Bhavna Limbachia, best known for her roles on Coronation Street and Citizen Khan, shares her very real journey to becoming one of the UK’s most talented rising actors.
Becoming a ‘known actor’ is a bit of a mysterious concept; it’s often portrayed as though you land a great role and wake up the next day launched into stardom. In a world where we’re bombarded with ‘overnight success stories’, Bhavna’s journey into acting comes as a refreshing tale of determination and hard graft. Bhavna sat down with A-Magazine to share the twists and turns along the way to reaching her acting dream.
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When we arrive, Bhavna is bright-eyed on the A-Mag set, wearing jeans and a jumper, asking if anyone wants a coffee. That’s Bhavna in a nutshell: energetic, down-to-earth, caring. As our stylist is unpacking the jewellery for the shoot, Bhavna can’t help but go to take a look at the pieces. “I used to own a jewellery business,” she tells us. Throughout the day, we discover Bhavna is a woman of many talents: costume designer, owner of a vintage jewellery business, temp at Trading Standards, prime-time TV actor – often wearing many of these hats at once.
Having long been spinning multiple plates, Bhavna’s journey into acting isn’t as straightforward as some might imagine. Bhavna says she always wanted to be an actor, but after being discouraged by a high school careers advisor, she settled on a more sensible career in costume design. ‘In a way, I did my plan B first’ she explains. Her passion for the arts led her, firstly to college to study photography, fashion and textiles, then onto a degree in Costume Design at the (now defunct) Breton Hall, The University of Leeds.
During her time at university, Bhavna took her first steps into the world of acting – although not gracing the stage or screen yet. Over the university holidays, Bhavna ‘would do placements on films or in theatres to get experience’. Once she graduated, TV, film and theatre sets became her home as she got steady work a costume designer across the country. But being in this world proved to be a double-edged sword. Bhavna explains, ‘the more I was backstage or behind the camera, the more I wanted to be in front of the camera.’ Bhavna thought that her career as a costume designer ‘would be enough creatively’, but her urge to act just wouldn’t quit.
The turning point came at one o’clock in the morning on the Runcorn promenade. Bhavna says ‘The last costume job I did was Drop Dead Gorgeous with Connor McIntyre [Coronation Street] for BBC3…It was minus three degrees. I was holding Connor’s umbrella thinking “I can’t do this anymore. I can’t regret something I didn’t do – it just doesn’t make sense”’. It was time to give ‘Plan A’ a shot.
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The transition from costume design to acting wasn’t a simple one. Bhavna moved back home to Preston and over the next few years honed her craft whilst working a 9-5. When it came to getting costume jobs, she was used to being judged on her talents alone but auditioning for acting jobs brought with it a whole host of challenges. She says: ‘With costume, it’s about how good you are, how creative you are…with acting it was “You’re too tall. You’re too short. You’re too fat. You’re too thin.” I once went to a job and was told I was too pale to play an Asian character and I said, “I’m full Asian!”’.
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Industry norms came as a shock. She describes the realisation that ‘certain things in the industry weren’t as easily in reach for me as they were for a Caucasian actor’ as a ‘difficult pill to swallow’. In the face of these ingrained industry standards, Bhavna remains determined to make the most of her position: ‘If you’ve got a platform to try and make a difference then you should use that platform. If it means you have to work a little bit harder than other people may have to, it’s still worth doing.’
“The more I was backstage or behind the camera, the more I wanted to be in front of the camera.”
It’s Bhavna’s resilience and work ethic that’s allowed her to succeed in a notoriously tough industry. After her debut stage role, the lead in Rafta Rafta (a comedy about marital difficulties within a close-knit Indian family living in Bolton) at Bolton’s Octagon Theatre in 2010, she didn’t work for a year. Bhavna confesses that it was ‘probably the lowest point of my life’.
Following this, she decided to ‘start right from the bottom again’, taking temp jobs, building up her acting portfolio through student films, and setting up a vintage jewellery business as an outlet for her creativity. She says, ‘On my lunch breaks, I would go and get a Greggs pasty and walk around the flea markets and vintage markets collecting vintage jewellery and upcycling it’. Just as her business was on the cusp of taking off, she was cast as Alia in Citizen Khan and had to close the business. Even whilst starring on prime-time BBC TV, Bhavna still returned to office jobs between filming the series.
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Bhavna’s big break came on Coronation Street in 2016. During her lunch break on Citizen Khan, Bhavna auditioned for the soap. She says ‘I ran across the bridge, auditioned, and ran back’. BBC and ITV bosses were so impressed with her that they struck a deal allowing Bhavna to star in both programmes at the same time. Landing the role of Rana, the soap’s first lesbian, Muslim character, led her to working sixteen-hour days, running from the BBC to ITV studios for her hectic filming schedule.
She doesn’t take her Coronation Street role lightly. Bhavna describes playing Rana as ‘one of my biggest challenges but also one of my biggest achievements.’ You only have to look at Bhavna’s social media accounts to see her support of LGBTQ people in the Asian community. Bhavna says ‘Having the platform on Coronation Street and having the opportunity with this storyline means so much to me. I did a lot of research and put my heart and soul into it’.
Despite being nominated for Best On-Screen Partnership with her Corrie co-star Faye Brooks at the British Soap Awards and Best Actress at the TV Choice Awards, Bhavna shies away from the suggestion that she’s made it. ‘I think I still have a long way to go,’ she says, ‘but the thing that’s probably helped is pushing myself to do things that scare me, staying true to myself and having a lot of respect for the people around me.’
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She is grateful for the personal journey that acting has taken her on. She says ‘You often grow with a character and grow as a person in the process’. Of her Citizen Khan character, Bhava explains ‘There was no such thing as less is more with Alia – it was more is never enough [laughs]…I think I became more daring through that character, more confident.’
As has been the theme throughout her working life so far, she’s not content to choose just one path. She says, ‘I would like to have a versatile career like Charlize Theron. I’d love to do a bit of comedy, a bit of drama, some action, I’d love to do a bit of everything and push myself’. Despite her dreams for a blockbuster-sized career, Bhavna is still firmly planted in the North. ‘I’m so proud of being Northern,’ she gushes, ‘I think some of the best writers in drama have come from the North: Jimmy McGovern, Sally Wainwright. Northern gritty drama is British drama is at its best. Don’t get me wrong, I love dipping in and out of London for work, but as soon as I get off that train and onto Northern soil I just feel way more relaxed and happier.’
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We talk about her future and the future of the acting industry. Bhavna explains ‘I know in America it’s changing; there’s a lot of colour-blind casting, but in the UK we’re slightly behind. A lot of people are doing good work and a lot of the girls I used to audition with are now flying high, but I know there’s still a few barriers that we have to overcome.’
If anyone is putting the graft in to smash those barriers, it’s sure to be Bhavna. You won’t find any handouts here, just hard graft. We could all do with taking a leaf out of Bhavna’s book.
Creative Direction: Oliver Lilley
Photography: Karl Collins
Styling: Steven Spencer
Hair & Makeup: Louise McCann
Words by Bethany Lee