27 November 2015

The Karma Chameleon: Saeed Jaffrey

My Mumbai Mirror column last week:

Saeed Jaffrey was that rare actor who could fit in seemingly anywhere -- and yet carved out a very specific niche for himself.

There are few actors in the annals of cinema who have straddled such different worlds as Saeed Jaffrey -- American theatre, British sitcoms, Indian art cinema and the commercial Bombay potboiler. Crucial to Jaffrey's chameleon-like ability to switch between these industries was his ability to sound both authentically British and authentically Indian. Language was key. 

A young Jaffrey was initiated simultaneously into acting and British-accented English at boarding schools in Mussoorie in the 1940s. He credited his refined Urdu to his time at Aligarh Muslim University, where he earned a BA and MA in history. In 1951, Jaffrey began his actual acting career by founding a theatre repertory company called Unity Theatre in Delhi.

The first production, a Jean Cocteau play, had Saeed in the lead opposite a young actress called Madhur Bahadur, with whom he promptly fell "madly in love". Madhur (later to become famous as an Indian cookery expert) left to study at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts, and Saeed followed. His first stint abroad was in the US, where he studied Speech and Drama at the Catholic University. Madhur married Saeed, and the couple spent the late 1950s between Washington DC and New York doing plays, working with Lee Strasberg's Acting Studio, while surviving off public relations and radio jobs, with everything from the New York Times' radio channel and the Government of India's Tourist Office. 

It was only in the mid-60s, after his marriage ended, that Jaffrey moved to London. There he remained for the rest of his life, moving gradually from theatre into cinema. Being a brown man in a largely white acting scene, it made complete (if depressing) sense that many of Jaffrey's early roles in English films had him playing servant, or at least second fiddle to the film's protagonists. Meanwhile, in Hindi cinema, his combination of mellifluous Urdu and BBC English lent itself to aristocratic -- or at least upper class -- characters. 

So, for instance, one of Jaffrey's first big international roles was in John Huston's adaptation of Kipling's colonial fantasy, The Man Who Would Be King, where he starred (alongside such grandees as Michael Caine and Sean Connery) as Gurkha soldier Billy Fish, who becomes the primary interpreter between the British soldiers and the Afghan villagers with his ungrammatical pidgin English. 

His start in the Indian film industry could not have been more different. In Satyajit Ray's Shatranj ke Khiladi (1978), Jaffrey played a leisure-loving noblemen of the Awadh court. The film is set in the period of Nawab Wajid Ali Shah, when the Lucknow court was seen as the acme of culture, and Jaffrey's mellifluous Urdu was integral to his deliciously circumspect turn as Mir Raushan Ali: a man happy to turn a blind eye to his wife's amorous adventures, matters of state, and even matters of death, so long as he is free to carry on what has become to him the real business of life —the eating of paan, and the playing of chess. 

Jaffrey's networks were wide by now, and he earned the rewards. Getting to know Richard Attenborough, who played General Outram in Shatranj Ke Khiladi, landed him a role as Sardar Patel in the Oscar-winning Gandhi. His friendship with Ismail Merchant and James Ivory, who in fact met through the Jaffreys in New York, led to several roles in their films. 

Indian audiences began to recognise him after blockbusters like Raj Kapoor's last film Ram Teri Ganga Maili (1985), where he played Rajiv Kapoor's Kunj Mausa with an entertaining touch of camp. But my most enduring memory of Jaffrey in a commercial Hindi film is his performance as the khaandaani raees industrialist Mehra in Indra Kumar's 1990 hit Dil. The film's romantic track between Aamir Khan and Madhuri Dixit plays alongside a comic-dramatic track between their fathers played by Anupam Kher and Saeed Jaffrey. 

Kher is a small-time trader in recycled goods called Hazariprasad, who cons the super-rich Mehra (Jaffrey) into having his daughter marry Hazariprasad's son. Mehra's chief characteristic is immeasurable wealth, and so Jaffrey's 'entry' has him emerge from a chauffeur-driven car, surrounded by a posse of suits he is waving aside. "Pachaas lakh? Pachaas lakh is nothing... ", switching to English to achieve the desired dismissive effect: "It's peanuts. Do you know peanuts?" "Yes, sir, moongphali... " comes the baffled reply. There is something brilliantly believable about Jaffrey's presentation of self as both cultured old wealth and snazzily up-to-date. The pipe-smoking goes hand-in-hand with lavish temple donations and the morning run on the beach, with his executives panting alongside. 

While he may seem carelessly collegial over a shared bottle of whiskey at the club, Mehra is nothing if not conscious of status. The discovery that his prospective samdhi is a 'mere' kabaadiya is met by a brutal public put-down that almost turns him into the villain. This is followed by a Jaffrey not many had seen until then: a crazed patriarch with bloodshot eyes and a loaded gun. 

But the collegial air was one that Jaffrey drew on often. One of the best-known of these performances was as Delhi businessman Suri in Shekhar Kapur's first film Masoom (1980). As Naseeruddin Shah's close friend, Suri is emotionally unhelpful but warmly garrulous, most memorable for breaking into 'Huzoor Is Kadar Toh Na Itraa Ke Chaliye' at a Delhi house party. I've never seen anyone do a drunken-ghazal-duet better. 

His other classic 'Delhi' performance, of course, was Sai Paranjpye's Chashme Buddoor (1981), in which he played the friendly neighbourhood paanwaala to a trio of aspiring young Romeos, doling out cigarettes and romantic encouragement with equal joie de vivre. Jaffrey brought to Lallan Miyan his trademark linguistic brio, managing to be both lungi-clad and urbane at the same time.

As in all of Jaffrey's performances, he brought a puckish, comic touch to his more melancholy roles (think of Shatranj Ke Khiladi) and a raffishness to his comedy. But urbanity was perhaps Jaffrey's strongest suit, and he could achieve it in each milieu you set him in.
Published in Mumbai Mirror.

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