In an interview with British newspaper The Independent in 2011, actor Saeed Jaffrey recounted, “I said to myself it doesn’t matter if it’s a six-line part. If they offer it to you, take it — enrich it with your background and everything — so much that people will never forget it. That became my religion.”
He couldn’t have said it better.
From leading roles in Shatranj Ke Khilari (1977) and My Beautiful Laundrette (1985) to countless turns as Bollywood’s favourite dad in the 1990s, and many in between, Jaffery has worked across Indian, American and British cinema. It’s hard to choose one movie by which to remember the actor.
But in many ways, it is Chashme Buddoor (1981) that remains a defining film of his career, and it is precisely because it is not a big, mainstream Bollywood film and because his role in it was not very big. This was exactly what Jaffrey did — take a small role and make it large and memorable, often the best thing about the movie.
So in the week of the late actor’s 91st birth anniversary, ThePrint rewinds to Chashme Buddoor.
The characterful character actor
Set in Delhi, Chashme Buddoor revolves around the romance between Siddharth (Farooq Sheikh) and Neha (Deepti Naval) and the friendship between Siddharth and his roommates Jomo (Ravi Baswani) and Omi (Rakesh Bedi). But Jaffrey, as Lallan Miyan, the neighbourhood paan and cigarette stall owner who perpetually kvetches that the three young men have not paid him for months on end, is a scene stealer and a vital part of the film.
He’s the one who, in the middle of demanding his money back from Jomo, lends him his bicycle so that Jomo can catch up with the girl he has just spotted and lost his heart to (it’s a different matter that he loses his heart to a new girl every five minutes). He’s the one who cautions Siddharth about the dangers of smoking yet gives him a free pack of cigarettes to celebrate the latter’s appointment at his first job. And he’s the one who, when push comes to shove, saves the boys’ and Neha’s lives.
In so many Hindi movies, one finds the supporting characters, the ones added for comic relief, an irritating distraction from the main plot. But thanks to Sai Paranjpye’s warm, genuinely funny script and controlled direction, and Jaffrey’s easy comic timing, Lallan Miyan’s scenes are actually some of the most loved in the film.
A personal favourite is when he, in a fit of pique with the boys over non-payment of dues, goes up to their apartment and simply sits there, casually flipping through their magazine collection and saying he won’t leave until they pay him. It’s a fantastic scene, with Jomo and Omi, equally chilled out, making tea for him and asking him what record he would like to listen to. It’s as if their father or favourite uncle has dropped in, rather than an irate kirana store owner who wants his money and whom they were just hiding from under the bed.
All in the details
One thing you notice throughout Chashme Buddoor is the attention to detail, be it the posters of women covering the walls of the trio’s one-room apartment, the SRCC (Shri Ram College of Commerce) jacket that Jomo wears or the visuals that accompany the songs.
That passion for detail and authenticity was something Jaffrey had in spades. Deepti Naval once recalled, “We were shooting in Mumbai where a paan shop had been set up for Saeed’s character. When Saaed arrived, he looked around the crowded area, spotted a man walking by in a lungi with the Taj Mahal printed on it. He decided his character Lallan Miyan would wear that lungi. He made that man take off the lungi and wore it. That’s how I’d like to remember Saeed. Vivacious and exuberant as an actor. When he wanted something, he would get it anyhow.”
Director Paranjpye also recalled that he went all over the Jama Masjid area of Delhi to meet vendors and get a sense of how they spoke, their vocabulary and mannerisms.
Watching Lallan Miyan also reminds you that Jaffrey, with his impeccable diction in both Urdu and British English and his training on the stage, could just as easily be a chess-loving noble (in Shatranj Ke Khilari) as he could Sardar Patel (in Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi) as he could a paanwala with a penchant for quotable quotes and a ready smile, the soul of a movie that wasn’t even about him.