TUCKING in to a spot of lunch at the plush Cameron House Hotel on the banks of Loch Lomond, Shobna Gulati looks gorgeous, poised and oozes self-confidence.
She was one of Coronation Street’s hottest stars, has been in EastEnders and from this week we’ll see her screen debut in River City.
So, it’s more than a little surprising when she leans forward between bites and reveals: “I’m the shyest girl in the world. Really, I’m terribly shy.
“My mother laughs at me because she still can’t get over the fact that I do this for a living.
“She describes me as painfully shy. I’m a very nervous person, I just hide it well. It’s all about strategies to cope with it, appearing more confident.
“Acting gave me something to hide behind.”
Now 51, Shobna is not only one of Britain’s most accomplished soap stars – she’s clocked up four, having also appeared in Doctors – but much else besides.
She’s a writer and a regular stage star, too, with her latest theatre run in London just confirmed.
But being pigeonholed, be it for what she’s known for, her race or her age is something she’ll fight – quietly and politely – every step of the way.
Having been inspired towards acting on seeing Art Malik many years ago, she feels attitudes still haven’t changed as much as they might.
“I refuse to be put in a box anymore. When I wake up I don’t wake up Asian, I wake up Shobna.
“I go to castings and they say they aren’t putting an ethnicity on this role – but they’ll still talk to me about that.
“Let us just be who we want to be and move away from those discussions.
“It doesn’t matter if she’s called Janet or Farah. The people that make decisions are the ones that need to look at the way they make them.”
Farah Khurana is Shobna’s latest character, a blast from the past of Sanjeev Kohli’s AJ.
She’s a former university pal, whose arrival in Shieldinch sees her become a rival for his affections alongside Ellie (Leah MacRae).
The appeal for Shobna – apart from getting her teeth into what she cheerfully calls a “passively aggressive smiling villain” – was simple. Scotland.
In her early 20s she spent a year living in Edinburgh as an admin assistant at the Assembly Rooms while also working at Mayfest in Glasgow.
“It was one of my very first jobs and I absolutely loved it. I shared a lovely old Georgian terraced house with high ceilings but I really wanted to live on my own, so I found a more modern flat on Grassmarket.
“I’d wake up and look up at the rock face of the Castle. That was perfect.
“They were happy times with no cares in the world.”
You might think it’d be a time with wild and carefree nights. There may indeed have been some, but Shobna’s recollections are both different and downright quirkier.
“They had life-size cardboard figures of well-known people in the stores at the Assembly Rooms.
“So, I took Pope John Paul II and Mikhail Gorbachev with me out to dinner. They were my two dates – I got bored of asking for a table for one!
“I don’t think anyone bats an eyelid in Edinburgh with everything that goes on at the Festival.”
While landing a part in either EastEnders or Corrie would be a dream for just about any actor Shobna not only got both, but did so on the same day.
“It was in 2000 and the auditions were the same week,” she recalls.
“I remember my agent calling and saying I should sit down.
“I sat on the stairs and she told me I had both, which was fantastic.”
Happily, Shobna managed to fit in filming of her extensive guest role as Ameena Badawi before swapping Albert Square for Corrie’s cobbles as new regular Sunita Alahan.
It was a role she was to play until 2006 during which time she was caught up in the tabloid newspaper phone-hacking scandal.
She later told the High Court that her voicemails which had been hacked were “deeply personal” and subsequent stories caused her son to be bullied and he ran away from home.
It also led to the breakdown of her relationship with her boyfriend.
“I was bringing up a child as a single parent and there were so many pressures,” she says, quietly.
“It’s hard to be in the public eye like that and the pressure in my personal life was massive. When I stepped away, it was all a blur.”
After a three-year gap, Shobna felt the time was right to make a return, staying in Corrie until 2013.
The departure that time, though, was final with Sunita being killed off.
Shobna admits her expectations were more of a traditional waving from the back of a cab exit.
“I didn’t plan on dying. It’s a shame that door’s shut now, because there could have been a time when I’d have gone back.”
Two long stints on a show devoured by millions means Shobna has found it hard to shake off Sunita, in the eyes of casting directors if not the public.
She reasons that she’d been accepted in different roles, even before her Coronation Street days when she was a mainstay of Dinnerladies.
The death of star and creator Victoria Wood in April last year was such a massive shock for Shobna, she still finds it difficult to discuss it.
But she’s certain about the debt she owes the multi-talented Wood.
“She was a huge influence and a friend. It was a terrible blow. It still is.
“Without Vic I wouldn’t be where I am now. That’s an absolute fact.
“Without her picking me over all the other girls that went up to play Anita, I wouldn’t be sitting here.
“Even between series she’d often ring to talk and ask what I was doing.
“She was such a deep, quiet, interesting person.”
When she’s not filming River City, quiet nights in with her boyfriend beckon for accomplished cook Shobna.
And writing is a passion, too, with a compulsion to see work completed, not left to revisit later.
But the biggest passion of all is son Akshay, who has followed his mum into the acting business.
“You can only tell your children so much, they make their own choices.
“But I’m very proud. He’s the most patient person I know. It’s just been me and him so we’ve had to develop our way of being together.
“He’s kind and he’s loving, and a decent human being. I’ve done all right.”
Shobna’s Shieldinch stay is initially for three months, but a longer Scots sojourn isn’t out of the question.
“I don’t make plans. If you’ve been in soaps for so long you can’t, because it’s not up to me.
“It’s up to the writers and the editors as to what they do with your character.
“But if I was to be asked to stay then it wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world.
“It’d be one of the loveliest things in the world, actually.”
River City, BBC1 Scotland, Tuesday, 8pm.
Shobna spoke to The Sunday Post at the Cameron House Hotel – visit cameronhouse.co.uk