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Saeed Jaffrey: Small man, big actor

For Saeed Jaffrey, life was one enormous stage

Veenu Sandhu 

Saeed Jaffrey
JANUARY 8, 1929-NOVEMBER 14, 2015

In 1975, when Satyajit Ray was planning Shatranj ke Khilari, the posters of John Huston's The Man Who Would Be King were released. Apart from Sean Connery and Michael Caine, a third actor's name appeared on those posters: "Also starring Saeed Jaffrey".

That was Jaffrey's first appearance on any movie poster. In the film, he played Billy Fish, a Gorkha soldier who speaks English like an Englishman and a local language, and acts as an interpreter to the two rogue adventure-seeking soldiers, Connery and Caine.

Two years later came Shatranj ke Khilari. This time Jaffrey appeared as Mir Roshan Ali, a chess-obsessed nobleman from Lucknow. His Urdu was impeccable. Billy Fish and Mir Roshan Ali could well have been played by two different people. Such was the finesse and perfection with which Jaffrey pulled off the two roles.

Jaffrey was a global actor at a time when the concept of global actors didn't exist. "He had one foot in Mumbai and the other in London," recalls film maker Shyam Benegal who worked with him in Mandi. "He was that rare actor who could bridge that gap of accent, diction and style that most actors even today struggle with when working in international films."

He was as comfortable acting in movies in India as he was in Hollywood or in British films, soap operas or television series like My Beautiful Laundrette, Coronation Street, The Jewel In The Crown and Tandoori Nights.

The scale and range of Jaffrey's work is staggering: radio, stage, television, movies, children's audio books and animation films. He didn't just open the world stage to Indian actors, he achieved a lot more: he was the first Indian actor to appear on Broadway (as Professor Godbole in A Passage to India), the first to tour Shakespeare across the United States, and the first to be awarded the Order of the British Empire for contribution to drama.

Among his most trusted companions in his journey was his voice, and he made the most of it, especially on the medium that is to be heard not seen - the radio. All India Radio loved him and so did BBC Radio Four and BBC World Service, for which he broadcast innumerable scripts in Hindi, Urdu and English.

Jaffrey could be many people at a time. In an interview in The Independent, Mark Tully, the well-known BBC representative in Delhi, talked about the time in London when he worked with Jaffrey. Tully was then the Hindi programme organiser. For a programme called "Guest of the Week", people would be interviewed in English, the interview would be translated into Hindi and then Jaffrey would enact it. One particular interview was with the last person in charge of the infamous prison in the Andamans under British Raj. "Saeed did this old man's quavering voice. He hadn't just got an old man, he'd got this particular old man - and I began laughing and just couldn't stop... In the end I was laughing so much we had to stop production," Tully recounted in the interview.

Film maker Sai Paranjpye's laughter carries a tinge of nostalgia as she remembers the extent to which Jaffrey would go to bring perfection to his role, however small. Who can forget Lallan Miyan from Paranjpye's Chashme Buddoor, even though he got barely 15 minutes of screen time in the movie?

"Jaffrey was playing an Old Delhi paanwala and was very fussy about getting the right name for his character, something like Chaggan or Babban," recounts Paranjpye. "He had the entire unit racking its brains for a name for him - including the spot boy. But he didn't like any."

Then early one winter morning, Paranjpye got a call. "The caller said something to the effect of, 'Hum Lallan Miyan bol rahe hain; paan laaye hain'. The penny dropped. It was Jaffrey calling to announce that he had found a name for himself and to tell us how useless we all were."

He was very Dickensesque in his approach, says Paranjpye, with an eye for detail. "He changed so many of the dialogues. Usually I am very finicky with the dialogues, but he improved so much on them, I would have been a fool not be let him have his way," she says.

"Warm, protective - and dramatic," is how Deepti Naval, who started her film career with Jaffrey in Ek Baar Phir and did three other films with him, remembers him.

Jaffrey was always full of stories. Every person who was part of his stories had to be mimicked by this incorrigible actor: Raj Kapoor (in whose Ram Teri Ganga Maili he acted), Richard Attenborough (in whose Gandhi he played Sardar Patel) and Ingrid Bergman (his co-star in Captain Brassbound's Conversion).

Like his acting, Jaffrey's life had many layers and shades. Born in Punjab, he lived in several places in his formative years as his father, a physician and civil servant, got transferred regularly. On the way, he picked up many influences and perfected his Hindi, English and Urdu.

His personal life was complex. His marriage to Madhur (nee Bahadur) Jaffrey, actor and food writer, fell apart owing to, by Jaffrey's own admission, an extra-marital affair. Several sexcapades followed, which Jaffrey describes at great length in his honest but not the most evolved autobiography, Saeed: An Actor's Journey. He later married Jennifer Sorrell, a casting director, who survives him along with his three children from his first marriage.

Jaffrey lived life to the hilt. "Like me, he had a certain fondness for the Scottish spirit," laughs Benegal. "He could down quite a few and then he would not be the most charming man in the world - which he was."

Jaffrey was unabashed about everything, especially his achievements, one of which included bringing Ismail Merchant and James Ivory together. He once described Merchant as a talented, sensitive man who was useless at selling himself and Ivory as someone who could sell anything. It was Madhur and Saeed Jaffrey who introduced them to each other at a dinner - and Merchant Ivory, the production company that earned 31 Academy award nominations, was born.

At one point in time, Jaffrey decided to relocate to London, for good. He enjoyed living and playing the many shades of life. But commercial Indian cinema only saw two - black and white. Jaffrey was done. "He was never in it for the money," recalls Benegal. "He was in it purely for the joy of it."

Jaffery once told Anupam Kher when Kher was a struggling actor: "Miyan, safar ka maza lo (enjoy the journey)." He did.

Behind the scenes
CHASHME BUDDOOR: During the shooting, Jaffrey spotted an onlooker in a magenta lungi with a blazing Taj Mahal on it and shouted, "Cut, cut cut," recalls Sai Paranjpye, the film's director. That's the lungi he wanted to be filmed in. "Even as I watched, one or two or my production guys went running to that chap and came back waving his lungi victoriously like a flag." The lungi-owner was thrilled that his attire was in such demand. "Jaffrey promptly wrapped the magenta lungi around - dirty, unwashed, in whatever state it was," laughs Paranjpye. "Much later, he said, 'I hope I don't get crabs (lice). And I replied, 'You deserve it if you do.'"

SHATRANJ KE KHILARI: This 1977 film, in a way, set the stage for Jaffrey's appearance in Richard Attenborough's Oscar-winning Gandhi (1982). In Shatranj ke Khilari, Attenborough played General James Outram. During the film, he got to know Jaffrey well and reached out to him to play Sardar Patel in Gandhi.

THE MAN WHO WOULD BE KING: During the shooting of the film, Michael Caine and Sean Connery would get chairs with their names on it, while Jaffrey would be given a stool to sit on. After Caine kicked up a storm about this, a chair with Jaffrey's name on it arrived.

First Published: Sat, November 21 2015. 00:29 IST