Asim Chaudhry cringes, groans, retreats. I haven’t done anything terrible to him – he’s just thinking about the worst impressions he’s heard of Chabuddy G, the comedian who stole scenes in the popular BBC mockumentary People just do nothing and earned Chaudhry two Bafta nominations. Chabuddy G is a hugely ambitious but inept Pakistani entrepreneur who runs several businesses, including an internet cafe, a champagne steam room and the pirate radio station at the center of the show, Kurupt FM. Fans love him. And they love trying 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 tells me is that 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 recognize these nuances, that’s amazing. I will never get mad if someone does a good accent – even an average one is good – it’s only when someone does one of the they, I say “STOP!!!”
The 35-year-old is on a video call from an apartment in Oslo, where he is filming an adaptation of Gulraiz Sharif’s best-selling Norwegian novel Listen up! – he plays the uncle of a second-generation Pakistani boy in the city. Chaudhry likes Oslo, although “you have to be a millionaire to go out here”, but he misses home. “When you’re away at work and you look back at what’s going on at home, it’s like, that’s what it would be like if I died,” he says. “Life just wanted to go on. I look at Instagram like, ‘You bastards, you’re dealing with it, 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 too close,” he says, smiling. “Otherwise I get everyone from school coming up to me like, ‘Ah bruv, you’re famous! Get involved! I’m like, ‘Involved in what? Are you an actor? A writer?’ They say, ‘I don’t know bro, I’ll do anything! Security!'” He bursts out laughing. “I don’t need security.”
Chaudhry proudly wears a black and purple Newcastle football shirt. His head is shaved, but he has grown a mustache for the Norwegian film, which he cannot resist giving an ironic punch. A smile often dances on his lips, and there’s a deep gentleness about him that’s strangely comforting even through the screen.
We’re here to talk about The Sandman — the wildly expensive fantasy epic based on Neil Gaiman’s comics, out this week on Netflix — in which Chaudhry plays Abel, a man who constantly melts over the cuteness of baby gargoyles. When we first meet him in the show, he is talking about his pet gargoyle running around on the roof of his house. “Gregory, get down there right now,” he says, struggling to be stern. “You’re going to slip and hurt yourself.” Chaudhry had originally auditioned to play Abel’s murderous brother, Cain, but he just looked too cute. “I tried my best mean face,” says Chaudhry. “But I’m never cast as the bad guy. Everyone says I have a pretty face.” He’s also the spitting image of Abel in Gaiman’s original comics: big eyes and jet-black beard. “My ego was so out of control that I thought Netflix had illustrated me as Abel for promotion,” he says. “Then I realized it’s literally the way he looks.”
The role of Cain eventually went to Sanjeev Bhaskar, whom Chaudhry had grown up watching on the nineties sketch show Goodness have mercy on 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 weird, tough, racist joke on a sitcom. But watch Goodness have mercy on 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 that “goes for an Englishman” and orders the most boring thing on the menu, as one of his favorites. “It was a change,” he says. “It wasn’t just British white people who laughed at Asians because they talk funny. Working with Sanjeev was amazing and I told him all these things. And he said: ‘But you are for your generation!’ I felt proud. I thought, this is what hard work can get you, you get to work with your heroes.”
Chaudhry has worked hard. In recent years he has starred opposite Stephen Merchant in the hilarious Christmas comedy Click and download as a nightmare neighbor and agent of chaos. He also appeared in Steve Coogan’s wealth satire Greedas a character pleasantly named “Frank the Lion Tamer”, played a software company executive 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 will always be synonymous with is Chabuddy G – and his most famous line: “People ask what the ‘G’ stands for.” I tell them: Gucci, Girls, Girth.” Chabuddy even has his own book: How to be a man. The slogan? “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 father was a wheeler-dealer – he still is. He had an internet cafe – it was called Global Communications and it had two little bloody computers. He had a mini car 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 thought, “Dad, just call it fusion.” He said, ‘No! It’s Italian, authentic. He is a sweet man, an eternal optimist like Chabuddy, and an absolute charmer.” Chaudhry’s father knows everyone. When Chaudhry was walking down a road in Oslo the other day, a Pakistani man selling mangoes came up to him and told him that he knew his father. It turned out that he had sold mangoes to him 20 years earlier. “My father probably told him I was there,” says Chaudhry. “He is so proud. He goes up to people and asks, ‘Do you know Chabuddy G? That’s my son!'”
He’s laughing. “The best part is that my dad thinks Chabuddy is a really great guy. He doesn’t see the deluded part. He says, ‘What do you mean? He’s a smart guy! A businessman!’” Would Chaudhry ever do a TV show with his father? “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’s going ahead with it all the time.”
When Chaudhry met his People just do nothing the co-creators – Allan Mustafa, Hugo Chegwin and Steve Stamp – at college in London, they all made music. And Chaudhry had been a battle rapper during middle school. During lockdown, he decided to return to his “roots” and released a hip-hop track exploring 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 percent South Asian, and we didn’t know anything about our past.”
In the song, Chaudhry raps about the “f***ery” of the “wet Tories”. He also tweets a lot about them. What does he think of them destroying each other from the last few weeks, in the leadership competition? “If I were a petty man, I would laugh,” he says. “But really I feel quite sad. I feel for us as the British public, as taxpayers. We are a laughing stock. In Norway they call Boris the clown. But he is our leader – the person who makes 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 there could be an Asian prime minister, I’d be like, ‘You smoke crack .” But this doesn’t feel the same. It’s not representation. Because he doesn’t represent us. Priti Patel doesn’t represent us. They don’t have empathy. That’s not who I want my kids to look up to. The way they got there on, through the lies, the cruel behavior, the bullying. That’s not how you win, not how you come out on top.”
Elsewhere in the song, Chaudhry raps: “That’s where they found him/ Face down/ Laid out with that brown skin/ That’s how they clowned him.” He now says that for years he felt afraid because of the color of his skin – something that was reinforced when, in the wake of the 7/7 attacks in London, Brazilian electrician Jean Charles de Menezes was shot dead by police who mistakenly suspected him of being a terrorist . “There was a lot of police presence after the attacks and it was really frightening,” says Chaudhry. “It sure makes other people feel safe, but for me, someone who looks like the enemy, what happens if I run after the train because I’m late? Am I going to be shot and killed? It was a really scary time.”
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 didn’t move, looked at my bag, looked at me. It made me feel like a terrorist.” As he reached into his bag for something, she shuddered. “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 just get off and go. I was just a teenager but very quickly I got used to being treated like that. Things have changed a bit now. We understand stereotyping and profiling but it’s there still. I’ve only known a post-9/11 world as an adult. I’ve only known looking like the guy you should be afraid of. It’s traumatic. It really stays with you, that feeling of, ‘Oh, I’m this strange, dangerous person all of them.’ Actually, I’m just a normal person, like you.”
“Now, if people stare, it’s more for Chabuddy.” He laughs in disbelief at how the perception of him has turned. “They stare because they want a picture. Good stuff to unpack with my therapist.”
‘The Sandman’ is out on Netflix on Friday the 5th. August