As part of BAFTA Selects, a series celebrating classic film with contemporary artists, BAFTA-nominated actress Meera Syal joined us at BAFTA to discuss Nora Ephron’s beloved comedy When Harry Met Sally, which she calls “a step up” in the romantic comedy genre. Syal cites Nora Ephron, who wrote the screenplay aided by a number of recorded conversations between men as they discussed the dating world, as a personal inspiration and an unapologetic icon. Listen to the full audio below.
Feminism's next phase
Syal notes that Ephron's honest, balanced approach to writing a story from both the man and the woman's point of view -- with fidelity and fairness to both -- was a revelation to her as a woman only recently married at the time of its release in 1989. Ephron reportedly asked to record conversations between director Rob Reiner and his male friends during the script's development, but also placed a special focus on showing women sharing and being vulnerable with one another.
This was the first one where I really felt that the female gaze was so strong in a rom com that you really got to know what women were thinking, the way women spoke to each other when the men weren’t there.
Writing like the real thing...only better
Even today, Syal notes that she forgets to wish for popcorn when watching When Harry Met Sally, so engrossed is she by the bizarre, raucous world on screen.
Nora Ephron wrote it like we felt it.
Declaring that comedy is harder to write, direct, and act than drama, Syal admires the way When Harry Met Sally elevates the everyday to a whole new level. The collaborative effort that went into putting the film together -- with improvised lines from Billy Crystal and fearless abandon from Meg Ryan -- results in a fully realised masterpiece that is deeply felt even while it gets big laughs.
Bravery as a writer
Above all, Syal discusses the incisive fierceness with which Ephron, who fought her way into the male-dominated world of journalism and then fought her way again into the male-dominated world of screenwriting, set up the story.
There was just something very unapologetic about the way she sliced into the nub of what relationships between men and women were.
What makes a good film?
While she acknowledges that there's no final say on what makes a given film "good," Syal nevertheless tries to narrow it down to the effect it may have on a viewer's outlook:
Some part of your world has slightly shifted...
About Meera Syal
Meera Syal began her career at the Royal Court, after being spotted by its renowned director Max Stafford-Clarke performing her award-winning one woman show at the Edinburgh festival. Meera’s precocious talent saw her quickly graduate to screenwriting (scripting Bhaji on the Beach in 1993) as well as writing and performing in the pioneering black and Asian television sketch-show The Real McCoy (1991 – 1994). Meera then famously joining the cast and writing team of acclaimed 1990s radio and television sketch show Goodness, Gracious Me (1996 – 2001), which used acidly observed comic characters to challenge the still demeaning stereotypes of Britain’s south Asian communities.
There followed international stardom, Meera earning a BAFTA nomination for her role as the grandmother Ummi in Emmy-award winning television series The Kumars at No 42 (2001 – 2006).
Despite her prestigious cultural achievements to date, Meera remains very much a jobbing film and television actress, playing characters in shows and movies as diverse as Holby City, Broadchurch, Dr Who and Paddington 2, with numerous other cameos and voice-overs. Currently Meera can be seen as Goldie in BBC series The Split.