The year was 2000. Producer-director Ismail Merchant, one half of the renowned Merchant-Ivory duo, was on a visit to India. During the course of an interview with this writer, he had mentioned Saeed Jaffrey, his frequent professional colleague and close friend. ‘Saeed is such a fine actor. The camera is his best friend,’ he had said about Jaffrey, who had featured in Merchant-Ivory films like The Guru, The Courtesans of Bombay and The Deceivers.
Almost two decades have gone by. Merchant has passed away, and so has James Ivory. Saeed Jaffrey, too, is no more, which is yet another reminder of the transience of life.
Born on January 8, 1929, the multi-faceted Jaffrey is remembered by many as the actor who played Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel in Sir Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi. In Satyajit Ray’s Shatranj Ke Khiladi, a period film set in the times of the Indian rebellion of 1857, he was Mir Roshan Ali, a chess-besotted Awadhi nobleman. It was an outstanding performance – and just one among many in his distinguished career.
Son of bureaucrat and physician Hamid Hussain Jaffrey, Jaffrey was born in Malerkotla, Punjab, in the pre-independence era. The Jaffrey family led a peripatetic life, and the actor got his BA degree in 1948, followed by MA degree from Allahabad University. Nine years later, he received his second postgraduate degree, this time in fine arts and drama, from The Catholic University of America.
Jaffrey wasn’t one of those fortunate actors who find success without breaking a sweat. His search for a job led him to one with the External Services of All India Radio where he started working as an announcer in English in 1951.
New Delhi was the place where his dreams were born on stage. He set up the Unity Theatre, a repertory company for English theatre, along with Benji Benegal and Frank Thakurdas. The company staged plays of considerable literary worth, among them TS Eliot’s The Cocktail Party and Dylan Thomas’s Under Milk Wood.
His career on stage was, well and truly, extraordinary. In 1958, he joined Lee Strasberg’s Actors Studio and played the lead in Federico Garcia Lorca’s Blood Wedding. The actor in him was drawn to William Shakespeare, leading to his work in several Shakespeare plays. The late 50s was the period when he met the Merchant-Ivory duo, which resulted in his providing the narration for James Ivory’s short film The Sword and the Flute and Ismail Merchant’s Oscar-nominated short film, The Creation of Woman.
His was a career with many milestones. In David Lean’s film A Passage to India based on the EM Forster novel, Sir Alec Guinness had played Professor Godbole. Jaffrey, who had played the character in a stage adaptation of the novel at Broadway’s Ambassador Theatre in 1962, was also seen in the Lean film as Advocate Hamidullah.
Forever on the lookout for challenges in his momentous career, the multi-faceted Jaffrey used his diction to brilliant effect in his narration of Kama Sutra titled Tale of Love, which brought him international acclaim.
He performed in renowned venues, including London’s much-revered West End theatre. He also acted on British television and is remembered for his performances in The Far Pavilions and The Jewel in the Crown, apart from the ITV soap opera Coronation Street.
Jaffrey brought a unique sensitivity to his acting. Among his big-screen characters is Dr, Anil Mukarjee, an Indian dentist, in Ralph Nelson’s Sidney Poitier starrer The Wilby Conspiracy. In John Huston’s multi-starrer The Man Who Would Be King, he was a Gurkha guide and translator who calls himself Billy Fish. In Stephen Frears’s My Beautiful Laundrette, he was Nasser Ali, a successful entrepreneur.
Hindi filmgoers would remember him for his acting forays in Bollywood, which include his turns as Suri in Shekhar Kapoor’s Masoom, Mayor Agarwal in Shyam Benegal's Mandi, Yakub Saeed in Pankaj Parashar’s Jalwa and Mr D’Silva in Ramesh Sippy’s Saagar. It must be said that Jaffrey also acted in several mediocre and bad Hindi films, but his skills as an actor were never in doubt.
On November 14, 2015, Jaffrey passed away in London. He was 86 years old. A great ambassador of Indian talent, he was the architect of many memories which won’t get blurred with the passage of time.