There’s a rich history of evil EastEnders patriarchs, and nasty Nish Panesar ranks pretty highly as one of the most despicable rogues in the gallery. This is a man who has physically and mentally abused his wife, manipulated his children, and committed murder in a jealous rage.


Yet now the character is seeking atonement for his sins, having been diagnosed with a serious heart condition which means he has just months to live. After his many misdemeanours, it’s a big ask for the family he tried to destroy to forgive him – that’s if you buy his suspicious sob story in the first place…

“Whether you believe he’s dying or not, this is huge currency for Nish,” says Navin Chowdhry, speaking exclusively to about playing Walford’s warped villain. “He was finally overpowered and driven out by his family a few months ago. While he was away he was given this blow about his health, but it’s actually facilitated the next stage in his manipulation. It’s a perverse card to play, but Nish will use any tool at his disposal for his own gain.”

The medical bombshell has split the powerful Panesar clan into two camps: son Ravi and grandkids Nugget and Avani are Team Nish, and have agreed to draw a line under his mistakes and abhorrent past behaviour. On the other side of the divide is Nish’s ex-wife Suki and other son Vinny, who are pretending all his forgiven while secretly plotting to fleece Nish of his business empire before he dies.

The twist of making Nish a (possibly) dying man has brought a new dimension to the character, and whatever his endgame is, Chowdhry welcomed the challenge of trying to elicit sympathy for someone so sinister.

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Navin Chowdhry as Nish Panesar with a beard in close-up for EastEnders.
Navin Chowdhry as Nish Panesar in EastEnders. BBC/Jack Barnes/Kieron McCarron

“If he hasn’t got long left, he genuinely wants to reconnect and seek redemption. He was in prison for 20 years and wasn’t there for a substantial part of his children’s lives, and genuinely wants to experience them as a family. Nish is still flawed but there is an argument that there is humanity within us all, it’s possible to find compassion somewhere in there.

“Seeing him so weak and a shadow of his former self is really fascinating. One reason I came on board wasn’t to just play an out and out villain, I wanted to humanise him in some way.”

Chowdhry has been acting since he was a child and built an impressive career spanning more than 35 years. He gladly enthuses that joining EastEnders in 2022 is one of the best choices he’s ever made, although he could’ve ended up in Albert Square even earlier.

“I had been approached over the years,” he reveals. “Whenever it came my way either I was involved in other things, it was the timing or it just didn’t fit in with what I wanted to do at that moment. But the universe has a funny way of delivering things at different moments, and when this part came along I thought, ‘OK, let’s have the conversation.’

“I met with our producer Chris Clenshaw, who has a wonderful energy about him. We had a long chat and it sounded so exciting. I was aware of the Panesar family as they were already on screen, and eventually I knew this was a part I had to play.”

EastEnders,06-06-2024,6922,Nish Panesar (NAVIN CHOWDHRY),***EMBARGOED UNTIL TUE 28TH MAY 2024***,BBC PUBLIC SERVICE,Jack Barnes/Kieron McCarron
Navin Chowdhry as Nish Panesar in EastEnders. BBC/Jack Barnes/Kieron McCarron

And no wonder he’s glad he did, as Chowdhry has been a revelation. A consistently engaging and charismatic performer, up until taking on Nish, audiences perhaps knew him best from his role in Teachers, Channel 4’s quirky comedy drama from the early 2000s. Nice guy Kurt was as warm and lovable as Nish is narcissistic and dangerous, and Chowdhry relished the opportunity to get his teeth into something darker and showcase his range.

“I was really keen to do it. Evil, sociopath, narcissist – all those words are thrown around to describe the character but it was the dynamics of the family drama that really appealed to me. It’s interesting that Nish lost out on being part of his children’s lives because of his own jealous anger and rage, and this murderous personality.

“When we first met him after he was released from prison, we didn’t know how he’d be able to reconnect after 20 years away, and navigate the mistrust his family had towards him to regain power and control over them. And then there’s his blind love for his wife, Suki, who has never really loved him in return. There’d been so much hype about Nish, he’d been spoken about for years, but we went slowly with the character at first, drip-feeding a few scenes a week. Then we started to see his true colours!”

Chowdhry has delivered many chilling moments on screen, particularly with the co-star he affectionately describes as his ‘partner in crime’, Balvinder Sopal, who plays Suki. Nish’s creepy controlling coercion can be hard to watch, and Chowdhry admits it requires utter commitment and trust among his colleagues to create.

“It’s a great ensemble at EastEnders, and the Panesars are particularly close,” explains the actor. “That allows us to make choices, with Bal neither of us will hesitate in suggesting something in the moment.

“In one of my early scenes, it wasn’t scripted but I felt we should see Nish kiss Suki on the lips for the first time. For their characters in that moment, the kiss demonstrated Nish’s ability to overpower and humiliate his wife. The cast and crew have that trust and mutual respect to go to those places, and it’s not something you’d normally suggest on another acting job if you didn’t know the person very well.”

Bringing a hateful bully to life saw Chowdhry draw on personal memories, as he recalled his late mother’s experience of working for a charity helping victims of domestic abuse when he was growing up.

“There is an emotion attached to this part,” he admits. “My mother was called out all hours, having to go police stations and hospitals, saving women from men like Nish. These kind of stories have been in my life for a very long time, a lot of what we built of Nish is from what I remember my mum talking about.”

Nish watches uneasy Suki in EastEnders as they sit on a sofa
Navin Chowdhry as Nish Panesar and Balvinder Sopal as Suki Panesar in EastEnders. BBC

Chowdhry also recalls wanting to act from the age of five. After spending his childhood attending drama clubs and performing in youth theatre productions, he got an unbelievably big break in 1987 at the age of 15. After his father saw a poster advertising for an open audition for a movie, young Chowdhry impressed legendary director John Schlesinger and was chosen to star alongside Hollywood icon Shirley MacLaine in Madame Sousatzka, about a piano-playing child prodigy’s relationship with his eccentric tutor.

“It was a magical adventure,” he smiles, reminiscing about the formative experience he admits he rarely gets to talk about. “I was doing my GCSEs at school in Bristol and I had three months off to film in London. My mum was my chaperone and I had a tutor on set.

“Shirley MacLaine was wonderful, beautifully kind and nurturing, everybody was. Shabana Azmi played my mum – she is Bollywood royalty, the Meryl Streep of India. I actually presented her with an award just recently. To have people like her, Shirley and John as my first mentors was a joy.

“I came out of it with a different work ethic, having been entrusted with such a huge responsibility as the lead boy working with all these amazing people. I didn’t know it at the time, but I definitely absorbed an adult approach to working. It started me off on the right track.”

Shirley MacLaine and Navin Chowdhry staring eye to eye in a scene from the film Madame Sousatzka.
Shirley MacLaine and Navin Chowdhry in Madame Sousatzka. Odeon Films/Getty Images

It certainly did, as is shown in Chowdhry’s subsequent long list of credits. Asked to pick his personal highlights among roles in big franchises such as Doctor Who and Star Wars (he appeared in 2017’s The Last Jedi) and high-profile dramas including Doctor Foster and Death in Paradise, he reveals which ones stick out.

“Obviously my first job was incredibly special. Teachers was very exciting, the cast are still close to this day and it was nice to be part of something so loved and cool, which it really was at the time.

“A Touch of Cloth (Charlie Brooker’s cop show satire) were some of the best scripts I’d ever read. Suranne Jones was also in it and I bumped into her last year – we’re pestering Charlie to write some more but apparently he’s been busy on some little show called Black Mirror!

“And EastEnders means a great deal to me. I tell the kids I’m working with to take this moment in, because you don’t know when you’re going to get a run like this again. The Panesars are in a good place.”

They might not be if Nish knew what Suki and Vinny were up to behind his back, or if the convenient terminal illness turns out to be a hoax to get his feet back under the family table. Chowdhry won’t be drawn on exactly what the future holds, but with so many ticking time bombs that could blow the dysfunctional dynasty apart at any minute, he teases the potential for some explosive times ahead.

“It’s up to the viewers what they choose to believe, but if illness is going to consume Nish, then he’s not going to go quietly. Look at what he did when he was of good health – he behaved so recklessly and had no moral compass. There were no limits beforehand, imagine if he knew people are betraying him behind the scenes – he’s got nothing to lose and could be more dangerous than he’s ever been…”

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