity to give back, it was within us to do so.”

Nina currently works with many global, national and local charities, including Kidney Research UK, The Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation (JDRF), Barnardo’s, Education Saves Lives and Binti Period. “Whatever charity comes my way; I try my best to support.”

As a lifetime commitment, Nina contributes to the upkeep of the orphanage which took care of her father as a child, in Pune, India. For the same reason, she works with Barnardo’s in the UK, who upskill children who have had difficult upbringings to give them fairer opportunities in life.

After losing her mother to a polycystic kidney condition, Nina advocates for raising awareness among the south Asian community. She also opened dialysis units in Leicester and Ashford, Middlesex, and fought for TVs to be attached to the end of the beds, as it’s a hugely unpleasant experience for patients who have to have their blood dialysed for hours at a time, multiple times a week.

Three years ago, Nina’s son was diagnosed with type one diabetes. With hope of a cure in reach, Nina works with JDRF to do all she can to help find it. “The only way I could reconcile my son having type one was doing something about it. I’ll be honest, when he was first diagnosed, I wanted to run away as far away as possible. I felt it was so unfair. But then I thought maybe it has come to my family because I am someone who can do something about it.”

A big inspiration

A big inspiration to Nina was Helen Taylor Thompson, who founded the Education Saves Lives charity, which worked on a campaign to educate rural communities in Africa and India. “She was a phenomenal women with an amazing idea.”

Helen’s idea was to record videos on mobile devices and place them in shipping containers, which were dropped in the middle of villages in India and Africa. The videos were recorded in local languages and contained guidance for children and young women from these impoverished communities about basic hygiene and their rights. “I recorded them in as many languages as I know to support the campaign.”

“Helen once told me a story about a little girl who went on a quest to save starfish. The girl was criticised for her naivety and told that she won’t be able to save them all. The little girl replied, “That doesn’t matter. What matters are the ones I’m able to save,” and this was Helen’s approach to life and helping people. If I could be half the woman that she was, I’ll be able to rest happy.”

Her Majesty’s recognition

“Having an honour to put after my name will give these charities a much-deserved boost, and that’s exactly what I intend to use if for.”

Nina has been inundated with warm wishes from loved ones in response to her OBE. “The only heartbreaking thing is that my parents were not around to see it. Everyone says, ‘they’re still with you and they see it all’, but I just wish I had that moment to go to them and say, ‘You’re not going to believe this one!’”

She shared the story behind the phone call she received from the Cabinet Office on her 52nd birthday to inform her of her recognition. She very rudely told them to go away, assuming that it was a prank!

“Then, a few minutes go by and they call again and I’m thinking ‘this is a persistent prank caller’, and he says: ‘I really am calling from the Cabinet Office. You can look the number up on the internet if you’re suspicious…’ I couldn’t believe it!”

It’s a real marriage

“I know they always say the woman is the power behind the man, but my husband truly is the power behind me, and there are plenty of husbands who return the favour. He's my biggest champion!" Nina married her holiday romance and musical composer Raiomond Mirza in 1998, and they live together in west London, with their two teenage children.

"It's a real marriage, we fight like hell, but there's a genuine equality in my marriage which is something I've always fought for with women.”

Nina told us about her daughter’s aspiration to become a fashion designer. “More than anything, we’ve always wanted our daughter to be independent and self-sufficient. We’ll do whatever it is we can to make her dream happen for her.

“Our son wants to be a stand-up comic, so I suppose we’ve had to come to terms with the fact that there will never be any money coming into the house.”

Only way to progress

Nina is an avid fan of today’s rising stars, including Humza Productions and Isla, who both approached her when they were starting out. “It comes down to material… If it’s good, I’ll do it. It’s important to support the next generation. The new guys have it in them to make real change happen.”

“More progress needs to be made when it comes to diversity in television and entertainment, but it gets easier with each generation. There are so many other mediums and access points now. If nothing else, I hope ‘Goodness Gracious Me’ gave people the confidence to pursue creative careers.”

Nina’s five top tips for upcoming artists and changemakers:

  1. “Grab an icepick and start climbing the ladder. I’m sanguine about the process now. Yes, there is a glass ceiling, but you take your time and you chip away at wherever it is that you want to get to.”

  1. “If you’re serious about a career in acting, train! A lot of people think they can get away with being a one-hit wonder on Instagram, but the harsh reality is, what my mum told me, “put on a five-year plan. If in five years, you haven’t reached your goal, re-evaluate.”

  1. “There's a difference between being ambitious and persistent, and just being stubborn and expecting the world to put everything at your feet.”

  1. “Also, have one other string to your bow. If you want to be a writer, also be a performer. If you want to be a dancer, also try and sing. Have one other thing you can do as that really helps in this profession because it's tough.”

  1. “And don't be discouraged by the pandemic. There are more productions happening now than ever before so get out there as fast as you can!”

*Catch up on Nina Wadia OBEs ‘Lockdown Mutha’ here

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