A generation might readily identify him as Madhuri Dixit’s tyrannical father in the 1990 film Dil, spewing angry dialogues on the lines of “Jise main aankh ka tara samajhta tha, usne badnami ka kajal banke mera mooh kala kar diya” (The one I had considered to be the apple of my eyes turned out to be the dark kohl of disgrace) but for Saeed Jaffrey the journey had begun much earlier. Jaffrey only ventured into Hindi films in the latter part of his career after having created a formidable body of work in the Western world. He became the first Asian to be awarded the Order of British Empire (OBE) for his contributions to the British stage. The veteran actor was a pioneer for having carved a niche for himself in the film industries of the West and East.
At 86, Saeed Jaffrey hung up his acting boots, succumbing to brain haemorrhage, leaving in his wake a filmography that takes the word ‘eclectic’ to new heights.
Born in Malerkotla to a well-connected Punjabi Muslim family, Jaffrey was the eldest of four siblings. His father was a doctor whose work took the family around north India when Saeed was growing up. After playing his first role as Dara Shikoh at the age of 10, Jaffrey got a whiff of where his calling might lie. But he completed his masters from Allahabad University in deference to his parents wishes. Thereon, one train trip to Delhi before joining his new job as an English teacher took his life in a new direction. He instantly landed a job as an announcer for All India Radio. Saeed’s commanding voice would remain an asset for the rest of his life. He went on to work for the radio in Britain too and his narration of the Kama Sutra for British radio was counted by Time magazine to be “one of the five best spoken word records ever made” in 1967.
Having an affinity for the stage, Jaffrey put together his own theatre group in Delhi in the early 1950s where he met his first wife, Madhur Jaffrey nee Bahadur. Though they divorced a decade later, Madhur retained the Jaffrey surname and established herself as a venerable food critic. But while the two were still together they explored New York, especially its theatrical possibilities. They were to become the serendipitous link that would bring together the legendary filmmaker duo James Ivory and Ismail Merchant. Somewhere in the middle, the two also took classes at Lee Strasberg’s Actor’s Studio where they brushed shoulders with the iconic Marilyn Monroe.
Jaffrey’s first big break in Hollywood came through his friendship with Michael Caine, who convinced John Huston to give him the role of Gurkha soldier Billy Fisher in The Man Who Would Be King (1975). Prior to that, the broke Jaffrey had returned to London, fresh from a divorce, and was forced to work at a luxury store to make ends meet. But his sheer talent on the stage could not go unnoticed for long as he became the first Indian to bag roles in West End plays. Curiously, being cast in Satyajit Ray’s The Chess Players in 1977 acquainted him with Richard Attenborough, also part of the cast, which led to his iconic act as Sardar Patel in the 1980 film Gandhi. Simultaneous to his film career taking off, Jaffrey also started appearing in memorable television series like Tandoori Nights and The Far Pavilions.
Jaffrey was one of the few actors who could juggle an understated role like the worldly-wise uncle in My Beautiful Laundrette in 1985 with that of a different sort of uncle in Ram Teri Ganga Maili in the same year. His flexible temperament is apparent in his seamless transition from doing cutting edge work to acting in as many as 12 films at the same time.
Known for his vivacious personality, Jaffrey also penned an autobiography on his colourful life, Saeed: An Actor’s Journey in 1998. As many in the global film fraternity observed, with Jaffrey’s demise fades out the era of rare Indian appearances on Western screens.