Actor with an edge

Actor with an edge

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Actor with an edge

Saeed Jaffrey — the mere mention of his name conjures up that expressive face with those twinkling eyes, and his stylish and clear dialogue delivery. You could recognise that distinctive voice anywhere, in English, Hindi or Urdu. His pronunciation was flawless.

Jaffrey’s presence brought a sense of old world charm and grace. And this trademark élan and sophistication shone through his amazing career, straddling the totally different worlds of English and Hindi cinema with ease. There were so many Jaffreys in this one remarkable actor: the hookah-smoking nobleman Mir Roshan Ali, totally obsessed with chess in Shatranj ke Khiladi, with his perfect Urdu; the kindly paanwallah Lallan Miyan with his chaste Lucknowi Hindi in Chashme Baddoor; the dark-complexioned politician and freedom fighter Valabhbhai Patel in Gandhi, the Gurkha Billy Fish in The King and I; the businessman Nasser in My Beautiful Laundrette — his range as an actor never ceased to amaze.

East & west

The same actor played in other Hollywood hits like The Wilby Conspiracy and The Man Who Would Be King, appearing every bit the Westernised actor. Every director must have believed he was perfect for the role in which they had cast him — and so did the audience, which is what a great actor can do when he is completely in love with acting, as Jaffrey Saab was — take his role as Naseeruddin Shah’s friend Suri in Masoom (directed by Shekhar Kapur): when the two friends break into that famous “...huzur is kadar bhi na itra ke chaliye..” (sung by Bhupinder and Suresh Wadkar), you think that the casting is perfect. But then, so too were any of the hundreds of roles this man played on screen and stage.

He had worked with directors across the spectrum, from Satyajit Ray (Shatranj ke Khiladi), Sir Richard Attenborough (Gandhi), John Huston (The King and I), Raj Kapoor (Ram Teri Ganga Maili and Henna), David Lean (A Passage to India), Shekhar Kapur (Masoom), Stephen Frears (My Beautiful Laundrette), Sai Paranjpye (Chashme Buddoor) and with James Ivory in many of his films…

Beginnings on stage

Like many great actors, he was deeply rooted in theatre, and had even formed his own theatre company in Delhi, doing plays by Shakespeare, Tennessee Williams and Christopher Fry. He applied for and got a Fulbright Scholarship, which took him to Washington DC and an MA in drama from the Catholic University in 1957. He stayed on to do Broadway plays, and played Professor Godbole in the play adaptation of A Passage to India. He later married Madhur, but they divorced each other in 1966. He married his second wife, Jennifer Sorrel, in 1988, and they stayed together until his death on November 15, 2015. Jaffrey was 86 years old.

He may have made a mark as an international actor and become a famous name across the UK through his portrayal of a South Asian through many TV series such as Tandoori Nights, The Far Pavilions, The Jewel in the Crown and Coronation Street — but to us Indians, he was our very own Saeed Jaffrey Saab, having acted in over 100 Hindi films. His portrayal of Lallan Miyan in Chashme Baddoor brought to the big screen the special relationship that thousands of Indians share in real life with their regular paanwallah. And indeed, that is the first thought that struck me when news of his passing came on the social media — that hamare Lallan Miyan guzar gaye. And the thousands of tributes that flooded social media platforms reflected the love and admiration that this country had for the man.

He was the first Asian to be awarded the Order of the British Empire in 1995 for his contribution to drama, and had also won the Filmfare Award in 1978 for Shatranj je Khiladi — recognition from the two worlds he strode across with ease. He was renowned for his impromptu recitations of Urdu and Persian poetry, and one cannot help feeling that he has already started entertaining the Other World with his couplets. Shukhriya and Good bye, hamare achche Lallan Miyan! Phir milenge...

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