Saeed Jaffrey had a distinctive voice, a mischievous smile, sharp eyes, and a proven ability to get under the skin of his characters. Versatile in genres, mediums and languages, Jaffrey (1929-2015) left behind a massive body of work in cinema, theatre and television. He appeared in arthouse films, crossover cinema, mainstream productions, British titles about the Raj, historicals, comedies, television series and shorts. He was Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel (in Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi) and hooch supplier (Yash Chopra’s Mashaal), affluent Delhi resident (Shekhar Kapur’s Masoom) and police commissioner (Ram Lakhan). Here are some of his best-known roles.
The Man Who Would be King (1975)
Jaffrey was part of a small but distinctive club of Indian actors who appeared in international productions set in and around India in the 1970s and ’80s. His initial exposure as an actor was in the West rather than the East. Jaffrey studied at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London and toured the United States of America as part of a theatre company staging William Shakespeare’s plays. Among his earliest screen roles are in Rolf Forsberg’s Christian-themed short films Parable (1964) and Stalked (1968).
Jaffrey bagged an important part in John Huston’s The Man Who Would be King, an adventure about two British officers who briefly become the rulers of a country that resembles Afghanistan. Jaffrey plays Billy Fish, a Gurkha soldier who is a translator and guide for the British gents and frequently uses the phrase “Oh me, by jove, alas.”
Jaffrey’s received pronunciation accent made him a suitable choice for Indian roles in British television. In the 1984 Granada Television series) The Jewel in the Crown, he appears as the Nawab of Mirat, one of many fictitious princely states that are struggling to cope with the collapse of British rule in India. British audiences were already familiar with Jaffrey from the television series Gangsters, set in Birmingham. Jaffrey plays Aslam Rafiq, the dapper boss of an illegal immigrant trafficking ring.
Shatranj Ke Khiladi (1977)
In Satyajit Ray’s Urdu adaptation of Premchand’s short story, Jaffrey and Sanjeev Kumar play indolent nawabs in nineteenth-century Awadh whose love for chess is a metaphor for their inability (or refusal) to engage with the political events around them. Jaffrey’s command over Urdu and his ability to suggest mischief serve his character superbly.
Chashme Buddoor (1981)
Sai Paranjpye gave Jaffrey one of his best-known roles in her delightful Delhi-set comedy. Jaffrey plays Lallan Mian, the paan seller who supplies cigarettes on loan and free advice to the characters played by Farooque Shaikh, Ravi Baswani and Rakesh Bedi.
Courtesans of Bombay (1983)
With his ability to suggest a bridge between Eastern and Western acting styles, Jaffrey was a regular face in Merchant Ivory Productions. In Ismail Merchant’s part-documentary and part-fiction Courtesans of Bombay, he plays one of three characters who introduce viewers to the realities of courtesan culture in Mumbai. Jaffrey plays an actor who is fixated on the dancers and is a regular patron of their performances.
From the mid-1980s onwards, Jaffrey appeared in a string of mainstream Hindi films, mostly as the kindly patriarch. Here he is in Ramesh Sippy’s Saagar as Dimple Kapadia’s father. Kapadia plays a poor Christian woman who falls in love with Rishi Kapoor’s wealthy industrialist.
Ram Teri Ganga Maili (1985)
In Raj Kapoor’s controversial drama, Saeed Jaffrey plays Kunj Bihari, who atones for his past sins and rescues the wrong Ganga (Mandakini) from damnation.
Hero Hiralal (1988)
Jaffrey was also a regular face in Indian parallel cinema, such as in Ketan Mehta’s meta-movie Hero Hiralal. Jaffery plays Aziz, the courteous and helpful owner of an Irani café.
Rumple of the Bailey (1991)
Jaffrey continued to appear in British television. He is a Pakistani doctor who is accused of molesting his patient in Rumpole of the Bailey, the BBC adaptation of John Mortimer’s stories and novels featuring a London barrister.
One of Jaffrey’s most challenging roles is in Canadian filmmaker Srinivas Krishna’s little-seen debut. Masala is described by the New York Times as an “audacious comedy” in which the director, writer and lead actor “has larded some of the quirkier aspects of Indian commercial movies into a film that is already an experiment in scrambled genres”. Jaffrey plays three roles: Lord Krishna, who frequently has arguments with his devotee (Zohra Sehgal), and the two of the lead character’s uncles.
Here is Saeed Jaffrey explaining the difference between Indian and foreign film productions in an interview to the video series Lehren.
And in a more recent interview from 2012, Jaffrey encapsulates his remarkable career and tells us about his approach to his craft. “Acting is keeping so many characters alive,” he tells the interviewer.
Jaffrey also lent his unforgettable voice to the story of The Musical Donkey for the audio series Karadi Tales.