She’s gone from playing a headscarf-wearing Muslim girl in Citizen Khan to hitting the headlines as lesbian Rana Habeeb in Coronation Street. Actress Bhavna Limbachia lifts the lid on life on the cobbles and explains why she almost didn’t become an actress at all

Former Leeds University student Bhavna Limbachia is reminiscing about life in Yorkshire. Born and raised in Preston, she ventured over the Pennines for her undergraduate degree and still has fond memories of the city.

“I absolutely love Leeds and I still miss it. It was great being a student at the Bretton Hall campus in the grounds of the beautiful Sculpture Park. We campaigned and held protests and launched petitions to stop it from closing down.”

Bhavna, 34, studied Costume Design at Leeds University but always had a secret dream to be in front of the camera.

“I knew I wanted to act from the age of four. I had such a deep desire but extended family and my careers advisor told me it was a very unstable profession.”

So she concentrated on her passion for fashion.

“I loved making my own clothes. I’d be going out with my friends and they’d be ready and I’d be like, hang on, I haven’t finished making my outfit yet!”

Her first ever costume job was on the Channel 4 drama Bradford Riots.

“It was filmed in Liverpool but a lot of the actors were from Bradford. I was really lucky to get the role and I was one of the few Asian crew members,” she says.

When she worked on a feature film called Chicken Tikka Masala she was actually mistaken for the lead actress.

“The actor Harish Patel, who has starred in a whole host of Hollywood and Bollywood films, came up to me and shook my hand and said ‘I will be playing your father’. I had to tell him I was a crew member not an actress.”

On set Bhavna kept her acting dreams under wraps.

“I wouldn’t even breathe or whisper that I wanted to be an actress. I would always make myself invisible but the desire to get in front of the camera was too much. I didn’t want to live with the regret of not trying to pursue my dream.”

She couldn’t afford to go to drama school so she moved back home to her mum.

“I began a 9 to 5 job with Trading Standards and saved up and used that money to do an acting course at the Manchester School of Acting.”

She landed her first role in theatre in the play Rafta Rafta, written by Ayub Khan Din who wrote East is East.

“That was an amazing experience but when I finished that job I was out of work for a year. In my costume design work I would show my portfolio and say, here are my skills, but acting was completely different.

“It’s not just about talent, you can be rejected for not being tall enough, or too tall, or too fair. I had to develop a pretty thick skin.”

Bhavna spent the year building up her showreel.

“I did a lot of short films for free and temped to earn money.”

She also set up a jewellery business called Vintage Box.

“The creativity never left me.”

But then she landed her first major television role - on BBC’s Citizen Khan - playing the headscarf wearing Alia Khan.

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“I couldn’t believe my luck. It was amazing and scary and overwhelming.”

Like Mrs Brown’s Boys and Miranda, the comedy was filmed in front of a live studio audience.

Some have balked at the slapstick nature of the show but Bhavna remains grateful for the opportunity.

“It’s definitely a Marmite show, people either love it or hate it but it will always have a special place in my heart.”

In between filming she worked as a receptionist and also had roles in Doctors, Casualty and Cuffs.

“I ran out during my lunch break at Citizen Khan to do an audition for Coronation Street and then ran back afterwards to carry on filming.

“When my agent called and said you have landed the role I squealed. Coronation Street is the world’s longest running soap, it’s an institution. Being part of a soap like Corrie with its iconic characters was surreal.

“But I got the warmest welcome and it is the nicest place I have worked. There are no egos at all.”

Her co-star and former sister-in-law Alya played by Sair Khan is now in the I’m A Celebrity Jungle.

“Sair’s lovely and I get on very well with Charlie de Melo who plays my brother, Imran. We are like a real brother and sister.”

Her character Rana was a vivacious girl who married Zeedan and joined the Nazir family. But then Bhavna was asked about how she felt about her character becoming gay.

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Bhavna said: “The main thing was that I didn’t want it to be sensationalised. I wanted it to be truthful so I did a lot of my own research within the Asian community, talking to girls in secret. We have millions of viewers so what a great platform to be able to raise awareness of this unspoken issue.”

Her research brought her into contact with the Naz and Matt Foundation set up in 2014 by Matt Ogston after his fiancé, Nazim Mahmood, took his own life when his family confronted him about his sexuality.

“I had read about the charity’s amazing work and I was thrilled when Matt got in touch and said he wanted to help.”

There has been some criticism of the character’s parents who wear western clothes and drink alcohol but have an archaic attitude towards their daughter but Bhavna defended the decision.

“It was deliberate to show a non-stereotypical family still battling with this subject in 2018.”

She said her own mother was very traditional and insisted Bhavna and her two siblings went to Gujerati school at weekends to learn their mother tongue.

“We were given freedom and we were allowed to be who we wanted to be but we knew there was a line we couldn’t cross. But when I told Mum that the aim was to help people with this storyline she was behind me.”

Acting has brought her legions of admirers and fans and it also brought her love.

In Rafta Rafta she played a newlywed called Vina Patel opposite her now husband Darren Kuppan and says it was love at first sight.

They married in a lavish ceremony earlier this year and, like many modern Asian brides, had two stunning outfits - a full length white wedding dress then a traditional heavily embroidered red and gold bridal gown.

She laughs: “He saw me in a bridal gown for days on end when we were in the play, maybe that had something to do with it.”