Saeed Jaffrey belongs to that rare breed of actors who not only strode successfully across every performing platform from the stage to radio to television and cinema, but was also in demand for their fluidity in and command over languages. Saeed excelled in three – Urdu, Hindi and English. With his passing away on November 15, 2015 at the ripe age of 86, the performance history of Indian culture and the arts marks the end of an era when scholarly and cerebral men and women could infuse their performance with a fine balance of the emotional with the cerebral.
Saeed Jaffrey was born on 8th January, 1929 in an educated family in Malerkotla Punjab and travelled a lot around the north Indian cities with his father who was a medical officer in the public health department. His parents wished he would join the civil services but he had no intention of doing so. He managed to convince his father that he would apply for the post of an English teacher in an elite boarding school after his graduation from Allahabad University. Planning to spend some time in Delhi before joining his new post, he boarded a train to Delhi. But fate had other plans for him which changed the course of his life forever. He made friends with some youngsters who invited him to their favourite watering hole in Delhi. He heard that All India Radio was looking for English-speaking announcers. He not only got the job but engaged in a lot of multi-tasking at a time when the word had probably not entered the English lexicon. He wrote stories, monologues and plays and himself did all the 35 roles in one of them. He got noticed for his layered talents in communication and writing and he joined Unity Theatre that gave him major roles followed by glowing reviews. Soon, he was off to the US to study drama on a Fullbright Scholarship. He founded an English-language theatre company, mounting classic plays by, among others, Shakespeare, Wilde, Fry, Priestley and Tennessee Williams.
Cine buffs were bowled over his performance as Mir Roshal Ali in his first Indian film, Satyajit Ray’s beautiful period historical Shatranj Ke Khilari (1977) based on Munshi Premchand’s story of the same name. Before that in 1975 came Rudyard Kipling’s The Man Who Would Be King directed by John Huston. “In John Huston’s adaptation Jaffrey played Billy Fish, the hero’s translator, and for this he spoke Urdu, though as it was shot in Morocco the locals replied in Arabic. Jaffrey invested some nobility in what could have been a thankless, clichéd role,” writes Naseem Khan in a tribute (November 16, 2015).
He almost fled to London when his marriage to Madhur Jaffrey ended in divorce leaving the three daughters to be brought up by their mother. Because of his command over Urdu and English diction, and his wonderful voice, in London, Jaffrey landed a job with the BBC World Service. His television experience is dotted with memorable performances in the Gangsters (1976-1978) series followed much later by Tandoori Nights (1985-1987).
Jaffrey had a very impressive track record spanning nearly 200 film and television roles the most memorable ones in public memory being his portrayal of the character of Vallabbhai Patel in Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi (1982) besides My Beautiful Laundereette (1985), A Passage to India and The Jewel in the Crown matched with equally outstanding performances on radio. His portrayal of Nasser Ali in My Beautiful Launderette fetched him a BAFTA nomination. In 1984 the year before, Jaffrey appeared in a trio of high-profile productions examining Britain’s relation to India: the TV mini-series The Far Pavilions and The Jewel in the Crown, and the film A Passage to India. Granada’s The Jewel in the Crown, a 14-part adaptation of Paul Scott’s Raj Quartet, is perhaps the best evocation of the last days of the Raj. Jaffrey gave a power-packed performance as the Nawab of Mirat.
He slowly but surely created a distinct style of his own and invested it with his natural ability to grasp the finer nuances of a given characters, be it the acidic but good-humoured paanwallah in Chashme Buddoor (1981) or the strong, empathetic friend of the hero in Shekhar Kapur’s Masoom (1982). He did develop some mannerisms mainly in the way of throwing his dialogue but he remained lovable even then occasionally venturing into a negative character in crass mainstream films like Dil (1990). For Chashme Buddoor, he spent time with a paan-seller in preparation for the role he was to play, and that meticulousness continued to be part of his approach to acting.
Saaed Jaffrey’s roster of films for mainstream Bollywood films is as long as one’s arm. Among these are Saagar (1985), Khudgarz (1987), Khoon Bhari Maang (1988), Eeshwar (1989), Chaalbaaz (1989), Ram Lakhan (1989), Henna (1991), Suryavanshi (1992), Judaai (1997) and many others. He charted out the story of his life in his autobiography, Saeed: An Actor’s Journey (1998), with as easy a candor as he essayed in varied roles in theatre, television and films across continents that span India, UK and the USA.
He is the first Indian actor to have been bestowed the OBE, which he received in 1995. His narration of the Kama Sutra titled The Art of Love(1996) was listed by Time magazine as “one of the five best spoken word records ever made”. He also voiced all 86 characters in the 1997 BBC World Service broadcast of Vikram Seth’s novel, A Suitable Boy.
In later years, despite his failing health, Jaffrey continued to broadcast, where his feeling for Urdu poetry provided a great facet of this engaging and contradictory man. He also had a stint on Coronation Street in 1999 as Ravi Desai, who ran the corner shop, and took his last film role, in Everywhere and Nowhere, in 2011.