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How Saeed Jaffrey and Michael Caine became friends over a stool – Birth anniversary special


On the versatile actor's birth anniversary, we take a look at his rise in world cinema despite racial discrimination.

Shriram Iyengar

In an age when Indian cinema is finding its feet on the global stage, we would do well to remember a few pioneers who stepped out into the world much before Deepika Padukone or Priyanka Chopra ventured into Hollywood. Among these, Saeed Jaffrey is a name treated with much respect in British and American film and theatre circles.

Born to a Punjabi family in Malerkotla, Punjab, Jaffrey went on to become one of the more recognized Indian names in British theatre.

However, Indian cinema did not offer him the same variety. Despite some iconic roles in films like Shatranj Ke Khilari (1977) or, later, Chashme Buddoor (1981), Jaffrey would never break out of the stereotype of sophisticated industrialist that the industry reserved for him. 

Saeed Jaffrey (R) with Sanjeev Kumar in Shatranj Ke Khilari (1977)

Jaffrey's fame abroad rested on his versatility. Having worked in institutions like RADA (Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts) and performed Shakespeare, he soon found the English atmosphere more suitable to his talents. From Shakespearean theatre to Beckett's plays, Jaffrey proved to be a success.

His breakthrough in cinema arrived with the 1971 film The Horsemen. Scripted by Dalton Trumbo and starring Omar Sharif and Jack Palance, it was Jaffrey's role of the district chief that got him the attention of the casting agents for American-Irish director John Huston.

Soon, he was auditioning for Huston's The Man Who Would Be King (1975).

The film was a wonderfully quirky tale of the rise and fall of two English soldiers (Sean Connery and Michael Caine) on a desolate and fictional Kafiristan. Jaffrey played the scheming Gurkha soldier, Billy Fish, who helps the two Englishmen find their fortunes and also makes some for himself.

In one of his finest performances, Jaffrey captured the essence of his character while displaying the unique style of delivery that set him apart. The film also introduced him to an actor who went on to become a close friend — Michael Caine. 

In an incident that was a marker of the times, the actor from India found himself without a chair during the outdoor shooting sequences for The Man Who Would Be King. So, while director Huston, actor Caine and former 007 Sean Connery sat down on chairs with their names on it, Jaffrey would take his place on a humble stool close by. An unassuming man, he continued to work in the stifling heat while relaxing on his tiny stool during the breaks. 

The crew, unfamiliar with the Indian actor, never realized that his role in the film was just as substantial, or that he was an accomplished artiste in his own right. Yet, not once did Jaffrey complain to Huston or to anyone else about the unfair treatment.

As Jaffrey described it in an interview to the British newspaper The Independent in 1999, "On the first day of filming The Man Who Would Be King [John Huston's take on the Kipling short story] this racist assistant director said, 'Mr Connery, this is your chair with your name on it. Mr Caine, this is yours.' So Michael said, 'Where is Saeed's chair?' The assistant said, 'I've got him a stool. Indians are used to sitting anywhere.' So Michael shouted, 'Come here, you racist, fucking gofer. Where is Saeed's bloody chair?' Within half an hour, I had my chair — with my name on it!" 

In spite of Caine's largesse and kind heart, it is Jaffrey's utterly stoic nature that stands out.

This was not the first time the actor had faced humiliation. During his lean period, he worked at Harrods, the luxury department store, as a sales clerk to make ends meet. On one unfortunate day, Ingrid Bergman, his co-star during his days in theatre, walked into the store. Before she could utter a word, Jaffrey picked up a coat, as though inspecting it. Bergman could only smile and say, "You are not planning to buy Harrods, are you?"

While shooting for David Lean's A Passage To India (1984), Jaffrey found his role halved. "My part was halved, and the more interesting lines were given to Art Malik, a north Londoner who had to put on a phoney accent," he recalled in the interview.

Yet the actor went on to make his mark with quiet determination. Films like The Far Pavilions (1984), The Jewel In The Crown (1984) and My Beautiful Laundrette (1985) established his ability to act in a variety of roles with grace, poise and charm. 

It was his quick wit and easy demeanour that made him so popular. But above all, it was his determined nature to not complain when things went against him that elevated his stature among fellow artistes. It was the mark of a man who had struggled to attain success and knew its value.