“Aur batao bitiya.” From her daughter’s living room in Lucknow, Farrukh Jaffer begins a Skype conversation with typical Awadhi courtesy. The 88-year-old actor is as spunky as the character she plays in Shoojit Sircar’s Gulabo Sitabo — Fatima Begum, the owner of Fatima Mahal, a crumbling haveli in Lucknow where Sarkar’s film plays out. It was a performance that held its own in a formidable ensemble cast. “I love being in front of the camera. I am glad that people have enjoyed my performance,” says Jaffer.
Despite the appreciation, she has one grouse. She was expecting her co-actor Amitabh Bachchan to be more forthcoming and chatty. “I remember him as the romantic hero from Silsila (1981) and Kabhi Kabhie (1976). I thought, on the sets, we’d talk about our lives, our families. But he’d come, do his scene and go away. There was no conversation. I wish there was,” she says.
Farrukh Jaffer isn’t a name that might ring a bell in Indian mainstream cinema. She has worked in less than 20 projects, most of them over the past 20 years. Her last few films include Photograph (2019), Secret Superstar (2017) and Ashutosh Gowariker’s Swades (2004), among others. One of her most memorable roles was as the grouchy Amma in Anusha Rizvi’s Peepli Live (2010). “I am given my lines but I also enjoy improvising. Peepli Live had the scope so I went ahead and added a few things,” says Jaffer.
Born in 1933 in Jaunpur in a zamindar family, Jaffer moved to Lucknow at the age of 16, after her marriage to journalist and freedom fighter Syed Muhammad Jaffer. Her husband encouraged her to study and participate in theatre and films. “I recall him being perpetually amused by her restlessness,” says daughter Mehru Jaffer, a journalist and author.
She graduated from Lucknow University and was spending her days as a homemaker when she landed a job at All India Radio, Lucknow, by accident. “I had accompanied a friend who wanted to audition for the announcer’s job. When I was there, I was fascinated by the recording equipment and the idea of everyone being able to hear my voice in their homes. I asked the producer if I could audition, too. They agreed,” says Jaffer. She got the job. Her friend didn’t. This also made her one of the first female voices at All India Radio, Lucknow. She quit in 1966 to help her widowed mother take care of their agricultural lands in Jaunpur.
After a few months, her husband moved to Delhi as a correspondent for The Washington Post and Chicago Times and she joined AIR’s Urdu service. She also attended a few acting workshops held by Ebrahim Alkazi. But her heart was not in Delhi. So she quit her job and returned home. Lucknow may have changed over the years but it is here that she feels most at home. So, when another Lucknow girl, Juhi Chaturvedi, mentioned that the shoot for Gulabo Sitabo will be in Lucknow, she was excited. Her first film project was Muzaffar Ali’s Umrao Jaan (1981) in which Jaffer played Rekha’s mother. That, too, was shot in Lucknow. She landed the role at a get-together where Ali was also present. “Humara ek mulazim tha, Purdil. (We had an employee, Purdil). I was imitating and improvising on the way he spoke,” says Jaffer. Ali was looking on from the balcony and told her that he was making a film and would like to cast her in it. “I came from a conservative family. I told him, acting wagerah humare yahan nahi hota. But he persisted. He asked so nicely, I agreed,” says Jaffer, who met Rekha many years later at a private party in Mumbai. “Wo boli, ye meri ma hain (She said that she’s my mother). I was touched,” says Jaffer.
Her next film Swades came 23 years later, followed by Peepli Live, Chakravyuh (2012), Sultan (2016) and Tanu Weds Manu (2011). She also played the lead in Narayan Chauhan’s Ammaa ki Boli (2019), the story of a family and their second-hand scooter. “I never thought I’ll make a career as an actor. It is not about fame or money. Humko camera se bohot mohabbat hai,” she says.
Her upcoming projects include Mehrunisa, a film shot in Lucknow by Austria-based director Sandeep Kumar, that has Jaffer in the lead role. There are also three short films awaiting release, apart from Baba Azmi’s Raks. She was to shoot Kundan Nandy’s next film but that is on hold due to COVID-19.
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