Entertainment & Arts

Saeed Jaffrey obituary: Indian star who enjoyed global fame

Saeed Jaffrey, Sean Connery and Michael Caine in The Man Who Would Be King Image copyright Everett/Rex Shutterstock
Image caption Jaffrey appeared with Sean Connery and Michael Caine in The Man Who Would Be King

With a career ranging from Bollywood to Broadway, from TV soaps to sitcoms, actor Saeed Jaffrey - who has died at the age of 86 - was a versatile, charismatic and hugely popular star.

Saeed Jaffrey is one of the few actors who found fame and success in both India and the West.

He was "a small man with a large physical presence" who "leaks expressiveness from every pore", according to The Independent in 1999, and often specialised in playing naughty uncles and rich fathers.

In India, he was known for performances in classic films like The Chess Players, Masoom, Henna and Dil.

Meanwhile, there were parts in colonial dramas like The Jewel in the Crown, Gandhi and The Far Pavilions, plus the groundbreaking British Indian sitcom Tandoori Nights, the London-set film My Beautiful Laundrette, and ITV soap Coronation Street.

Image caption Jaffrey moved from India to the US and then settled in the UK in the 1960s

A doctor's son, Punjab-born Jaffrey was fascinated by early screen classics as a child and practised impersonations of their stars for his classmates.

After university, where he got a first in English Literature, he joined All India Radio before setting up his own English language theatre group in Delhi in 1951 to perform work by the likes of William Shakespeare, Oscar Wilde and Dylan Thomas.

It was through this group's 1954 performance of The Eagle Has Two Heads that he met and fell "madly" in love with young actress Madhur Bahadur.

Jaffrey persuaded Bahadur to cross the Atlantic with him and the couple married and settled in New York, where Jaffrey studied at the Actor's Studio (with Marilyn Monroe for a time).

He went on to become the first Indian actor to tour Shakespeare around the US and to star on Broadway.

Renowned for being a womaniser, the actor said he found "temptation all around" in the city and the couple's relationship ended when he had an affair with a dancer from an Indian troupe.

"Our marriage was like a fragile house of cards," he said. "With the first strong wind that blew, it collapsed."

His wife left him, taking their three children with her. But she kept his name - and Madhur Jaffrey went on to become a celebrated food writer and broadcaster.

Saeed Jaffrey was not modest about his sexual exploits. "Scores of ladies have come into my life and gone away happy," he said, boasting about sleeping with 21 women in 21 nights after his marriage ended. "I have spread a lot of love."

Image caption One of his first TV roles was in the BBC's Gangsters in the 1970s

His recording of Kama Sutra, Art of Love, was listed by Time magazine in February 1967 as "one of the five best spoken word records ever".

After the divorce, Saeed Jaffrey moved to England, but his early years in London proved difficult for the already accomplished actor. To supplement his work at the BBC's World Service, he took up a job as a sales assistant at Harrods in London.

Jaffrey found the job bearable, except for the embarrassing occasions when an old celebrity acquaintance came into the store.

"My former co-star Ingrid Bergman came in one day. I didn't want her to feel sorry for me, so I put on my jacket and tie and acted like a customer," Jaffrey once said.

"Ingrid said 'Oh Saeed, how lovely to see you, are you buying up Harrods?' When in fact, I had about two pounds in my pocket."

But the hard times did not last long as he began winning roles in West End plays like Kindly Monkeys and On A Foggy Day.

His first major film role was as Billy Fish in John Huston's 1975 India-set The Man Who Would Be King, co-starring Michael Caine and Sean Connery.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption The actor is survived by his wife Jennifer

Jaffrey fondly remembered how Caine argued that his fellow actor should get equal treatment after Huston, Caine and Connery got chairs with their names on the back, while Jaffrey was only given a stool.

The stool remained for 10 days "maybe because of some prejudice", Jaffrey said. Then Caine "erupted" on his behalf - and a chair bearing Jaffrey's name arrived 15 minutes later.

Jaffrey starred in his first major Indian film two years later, appearing as a chess-obsessed nabob in The Chess Players, which also featured Richard Attenborough as a British general.

Jaffrey's performance won a prize at India's Filmfare Awards, and the role led him to star in other hit Indian films including Ram Teri Ganga Maili, Henna and Chashme Buddoor.

He starred in more than 100 Bollywood films in all, once describing how an actor could shoot scenes for two or three different films in one day.

"You don't have any credibility unless you are working on 12 films at the same time," he said.

Award nominations

Meanwhile, the Attenborough connection led the actor and director to cast him as politician Sardar Patel in the 1982 film epic Gandhi.

Jaffrey's relationship with director David Lean on the 1984 version of EM Forster's A Passage To India, however, was less happy. The actor was not pleased that Lean split his part into two.

He complained that "the more interesting lines were given to Art Malik, a north Londoner who had to put on a phoney accent".

But there would be lots more roles. On TV, he appeared in Granada's Jewel in the Crown, Channel 4 sitcom Tandoori Nights, Staying On with Trevor Howard and Celia Johnson, and Far Pavilions with Omar Sharif and Sir John Gielgud.

In 1999, he appeared in British soap Coronation Street as corner shop owner Ravi Desai, part of the show's first Asian family.

On film, he earned a Bafta nomination for playing Thatcherite Pakistani businessman in 1985's My Beautiful Launderette, and was nominated for the Genie awards - the Canadian Oscars - for 1992 Canadian film Masala.

He was also a familiar voice on radio, appearing in scores of dramas on BBC Radio 4, the World Service and Asian Network. They included the 1997 radio adaptation of Vikram Seth's novel A Suitable Boy, in which Saeed played all 86 characters.

He remarried in 1980 to Jennifer, who was also his agent. In 1995, he became the first Asian actor to receive an OBE for services to drama.

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