Knocking On The Door Of The Kumars at No. 42 With Vincent Ebrahim

Meet Vincent Ebrahim – the gent who is one of the warmest topcats you’ll ever meet. The DSSC team had a rare opportunity to work on a documentary tracking his journey to trace his roots back to the village in West Bengal where his grandfather once lived. For the ones who know him, you know he’s a sublime hoot. The ones who don’t know him, crawl out of your rock and here are three key takeaways about this legend. ONE: He has a wicked sense of humour that will leave you chuckling even long after the joke. TWO: He has a heart of gold. And by gold, we mean Alladin’s cave-loot. And by cave-loot, we actually mean the size of India’s undisclosed and covert deposits in $w!ss banks. THREE: He is a keen observer of life & the stories that emerge from god’s own play, which in turn, reflects in his craft which is mindful & authentic to a fault.  

We set out on our own odyssey to decrypt the intrigue surrounding the life of a working actor. And who better than Vincent, whose art spans across theatre, films & television, and countries to unlock the door to that world with #DSSCSecretConversations.

What prompted your shift from an aspiring marine engineer to an actor? Was it a difficult decision to make in the ‘60s?

My favourite uncle was a marine engineer, and helping with his motorcar repairs while growing up led to a love for engines, grease & all things mechanical. However, life’s journey is not so linear and my attempt to work on a merchant ship was quickly dissuaded at the recruiting office by the collection of thugs and hooligans who would’ve been my shipmates!

My familial connection with theatre was triggered by my father’s endeavours, who was a teacher, but also an amateur theatre director & producer. The first childhood memories go back to when he worked part-time at Belgrade Theatre (Coventry, England) and I spent an exciting afternoon in the lighting box, getting my first view of Shakespeare at a Saturday matinee! Then I have vivid memories of Macbeth rehearsals in our home and my father’s school…when it came to pursuing theatre as a career my family fully supported me, as long as I was going to be fulfilled in what I did. So, I enrolled at the drama school at University of Cape Town, and don’t regret that decision one bit.

You worked for a while in South Africa before moving to the UK. How was the theatre scene different in the two countries?  

Before graduation, Brian Astbury, Artistic Director at The Space Theatre offered me the role of Actor/Stage Manager. The Space was co-founded by Athol Fugard & Yvonne Bryceland, two luminaries of South African theatre, and was unique for its multiracial actors. For an actor of colour, such opportunities were almost non-existent – I needed no second bidding! Spending two years immersed in a mix of South African, American, British, and European writing & physical construction of a performance space is a joyful and triumphant memory till date.

Moving to London in 1976 was as epic as I’d imagined. I arrived with a backpack, a sleeping bag and a little diary of telephone numbers! I intended to travel through UK and Europe for three months then somehow make it to New York, the iconic location for the inspirational new wave of the ‘70s (Mean Streets, Taxi Driver & more). It was another 34 years before I finally visited there with a Kilburn’s Tricycle Theatre production, The Great Game: Afghanistan.

London has been my home for 41 years and is where my acting evolved. I’ve thrived on its diversity and opportunity! It’s a hard city to negotiate sometimes but has become part of my DNA as an actor.

Image: thebritishblacklist.co.uk; Vincent as Ashwin Kumar in The Kumars at No. 42

What prompted your shift from South Africa to UK? Can you share a memory from your early days of working with community theatre companies?

South Africa’s apartheid regime meant limited opportunity for an actor of colour. That and the wish to see the world were the twin engines driving my wanderlust. Raising a family certainly played a huge part in my decision to settle in London.

One bitter sweet memory from my community theatre days: I worked for a touring company which performed anywhere, including children’s playgrounds. During an outdoor performance I played a goldfish costumed in orange leggings, yellow string vest, and an orange bathing cap; a group of teenagers hurtled towards us, drawn by the spectacle. Possibly never having encountered anything like it before, they gaped open-mouthed and one exclaimed, “Blimey! Never seen a Paki goldfish before..!” With not a hint of malice. Only in London.

From handling the lights for The Lonely Giant to being internationally loved for your role in The Kumars at No. 42 – your journey is a solid testament to the concepts of inspiration & hard work. With over 4 decades of work under your belt, how do you feel?

Recently I’ve become aware that many of my peers who are not actors are retired or on the cusp of retiring. That’s quite a shock! I’m now much more choosy about the work I do because I want to enjoy the experience and be stimulated by the people involved. I feel that given the right challenges I’ve still got a lot to contribute.

While the Kumars at No. 42 propelled you into limelight, you often say comedy isn’t your mainstay. Why is that & what genre is closest to your heart?

When I began my studies I didn’t imagine comedy as a path for myself. It was the opportunity by Sanjeev Bhaskar to develop Mr. Kumar’s role for television that helped exploit my skills in a completely different genre. I realised that it was all about timing! Well, for me anyway.

The process of The Kumars, a blend of improvisation and scripted material, was as joyful as it was scary! Acting by the seat of your pants, as they say. But theatre remains my first love, although film and TV continue to provide new challenges, the stuff of creativity!

You visited SA after 38 years to make Material (2012), how was the experience and what made revisit your home country for filming?

I’d always looked for the right work opportunity to return to SA. Craig Freidmond offered me Material and was welcoming of my contributions to develop the character of the father. We collaborated through mails for months, as he was in Johannesburg and I was engaged in a run and the American tour of The Great Game: Afghanistan. That collaboration was the most organic and natural way to return to South Africa with a home-grown creative project!

You’re a home-proud father/son/partner and have made many references about your family. Would you say they play a major role in your journey & contribution to success?

I have three sons, all in their thirties, and my home life is what gives me the motivation and security to work creatively. Without the solid support of my wife, Kate, over the years through some lean times as well as the success of The Kumars, I couldn’t have done it!

You recently worked on a documentary called ‘My Indian Odyssey’ about tracing your roots back to India. What was that like?

The idea for My Indian Odyssey came from Matt Willis, with whom I’d worked on a series for BBC Radio 4. He pitched the idea of me pursuing a journey to my paternal grandfather’s birthplace, and see first hand the country that inspired much of my character work as an actor. This stimulating and exciting collaboration resulted in a journey via five cities, ending in a little village called Tisa, north of Kolkata, where I think my grandfather had his origins. The experience was emotional, illuminating, and unforgettable! I’ve toured widely with my theatre work and this was certainly an indelible high point of those travels.

Your latest play Occupational Hazards recently opened, what is it about? Will we see you on screen anytime soon?

Occupational Hazards at the Hampstead Theatre is set in the wake of the military defeat and occupation of Iraq. I play two parts: an Iraqi police chief and an academic historian – polar opposite of each other – another challenge! I’m always keen on more film and TV projects. Let’s see what the rest of the year throws up!

Will working in an Indian film interest you?

I’m flattered that you think Bollywood would give me a look in! Sadly, I don’t speak any Indian languages but I’d love to work with Indian filmmakers in the most prolific film industry in the world!

 

As Vincent preps to raise the curtains of yet another stellar Occupational Hazards show, we say our au revoirs with the signature DSSC Rapid Fire.

 

Your favourite Indian city & food?

Vincent: Kolkata. Dal Makhni!

Advice for young actors starting off in the industry?

Vincent: Be prepared for a roller-coaster ride. Alternatively, don’t do it!

Your fave project so far?

Vincent: The Great Game: Afghanistan.

Films or theatre – which remains closer to your heart?

Vincent: Theatre. I love seeing other actors display their craft!

Last day on earth and you can watch only one movie – which would it be?

Vincent: The Travelling Players by Greek director, Theo Angelopoulos.

One passion besides acting that the world doesn’t know yet?

Vincent: Watching Arsenal playing football.

 

This conversation is a part of the DSSC Secret Conversation Series, where we get candid with the ace industry disruptors who map its course one masterstroke at a time.

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