The veteran actor was an inimitable charmer who made his mark in every production he was a part of. For his 88th birth anniversary, we take a look at how he became a part of the films Shatranj Ke Khilari (1977) and Ek Baar Phir (1979).
How Saeed Jaffrey landed himself a part in Satyajit Ray’s Shatranj Ke Khilari
Mumbai - 08 Jan 2017 9:00 IST
A former All India Radio announcer and freelance broadcaster with the BBC, Saeed Jaffrey worked as a theatre artist in India and the USA, appearing in such plays as Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest and William Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew. After his divorce from Madhur Jaffrey in 1966, he moved to London and took up roles in British television shows like The Jewel in the Crown and The Far Pavilions in 1984. Actor Victor Banerjee called Jaffrey “the first Asian face of consequence on British television” and his presence probably helped the Indian actors who tried to get a break through internationally.
But before that, he made his Hindi feature film debut with Satyajit Ray’s Shatranj Ke Khilari (1977) winning Filmfare award for best supporting actor for his role as the nawab, Mir Roshan Ali. Jaffrey had an interesting story of how he landed the role in Ray’s first Hindi film. He initially met the director in 1972 on an Air India plane at the Beirut airport.
Jaffrey recalled their first meeting in the book Satyajit Ray: The Inner Eye: I had long hair then and was much thinner. There, standing quite close to me, was this tall, majestic figure of Satyajit Ray, a man I’d admired ever since I saw Pather Panchali in Delhi on the eve of my departure for the West. I felt that he sensed that I wanted to speak to him. So he eased the way and he said ‘You must be Saeed. You are Saeed Jaffrey, aren’t you?’ and I said ‘Yes, Mr Ray, I’ve been a great admirer of yours.’ He said, ‘I know quite a lot about you. You used to be married to Madhur. And you worked with James Ivory and Ismail Merchant and I saw you in The Guru and you were by far the best thing in it.’ This beautiful basso profoundo voice complimenting me in the middle of the night at Beirut Airport was too much for me. So I said ‘Is there any possibility of us working together?’ And he said ‘You’re a patient man. I know a lot about you. You’ve become good at waiting for the right opportunities. So could you wait a little longer? It’ll happen but I don’t know when.’
The opportunity arrived five years later but it was a significant part of Jaffrey’s career. On the sets of the film, he met Richard Attenborough (who played General James Outram in Shatranj Ke Khilari). Attenborough cast him as Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel in his award-winning film Gandhi (1982).
Director Vinod Pande who cast him in a cameo in his first film Ek Baar Phir (1979) too recalls how Saeed eventually assumed that he would be a part of Pande’s project. “[For the Saeed Jaffrey cameo], I wanted Rajendra Kumar to do the role. Everything in the original script was written [for] Rajendra Kumar. But I didn’t have the courage to ask him. Saeed was kind of my senior colleague in BBC. He used to take part in dramas. I hadn’t visualized him for the role, but one day, I [just] said, ‘Saeed bhai...’. He was also struggling. Those days, Indians were far and few to become really major actors [abroad]. He said, ‘How dare you think of anyone else?’ He fit the role eventually,” he said.
From thereon in, there was no stopping Jaffrey as he continued to balance his international projects like My Beautiful Laundrette (1985) and the British television series Coronation Street with his memorable roles in Hindi cinema in films such as Chashme Buddoor (1981), Masoom (1982), Saagar (1985) and Ram Lakhan (1989).