Big interview: Shobna Gulati
As Shobna Gulati bows out as Corrie’s Sunita this week, she told SUSAN GRIFFIN why she wants a new life after years on Britain’s most famous Street.
Unlike her previous “departure” from Coronation Street, this time there will be no way back for actress Shobna Gulati.
Seven years ago Gulati waved goodbye to the famous cobbled stones as she began a two-year hiatus from the soap. But now her character Sunita Alahan can never return - because she’s leaving in a body bag.
In one of the soap’s most dramatic storylines, Sunita will fall unconscious in the basement of the Rovers Return while the iconic pub goes up in flames. Gulati admits: “It was hard to watch the inside of the pub burning with Betty’s picture in flames, and all those memories.”
While a stuntwoman was on hand at all times, the actress chose to embrace all the inferno scenes - bar the moment Sunita falls down the stairs. She says: “The heat was horrific. I could feel the burn beginning, it was so hot. But I just thought this is the last time viewers are going to see me as Sunita, so you might as well see my face and not the back of the stunt double.”
And how did she unwind at the end of the day? “Gin and tonic,” quips Gulati without missing a beat.
She has never had a near-death experience. “Touch wood,” she says. “But the funny thing was though when I came out after shooting the scenes, I sat in the car with the driver and I cried. I just thought how horrific if you were to be in that situation, in an accident or in a disaster.”
Gulati wasn’t shocked when told Sunita would be killed off. She recalls: “I said, ‘OK’. I’ve reached a point in my life where I don’t want to come back. Is that a terrible thing to say?.”
She still looks disarmingly young for a woman of 46 and jokes the key is to “go out with younger men” - a reference to the fact she’s dating TV runner Anthony Brown, 29.
Asked if it’s serious, she ducks the question. “Nothing’s serious in life. If you take it too seriously you get into trouble, don’t you? I mean look at Sunita, flippin’ ‘eck.
“I’m just quite happy, generally speaking. Look at my hat. I’m a happy-go-lucky girl.”
Gulati’s also mother to an 18-year-old son called Akshay, and the fact that he’s almost flown the nest was a big part of her decision to leave the show.
“Corrie has been invaluable to me bringing my son up over the years but now it’s time to spread my wings,” says Oldham-born Gulati, who joined the soap in 2001.
Akshay’s a budding actor - she proudly shows some footage of him singing in an upcoming production of Phantom Of The Opera - and has already appeared in Corrie.
“He was Dev’s non-speaking nephew at my wedding. He was the only person brave enough to get on the horse,” she laughs.
She wasn’t concerned that he wanted to follow in such a treacherous industry. “I want him to be a doctor,” jokes Gulati, putting on an Indian accent. “But no, he’s born that way.”
As a single parent, she recalls taking part in a Bollywood production when she was pregnant, and when he was a baby she would strap him onto her front while teaching dance classes.
“Then when he got older, he used to sit there in a bouncing chair, watching. I’ve never really pushed him. What I thought all my life is whatever he chooses, I’m there [for him].”
Gulati is filming her final Coronation Street scenes a few days after our chat and she admits it’s been an emotional few weeks. “Tears have come quickly because you’re in a space with your colleagues, some of whom are your friends, and you think, ‘Oh I’ll miss working with you’,” she says.
They include Jimmi Harkishin, who plays her on-and-off again screen partner Dev. “I liked falling in love with Dev in the corner shop. I thought it was cute. And that wasn’t like a big story, it just happened,” says the actress.
“I’ve known Jimmi a long time. We’re not friends outside but when we’re together we know exactly how we’re going to be together and that’s very rare and very special and I’ll miss that.
“Dev’s been the closest person [to Sunita] from the beginning right to the end.”
She laughs as she recounts Sunita’s numerous conquests, saying: “At one point she was quite the one, she even had more than Tracy Barlow.”
But Gulati says she’s enjoyed portraying Sunita’s evolution to Street vixen. “She’s been bringing her children up [her twins with Dev] and I don’t think she’s discovered her own sexuality, so she’s discovering herself again as a woman.
“The reaction from the female fans has been, ‘Go for it! What’s she been reading? Fifty Shades Of Grey!’” says Gulati. “I think she has - she’s having a little revolution herself.”
One of her former flames is pub landlady Stella’s ex, Karl (played by John Michie), with whom Sunita embarked on a steamy affair. The storyline caused outrage among some fans who blurred fact with fiction and began a campaign of abuse on Twitter.
“It was very offensive trolling and now I have a tweet administrator who actually takes the trolls off, so I don’t even see,” says Gulati.
“It’s not water off a duck’s back. I’m very sensitive, and I always will be. I don’t want to be hard, so it upsets you.”
Looking back on Sunita’s fling with Karl, she says: “You know how women get sex and love confused? That’s what she did. It was sex, sex, sex and then she thought, ‘Oh God, I think I love him’. It’s natural and when he rejects her it’s awful.”
Sunita’s glamorous makeover in recent years prompted a public reaction of a different kind: speculation as to whether Gulati had undergone breast enlargement.
“In a camera situation, you’re shot there [she says drawing an imaginary line across her chest] so if you wear a top that goes over your breasts without being fitted you look fat, you look mumsy.
“Suddenly she went into hourglass. It was quite good fun but at the same time I had to think what I was eating the night before for the first time.”
Following Sunita’s demise, Gulati has already lined up a new project and is ready to join Carol McGiffin and Carol Vorderman on the panel of Loose Women.