Award-winning British actress Olivia Colman has a surprising Indian connection – an ancestor who was born in the subcontinent and was almost certainly of Indian descent.
These roots were discovered in a 2018 episode of the British documentary series Who Do You Think You Are, in which celebrities trace their genealogy with the help of experts. Colman’s episode was aired in July, as part of the show’s 15th season.
The London-based Colman, whose credits include the Oscar-nominated The Favourite and who will be seen in the next season of the Netflix series The Crown, starts the episode by establishing that she’s “the least adventurous person” she knows and as far as she is aware “the Colmans have never lived anywhere but Norfolk”.
A visit to her parents in the English county, however, reveals a much wider geographical footprint. The first Indian connection is revealed through her great-great-great-great grandfather from her maternal side, Richard Campbell Bazett. Born in the remote island of Saint Helena, somewhere off the coast of southwestern Africa, Bazett worked for the East India Company in London and Kolkata. While digging into his life, Colman discovers adultery, children born out of wedlock, and another Indian link through her great-great-great grandfather Charles, whose wife, Harriot, was born in Kishanganj in Bihar in the early 1800s, when India was under Company control.
To find out more about Harriot, Colman comes to Bihar, where she finds that her ties to the subcontinent are more than just residential.
When in Kishanganj, Colman learns that Harriot’s father was most likely living with an Indian woman while in Bihar and Hariott was their child. Meticulously kept records, including diary entries, newspaper clippings, letters and a list of family possessions help her piece together Harriot’s life.
Next, Colman goes to Kolkata and travels along the Hooghly river, from where Harriot was sent to England on an East India Company ship at the age of three, after her father died. However, this is not to be the end of Harriot’s journey through India. Colman’s ancestral grandmother comes back to the subcontinent in 1832, sometime in her twenties, and gets married here. Her first marriage cut short by her husband’s untimely death, Harriot finds love once again and marries Colman’s great-great-great grandfather Charles, with whom she spends many years in India.
Colman approaches these discoveries with a good-natured curiosity punctuated with tears, excitement and expressions of a strong sense of connection with her forbears. “I’m so much more interesting than I thought I was,” she remarks at one point. “I hadn’t got a clue that India played any part of my family,” she later says. “I was very surprised at how much I ended up caring about her [Harriot], someone I’d never heard of before. Then to find out that her mum was a local Kishanganj woman, that’s the most exciting bit.”
Other celebrities who have discovered Indian connections or delved further into their Indian roots in the show include actor and comedian Alistair McGowan, French wildlife expert Liz Bonnin, Scottish comedian Billy Connolly and English actor Rupert Penry-Jones.
Colman is heavily tipped to win the best actress Oscar for Yorgis Lanthimos’s The Favourite, in which she plays Queen Anne. The film depicts the eighteenth-century queen’s sexual relationship with her confidante (played by Rachel Weisz) and the young interloper (Emma Stone) who tries to climb the social ladder through flattery and deception. The Favourite most recently won seven awards at the BAFTAs, including Best Actress for Colman and Best Actress in a Supporting Role for Weisz. The period comedy has been nominated for 10 Oscars.