Regardless of how mainstream a film actor gets in his or her career, a theatre pedigree always manages to show through. One can think of any number of names in Bollywood — Naseeruddin Shah and, more recently, Nawazuddin Siddiqui — of actors who have seemingly made a Faustian pact with the devil: selling their soul, their art, as they ham it out before the camera without scruples in the hope of making a quick buck. But if you look for the most astonishing on-screen performances in the history of Indian cinema, you’ll have to go back to these very names. And you’ll have to go back to one relatively marginal figure (in this galaxy of stars) in particular: Saeed Jaffrey, whose passing last week at the age of 86 was marked only by brief obituaries here and there and random tweets issued by former colleagues. Nothing close to the kind of farewell an artist of his stature deserves.
That the news of Jaffrey’s death was given more print space in England than over here, where the actor was born and spent most of his life, is not actually that surprising. True, he lived in London for a long while, did TV, films and theatre there, worked for the BBC, and made that city his second home. But Jaffrey’s popularity in the UK is better explained by the popularity of theatre as an art form in that country; and by the fact that he started his acting career by paying tribute to that most quintessential of British dramatists, Shakespeare.
Taking the bard’s plays across the Atlantic, Jaffrey became the first Indian actor and producer to tour Shakespeare in the United States, and indeed the first Indian ever to make his name on Broadway. The spirit of internationalism represented here — an Indian actor educated in Allahabad (“It was always Illahabad to us,” as he once wrote), portraying Shakespearean characters somewhere in the US — is something that we, in our age of globalisation, can only dream about. Today, an Indian actor going West will be expected to bring something “Indian” to the scene. I remember a Naseeruddin Shah interview, before the release of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, a Hollywood flick in which Shah acted alongside Sean Connery. In this interview Shah talked about how he had been directed to “speak in an Indian accent” during the shoot, and that he had a hard time convincing others that “there’s no such thing as an Indian accent”.
Jaffrey’s popularity in the UK is better explained by the popularity of theatre as an art form in that country; and by the fact that he started his acting career by paying tribute to that most quintessential of British dramatists, Shakespeare.
Jaffrey could switch between accents, and consequently personas, like they were costumes. The range of emotional expressiveness, the tonalities of voice and gesture, at his disposal was phenomenal to say the least. Let’s not forget that this is a man who adapted Vikram Seth’s epic A Suitable Boy for the radio, playing all 86 characters himself. His short but memorable role in the hilarious 1981 classic Chashme Buddoor, as a paanwallah, has scarcely any connection to his countless portrayals of the angry, cultivated, foreign-return, suit-wearing businessman in mainstream Indian films. Bollywood has a tendency to typecast talent it is not able to successfully marginalise: and Jaffrey’s film career in India is particularly instructive in this regard. There was a phase in his later life, for example, when he would only be cast in certain hackneyed negative roles (often as the slightly sinister father of the female lead). But even as a mainstream actor, Jaffrey was never given his due, never attaining the kind of prominence his near-contemporary Naseer still enjoys.
Looking back at Jaffrey’s very prolific and lengthy run in cinema, however, we are able to identify a number of high points — some crowning achievements — in his filmography, all of which have to be credited to his having “crossed over” to the West. Only directors outside India were truly able to gauge Saeed’s potential as a performer, it would seem. Consider his role of Sardar Vallabbhai Patel in Richard Attenborough’s overrated biopic Gandhi, or the BAFTA-nominated part of Naseer Ali, a Pakistani-British entrepreneur, that he played in My Beautiful Laundrette; not to forget his appearances in the highly-acclaimed film adaptations of English novels, A Passage to India and The Jewel in the Crown.
All this leads us to these questions: why did Jaffrey become a more or less neglected figure in Indian cinema, even though he acted in over a hundred Bollywood films? Why was he reduced to the position of a side actor who excelled in playing supporting roles? Did this country have no filmmakers experienced enough, visionary enough to recognize his talent? There was one, though: Satyajit Ray, whom Jaffrey credits for helping launch his film career.
Shatranj Ke Khilari was Ray’s first Hindi — or Urdu — film about two Lakhnawi nawabs who have found a shared obsession in the game of chess, even as their lives and the kingdom in which they live, facing imminent British onslaught, all go for a toss. In this film, Jaffrey is an absent-minded prince who is probably being cuckolded by his wife. Here, again, Jaffrey is playing a supporting role, to Sanjeev Kumar, although the former steals the show whenever he makes an appearance on the screen, especially so during the climax when Jaffrey and Kumar have a violent showdown that ends with a few shots being fired.
Could it be that Ray’s film was behind all this: behind Jaffrey never getting the lead role in any of the films he did? Success in cinema tends to stick, particularly so when you’re an actor. The public always remembers you for that one thing you did back in the day; and so do the directors. It seems a likely explanation. But, then, it may have to do with Jaffrey’s aura itself, his nuanced approach to acting, his deep understanding of theatre, of language. Such richness of character doesn’t quite sit well with the Bollywood mindset, which sidelines complexity and subtlety — Jaffrey’s creative terrain — in favour of simplistic, “larger-than-life” dreamscapes. So in a way it was good that Jaffrey was always part of the supporting cast and always remained an outsider. For traditionally, we must turn to the marginal figures in order to explore the best that art, literature and cinema has to offer.