Sachin's character made history on Neighbours then got 'sent back to India'
AdvertisementJoab lets out a laugh.‘Harold’s Store’ is filled with cast and crew who clap and cheer along. But as the celebrations die down, Joab sighs.
The mood in the room shifts and it’s clear he has something serious to say.
Sachin Joab on his last day on Neighbours in 2013. Source: Supplied / Channel 10 / Digital SpyNeighbours, which will air its last episode this week, premiered in 1985. It wasn’t immediately popular but by 1987 a cul-de-sac in suburban Melbourne known as Ramsay Street had become the country’s most famous.The episode featuring Scott and Charlene’s wedding drew two million viewers in Australia and made stars of the actors playing them - Jason Donovan and Kylie Minogue. In the UK, 19.6 million people watched, more than the entire Australian population at the time.
By 1989, a third of the UK population was tuning in each day. The show was sold to 60 countries around the world. But did it show Australia’s diversity?
Fifteen years later, in 2008, a report by Britain’s racial equality chief found many viewers from “ethnic” backgrounds felt underrepresented in popular television shows and singled out Neighbours for being “all white”.
Susan Bower was the executive producer of Neighbours when the Kapoor family were introduced. Source: SuppliedSusan Bower was the executive producer of Neighbours for three years from 2008. She sums it up like this: “Neighbours is Vegemite; it’s an Australian icon”.When she took the helm, the show was still popular, but not as much as in its heyday. She says she wanted to bring the show into the 21st century.“I felt an enormous pressure, and to be honest, professionally, I didn't want to be the person who saw Neighbours’ demise.”
“I think everyone wanted to save it.”
Neighbours is Vegemite; it’s an Australian icon.Susan Bower, Former executive producer But the strategy to transform the show was “evolution, not revolution”.Her first idea to bring a Lebanese family to the show was agreed at the time to be “perhaps a jump too far,” she says. But in 2011 she introduced Indian/Sri Lankan family The Kapoors - the first non-white family to move onto Ramsay Street as full-time cast members in the show’s history. It had taken 26 years.
“I chose three Sri Lankan/Indian characters, and I know they're not the same, but we do have such a large population here in Australia, Melbourne in particular. Also, there are a lot of Indian people in the UK. I've been there many times, and I thought that it would be a cross-nation choice,” Bower says.
The Kapoors were the first non-white family to move onto Ramsay Street as full-time cast members. Source: Supplied / Channel 10She also introduced the first gay male teen character as a core cast member; Chris Pappas, played by James Mason.“Both these points mean the mixture of Neighbours characters more accurately reflect modern society on both sides of the globe,” she wrote in her exit report.But there were some who didn’t like Neighbours’ new direction.As far as criticism goes, “I got that in spades, and the show got that in spades,” she says, describing it as the hardest job she’d ever had.Bower says criticism came from within the team behind Neighbours as well within the production company (Fremantle Australia, it was previously Grundy Television prior to 2006). Channel 10 were also “very nervous”, she says.She does though, reference a visit from one Fremantle boss who visited from the UK and took a walk around Melbourne’s Southbank.“He saw a lot of cultural diversity and [asked] why didn’t we do that? Why wasn't it mirrored in Neighbours?” she says.
Backlash to the new characters also came from the audience.
Sachin Joab played Ajay Kapoor in Neighbours from 2011 to 2013. Source: SuppliedSachin Joab is an Australian actor of Indian background. He was born and raised in Melbourne but hadn’t grown up watching the Neighbours. Instead, he says, he preferred American TV, where he saw African American and Hispanic actors on screen, and people that reminded him of himself.But in 2011 a role came up on Neighbours with no specific nationality required, so he went for it.“I was really happy that I got to just be myself, and my ethnicity, my background, my culture, it wasn't really required for that particular audition,” he says.His character was Ajay, the father of the Kapoor family, which also included on-screen wife Priya and daughter Rani.Introducing the family drew a mixed reaction from the public. Joab was heartened by handwritten notes he received from fans in the UK.“A lot of the content was basically, ‘it’s been so long, we’ve been waiting for faces like yours to be shown on screen. We heard there’s a large Indian community in Australia, and yet we weren’t seeing it on Neighbours,’” he says.But in Australia, the family became the subject of an online racist backlash.“‘Why do we need an Indian family on Neighbours?’ Or ‘send them back to India,’” Joab recalls people saying online.
“It was comments that basically wanted to exclude us.”
‘Why do we need an Indian family on Neighbours?' ... 'Send them back to India'.Sachin Joab on comments made about the Kapoor familyHaving “copped a bit of racism” growing up, Joab says he wasn’t surprised. But Bower was.“Many times there was downright racism, and I didn't think my country was that. I wasn't brought up like that.”The Kapoor family enjoyed many of the same storylines that would be given to any family on the street - an affair, neighbourhood rivalries, wife Priya even died and returned as a ghost, and Joab at the time thought this was positive. Like many people from a culturally and linguistically diverse background, he says he just “wanted to fit in”.
But looking back, he would have liked to see more references to South Asian culture.
“I wanted to introduce them slowly, and particularly with the backlash being so fierce, we put a little go slow on the whole thing.”
“We were born and raised in Erinsborough. Sending us back to a country that we’re not from, with no return date, just made no sense.”
We were born and raised in Erinsborough. Sending us back to a country that we’re not from ... just made no sense.Sachin JoabTo him, the storyline sounded like something he’d heard before.“We weren’t just written out, we were sent back to India, which is exactly what a lot of the racist comments [from the public] were.”“‘Why bring an Indian family to Ramsay Street? We don’t need an Indian family here, please send them back home, send them back to India’. So that’s exactly what they did.”Alin Sumarwata, an Iranian-Australian actor, was told she’d be written out of the show shortly after, he says, although she would later return.
So standing on the set of Harold’s Store, on his last day on Neighbours, Joab spoke his mind.
SBS News26/07/202207:11“I was sad, but as soon as I found out Alin was leaving as well, that’s when I thought ‘well, all the multicultural actors are going,’” Joab says to the colleagues gathered around.“And that’s what turned the sadness into anger and a lot of frustration.”After receiving his goodbye present (a pair of headphones) he said he didn’t buy the argument that the characters were written out for story-based reasons.“In my opinion, it’s not just two steps back; it’s like 10 steps back.”Then executive producer Richard Jasek said in a statement at the time: "We will all miss Sachin. He is an exceptional actor and a great friend to all the cast and crew.
"The Kapoors have been at the forefront of some memorable storylines, which is testament to Sachin's talent. Like all our characters, we hope there will be opportunities for Ajay to return to Ramsay Street."
Ben Michael was a writer on Neighbours for two decades. Source: SuppliedThese days, Ben Michael is a lecturer at the Victorian College of the Arts, but he first started working on Neighbours in 1991 as a runner, before being promoted to the writing room.A “film school snob”, it wasn’t the entry-level job he’d been hoping for, but over the years he says he fell in love with the characters and would continue to write for the show for around two decades.Michael, who has Italian heritage, says for a lot of that time he was the only writer on the show from a non-Anglo-Saxon background.“What I remember is the writers very much wanting the show to represent the Australia we saw when we walked outside the office, but the higher-ups had a general vibe that we weren’t there to ‘educate’ or ‘rock the boat’”, he says.The BBC and British audience were looking for “an older nostalgic version of Australia, almost like they wanted to escape their own issues with a diverse culture and enjoy a fantasy of a sunny country populated by people with an English background,” he says he was led to believe.“I was reminded by a fellow writer of a story we once did about a Middle Eastern asylum seeker who was on the run and the local teenagers tried to help him whilst learning about the reasons people flee to this country … but when the part was eventually cast he was turned into an Irish backpacker who’d overstayed his visa.”
Fremantle Australia, the BBC and Channel 10 didn’t respond to a request for comment on Joab, Bower or Michael’s allegations. Comment was also sought from former actor Sumarwata and former executive producer Jasek.
Off-screen, Fremantle last year launched an independent review amid multiple claims of racism. The findings were never made public.
“I would argue that these days if you tried to pitch a show of only Anglo-Saxon, upper-middle-class or middle-class Australians, you wouldn't get it made, and quite rightly; that's just not the world that we live in.”
These days if you tried to pitch a show of only Anglo-Saxon upper-middle class Australians, you wouldn't get it made.Ben Michael, Former Neighbours writerAs Neighbours closes the door on 37 years, there’s a lot it will be remembered for. The young budding actors that became household names (Margot Robbie, Liam Hemsworth, Guy Pearce and Natalie Imbruglia, along with Donovan and Minogue), Dr Karl’s sordid affairs, and the time Toadie chopped off his mullet.It was the show many of us watched, former writer Michael says, “with daggy affection”.But it was also the show that struggled to turn Australian neighbours once invisible, into good friends.The final episode of Neighbours will air at 7.30pm on Thursday 28 July on Channel 10.Would you like to share your story with SBS News? Email