History judges you differently than the people you live with. So will be the case with one of India’s finest, and, sadly, one of the most unsung and underrated actors who breathed his last in London this week. An actor par excellence, who had proved himself in almost 200 productions including TV, cinema and short films, Saeed Jaffrey is a name which most cinema watchers who grew up in the 1970s and 1980s would remember. He was the affable uncle who lit up the Hindi movie screen every time he made an appearance. He equally endeared the world audience with his impeccable English. Never before have we seen someone as versatile as Jaffrey.
Be it as Lalan Mian in Chashme Badoor, Kishorilal in the commercial thriller Mashaal or as Kunj Bihari in Raj Kapoor’s Ram Teri Ganga Maili, Jaffrey was one of the most bankable stars of his time. But, that one film that made me fall in love with him was Richard Attenborough’s Oscar winner, Gandhi. Jaffrey as Sardar Patel was not just splendid—you really cannot think of anyone else for his part. Equally great actors, including Paresh Rawal, have reprised Patel in subsequent films. But, for me, the on-screen Patel was, and will always be, Jaffrey.
In a nation where patting your own back is more important than actually working, not many know that he is the first Asian to have received British and Canadian Academy Award nominations for acting, and the first to be awarded the Order of the British Empire for his services to drama, long before the Irrfan Khans and Anil Kapoors of the world arrived on the global stage.
And, he is also the only actor to have worked with Satyajit Ray, James Ivory, David Lean, Richard Attenborough and Raj Kapoor—easily the greatest filmmakers of the 20th century! Not too many popular Indian actors can boast of working extensively for two seasons at the Royal National Theatre in England, doing over a dozen plays.
It is a pity that the younger generation of actors will miss out on a chance to work and learn with an actor of his calibre. But, then, artists never die and the curtains never come down, not even after the show is over. I am reminded of a haunting line from J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. “You'll stay with me?” Harry asks. “Until the very end,” says the spirit of his father James Potter. Jaffrey will surely stay with me till the very end. After all, things we lose have a way of coming back to us in the end, if not always in the way we expect. Cyrus Dastur is the founder of Shamiana, the short film club, and best known for his theatre production 'When God Said Cheers' along with Tom Alter.