Under a tree, sit two men. That they are gentle of mien and birth, there is no doubt, because they are dressed, top to toe, in rich brocade. Their zubaan is khaalis Urdu, and they have in front of them, a chess game.
One of these Lucknawi nawabs, from Satyajit Ray’s 1977 classic Shatranj Ke Khiladi, is the late Sanjeev Kumar. The other is Saeed Jaffrey, versatile actor who died in London over the weekend.
Of Saeed Jaffrey’s many memorable parts in Hindi cinema, Nawab Mir Roshan Ali is a standout. It was Satyajit Ray’s first Hindi film, and Saeed Jaffrey’s first significant cinema role: before this, he had played bit parts in the US and the UK, both in theatre and film.
It was during the shooting of Shatranj Ke Khiladi that Richard Attenborough (who plays a British General) got to know Saeed Jaffrey well, and that led to another big break for the latter, as Sardar Patel in Gandhi.
Before he left India to go West, Saeed Jaffrey had become quite a well-known voice on All India Radio, and had also begun a theatre company.
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Four years after Shatranj Ke Khiladi came Sai Paranjpye’s Chashm-e-Buddoor. It ‘got’ the Dilli of that time beautifully, and gave us evergreen characters: the three layabout Delhi University students, the love of their lives, Miss Chamko, and their lifeline, dispensing cigarettes and life lessons, the paanwala Lallan Miyan.
It was difficult to imagine that the urbane ‘nawab’ with his bespoke Urdu could enact a lowly ‘paanwala’. But Saeed Jaffrey, his lips stained a deep red, and affecting the right laid-back lingo, won our hearts.
That he could do this, and that — play brown in white productions, as well as ‘desi’ as ‘desi’ could be — stood him in good stead through the ’80s and ’90s: after Gandhi, came Masoom, where he played the hero’s friend.
And then came the flood: wherever you turned, there was Saeed Jaffrey, as father, uncle, buffoon, villain. The field was open, and he reaped and sowed. I remember being flabbergasted at Saeed Jaffrey’s wading into the heavy dad role in Indra Kumar’s Dil, in which he has a grand time shouting and yelling at daughter Madhuri Dixit and her lover, Aamir Khan: ‘Shut your mouth, you little upstart’ was still all right.
But he went to the ‘teri boti boti kaat kar rakh doonga’ level without blinking, his eyes all red, his toupee askew, and you knew that Bollywood had him, good and proper. It was hard to believe that the same actor was so restrained in one of my all-time favourites, the terrific My Beautiful Laundrette.
Saeed Jaffrey’s passing is yet another stalwart gone, a multi-faceted performer who straddled eras, the stage, cinema and television, who made a home in the West and, so to speak, the East.
He could play louche and loving as few could, the accent and the bearing just so.
Aapke paan yaad rahenge, Lallan Miyan.