New Delhi: When Bollywood needed a voice of wisdom in the 1970s and 90s, Saeed Jaffrey — with his pitch-perfect diction, swept-back hair and youthful exuberance — was just the answer. He was the father, the uncle one went to for advice — and yet could equally be the wag and the villain.
Few actors have straddled the worlds of British, American and Hindi cinema as well as Jaffrey did, be it a paanwala in Chashme Buddoor, a Lakhnavi nawab in Shatranj ke Khilari or a Thatcherite businessman in My Beautiful Laundrette.
Jaffrey acted in more than 100 films in India, as well as several British television series, including the sitcom Tandoori Nights, and in Shakespearean plays across the US. His impeccable diction and ability to speak both Urdu and British English also made him a familiar voice on BBC Radio and the Asian Network.
Jaffrey’s rendition of the Kama Sutra was listed by Time magazine as “one of the five best spoken word records ever”. He is also the first Asian to receive the Order of the British Empire for his services to drama in 1995.
Nawab, Sardar Patel, Gurkha soldier
Noting that Jaffrey was a “small man with a large physical presence”, an interviewer once said: “He is not shy of telling you about his achievements, or of quoting his glowing reviews. Still, after only a couple of hours, you can only feel fond of someone who’ll draw you a cartoon, sing you a song, and burst into tears at the memory of a friend.”
The eldest of four children, Jaffrey was born on 8 January 1929 in Punjab. His father, a physician, travelled from one posting to another and Jaffrey, as a result, studied in a number of schools. “I was exposed to a Muslim school, so I learnt Urdu. I was exposed to a Hindu school, so I learnt Hindi. I was exposed to a Church of England school, so I got my Senior Cambridge certificate,” he once said.
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In his autobiography, Saeed: An Actor’s Journey, Jaffrey mentions his first brush with acting, at Aligarh Muslim University’s Minto Circle School. “I shall always be grateful to him for having judiciously cast me, not as the lead, the last Mughal Emperor, Aurangzeb, but as the learned, liberal, tragic and Hamlet like Mughal prince, his brother, Dara Shikoh, whom the fanatical Aurangzeb eventually killed.”
After obtaining a Master’s Degree from Allahabad University in 1950, he joined All India Radio where he met his first wife, Madhur Bahadur, who later went on to become a well-known chef. Jaffrey set up his own English theatre group in Delhi in 1951, which performed works by Oscar Wilde, Dylan Thomas and William Shakespeare. In 1956, he got a Fulbright scholarship to study drama in the US.
In New York, the actor picked up whatever parts he could grab, including the role of Professor Godbole in the 1962 Broadway production of A Passage to India. But his first major film role came in 1975 when he played a Gurkha soldier, Billy Fish, in The Man Who Would Be King starring Michael Caine and Sean Connery.
It was Jaffrey who got Ismail Merchant and James Ivory together, and starred in several Merchant-Ivory films in the ’70s and ’80s. He later went on to star in Satyajit Ray’s Shatranj Ke Khiladi in 1977, a role that opened the doors to a slew of Bollywood films, including Ram Teri Ganga Maili, Heena and Chashme Buddoor.
Jaffrey also played the roles of Sardar Patel in Richard Attenborough’s iconic 1982 film Gandhi and as Raaz in the 1984 movie The Razor’s Edge with Bill Murray in the lead. From the ’80s onwards, he acted in a number of Bollywood potboilers, such as Chaalbaaz, Dil, Yeh Dillagi, Deewana Mastana and Judaai.
A man of quirks
Jaffrey once described his meeting with Ingrid Bergman at Harrods in London, where he was working as a sales assistant to supplement his work: “My former co-star Ingrid Bergman came in one day. I didn’t want her to feel sorry for me, so I put on my jacket and tie and acted like a customer. Ingrid said ‘Oh Saeed, how lovely to see you, are you buying up Harrods?’ When in fact, I had about two pounds in my pocket.”
That he was an absolute favourite among his friends can also be glanced in one of Mark Tully’s comments about the actor: “Saeed and I enjoy sitting and drinking and talking, but he has a very eccentric habit: whenever he comes to see me he brings his own whisky and his own water. I always tell him that he knows I have whisky in the house and that I’ve lived there for 20 years without dying of water-poisoning, but it makes no difference: he still brings them.”
Jaffrey passed away on 15 November 2015, in London. He was 86. The next year, in 2016, the Government of India awarded him a posthumous Padma Shri.
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