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Among the pioneers

Saeed Jaffrey proved his mettle as an actor in the Western establishment’s eyes on the basis of his artistic merit alone

Among the pioneers
Saeed Jaffrey — A file photo.

Saeed Jaffrey made a name for himself in the west when very few actors/playwrights could break through the unseen curtain and establish themselves on the basis of artistic merit.

There were very few roles for Asian actors to play — one pet part was that of Dr Aziz from A Passage to India along with some minor roles from the same play which had been adapted from the famous E.M. Foster novel. The few films that were being made on the Indian/ Pakistani characters were basically character portrayals of them who had travelled to the west and were living there. The actor who played those roles was Peter Sellers and, since most had a comic thrust, they were slightly caricatured though uproariously funny. But where more rounded portrayal was concerned, Zia Mohyeddin paved the way by brilliantly playing the role of Dr Aziz in A Passage to India that happened to be a very successful production on the West End.

If there were a few roles of characters that were not white, the roles were played by white actors. Othello till very recently was played by famous actors who happened to be all white. But it was unheard of till that a role of a white man could be played by an actor who is racially non-white. Now the roles of Italian dukes and European monarchs are played by Africans, Caribbean-British or African Americans and those from the subcontinent. It is also the consequence of the actors’ trade union activity that has pushed for greater opportunities minus gender, racial and national discrimination.

But gradually, more roles were written for Asians, particularly Indians, in the 1980s, and some of the writers starting to make a name for themselves and being recognised by the British literary establishment as well. One was Salman Rushdie, and then there was greater recognition of the participation and contribution of the people from the subcontinent in British lives. Mind Your Language was a hugely successful show on television demonstrating the greater acceptance of diversity in British society.

It followed perhaps a familiar course — from nostalgia about the Raj to contemporary living — and the medium best suited was television. So from Coronation Street to Far Pavilions to Jewel in the Crown to Tandoori Nights, the bar shifted predictably to contemporary portrayals and existential issues. The actor who benefited the most from this was Saeed Jaffrey and, to some extent, Tariq Yunus.

Saeed Jaffrey, Zohra Sehgal, Shelly King and Rita Wolf in film  Tandoori Nights.

Saeed Jaffrey, Zohra Sehgal, Shelly King and Rita Wolf in film Tandoori Nights.

By that time, other writers of Asian origin were also making a name for themselves writing fiction and plays about the problems of these communities growing up and becoming part of the social scene. Hanif Kureishi, too, was considered a good raconteur in that respect and his plays were staged — and successfully too. Some were also made into films, the most significant of all these being My Beautiful Launderette.

There was a time when writers, painters and actors were dying to land up with a role or gain recognition from the West and it was either Britain or more so the United States. And many an Indian and Pakistani actor bid for some appearance in those films or to be accepted on stage. Most did not; very few did. Saeed Jaffrey could be considered as one of those Indians who were able to make an appearance and then sustain it. It was not a one time effort or a flash in the pan like some others.

Jaffrey joined All India Radio before setting up his own English language theatre group in Delhi in 1951 to perform works by William Shakespeare, Oscar Wilde, Christopher Fry, Dylan Thomas etc — all famous playwrights of the western world.

With Sean Connery and Michael Caine in The Man Who Would Be King.

With Sean Connery and Michael Caine in The Man Who Would Be King.

It was through this group’s 1954 performance of The Eagle Has Two Heads that he gained the confidence to go to New York to study at the Actors Studio. The times were hard but he went on to become the first Indian actor to tour Shakespeare around the US and to star on Broadway. He moved to Britain after about ten years and began winning roles in the 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.

He got to know David Attenborough when both were cast in  Satyajit Ray’s film adaptation of Prem Chand’s Shatranj Ke Khilari and that led him to be cast in Gandhi.

On tv, he appeared in 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.

He was both nominated for and won many prestigious awards including a Filmfare Award for Shatranj Ke Khilari. He was also a familiar radio voice. He acted in more than a hundred Bollywood films and is said to have been the first Asian to receive an OBE for his services to drama.

Sarwat Ali

The author is a culture critic based in Lahore

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