Alyque Padamsee, who died on November 17, had an illustrious career in advertising and on the stage, but he appeared in only one film – and what a film it turned out to be. In Richard Attenborough’s celebrated biopic Gandhi (1982), Padamsee played Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the lawyer, All-India Muslim League leader and founder of Pakistan. Padamsee brought dignity to an unsympathetic role, and his is among the best-known portrayals of the leader on the screen.
Attenborough was not in the least discouraged that Padamsee had no film experience, the ad-man recalls in his autobiography A Double Life (Penguin India, 2000). The main cast of the film, including Ben Kingsley as Mahatma Gandhi, Rohini Hattangady as Kasturba Gandhi, Roshan Seth as Jawaharlal Nehru, and Saeed Jaffrey as Vallabhbhai Patel, were all from the stage. “Movie actors are fine, but I have more faith in actors from the theatre,” Attenborough told Padamsee. “I hope there’ll be some money in it,” Padamsee hopefully asked Attenborough, only to get the reply, “Well, not much. This is an art film.”
Other factors worked in Padamsee’s favour. He had met Attenborough only once before, at a party, and the director was taken by Padamsee’s height and personality. “Well, Jinnah was an autocratic man. And I see in you all the same signs,” Padamsee quotes Attenborough as having said. “…you are also tall and slim, which is what Jinnah was, and you have this air of being able to command people. You raise your eyebrow and people immediately get nervous. Which is what Jinnah was known for.”
Padamsee’s research included conversations with his friend Rustom Gagrat, who had worked with Jinnah, and eminent lawyer HM Seervai. Padamsee includes in his memoir an anecdote about Jinnah recounted by Seervai. During a dinner at Governor Roger Lumley’s house in Mumbai, the governor’s wife made a disparaging remark about the off-shoulder gown worn by Rattanbai, Jinnah’s Parsi wife. An incensed Jinnah politely but firmly excused himself from the gathering. “Jinnah wasn’t the kind of man who was cowed down by anyone, not even the British,” Padamsee writes.
Part of Padamsee’s preparations for the role included being flown to London to be fitted in suits that matched Jinnah’s “sartorial elegance”. Padamsee writes, “…the clothes had to be cut in style of the famous Savile Row suits that Jinnah favoured. Made from alpaca material, the kind that never creases.”
The first scene that Padamsee shot featured Jinnah addressing a Congress Party convention in 1916. The convention resulted in the declaration of Home Rule and co-operation between the Congress party and Jinnah’s Muslim League towards the common goal of independence.
Padamsee recalls Attenborough’s “professional and thoughtfulness” on the sets. Padamsee did three takes of the stirring speech that Jinnah gives in favour of self-rule. The first was too theatrical, the second too subdued. Focus on the eyes and not on bodily movements, Attenborough advised Padamsee: “Film actors act with their eyes”. Padamsee hit his stride in the third take.
Padamsee also wrote what he calls “the most successful ad” of his career during the Gandhi shoot. He shot for a total of seven weekends, since he was working the rest of the days. Attenborough requested Padamsee to write the copy for a call for extras for the sequence of Gandhi’s funeral procession at Rajpath in Delhi. The idea was to invite all of Delhi to appear as members of the procession.
“The ad I worked on was released in Hindustan Times on 30 January 1981 and it simply said, ‘On 31 January, history will be re-created. Will you be there?’” Padamsee writes. “When we got to the location in the morning, there were hardly about five people who had responded to the ad. Then ten people came. Then five hundred. Then five thousand. And eventually the whole of Rajpath was full. Attenborough shot for the entire day with about eight cameras and he provided all those who turned up with packed lunches. No one got paid, of course. But the movie shot of thousands and thousands of people on Rajpath is awesome.”
After the shoot was completed, Padamsee asked Attenborough if he could keep the six suits that had been tailored for him for the shoot. The request was turned down since the suits had to be returned to the costume supplier, but Attenborough did give Padamsee the prop of the monocle worn by his character. It cost 10 pounds, the budget-conscious director reminded Padamsee. “It’s one of my heirlooms which will be passed on in my family, I hope, for generations,” Padamsee writes.