With the passing away of Saeed Jaffrey at the age of 86 (1929-2015), an era of scholarly, versatile and talented actors seems to have ended. Jaffrey was multi-talented and is an actor who spanned every performing media in several capacities in radio, theatre, television and cinema. Fluent in several languages such as English, Urdu and Hindi, Jaffrey could smoothly slip from one language to the other as seamlessly as he could from a historical film to a contemporary one.
He charted out the story of his life in his autobiography, Saaed An Actor’s Journey (1998), with as easy a candour as he essayed in varied roles in theatre, television and films across continents that span India, UK and the USA. He has worked in nearly 200 films in Hindi, English and Urdu over a long span and many successful television serials. His first Indian film was Satyajit Ray’s The Chess Players (Shatranj ke Khiladi) in 1977, in which he plays Mir Ali one of the two Nawabs, the other having been portrayed by Sanjeev Kumar, where the two Nawabs as so obsessively addicted to chess that they are oblivious to their respective jagirs (estates) being taken away by the British.
Richard Attenborough who portrayed the role of Lord Outram in the film, must have been impressed by Jaffrey’s performance because when he made Gandhi (1982), he cast Jaffrey in the historic role of Sardar Vallabbhai Patel. The year 1984 saw him perform important characters in three important mini-series on television that explored the complex relationship between India and the British Empire. These three series that became popular despite their historical context are – The Far Pavilions, Jewel in the Crown and A Passage to India.
His stepping into acting was almost by chance. On a trip to Delhi on holiday after college at Allahabad University, he befriended a group of young students on the train who invited him to a coffee house. He happened to overhear that All India Radio was looking for English-speaking announcers and he applied, and that led to a good job not only as an announcer, but also as writer of small stories and radio skits, monologues and plays. One of these demanded a cast of 35 actors and he performed all the characters himself! He got starring roles in amateur productions organised and presented by the newly formed Unity Theatre and this led him to bag a Fulbright scholarship to study drama in the US. He portrayed Professor Godbole in the Broadway production of A Passage to India in 1962.
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 series (1976-1978) followed much later by Tandoori Nights (1985-1987). Much earlier however, even before The Chess Players happened, he drew notice with his role in the John Huston directed The Man Who Would Be King (1975). He landed this important role because he and Michael Caine became good friends when they worked together in The Wilby Conspiracy (1975) and this brought him instant attention, and he had carved a niche for himself in films.
He will always be remembered for his portrayal of Naseer Ali in My Beautiful Launderette (1985) that fetched him a BAFTA nomination, his fleshing out of Raaz, a boatman, in an adaptation of Somerset Maugham’s The Razor’s Edge, about a man traumatised by the First World War finding spiritual solace in India and Nepal. He is the first Indian actor to have been bestowed the OBE (Order of British Empire). 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 voiced all 86 characters in the 1997 BBC World Service broadcast of Vikram Seth’s novel, A Suitable Boy.
From Shakespeare to Paul Scott to Somerset Maugham to Munshi Premchand, he has done it all and he leaves behind his works to learn from.