Saeed Jaffrey: At home, everywhere

He was habitually wont to begin a sentence with, “Amma yaar”, as in “Amma yaar, aap kaise hain?”, “Amma yaar, badi manhoos garmi hai”, “Amma yaar, aaj shaam ko thodi gup-shup ho jaaye.” How are you?; The weather’s hot; or, let’s chat about this and that this evening. All these prouncements were prefixed with the untranslatable, “Amma yaar.”
Today’s actors of every generation, by contrast, go with a “Hey dude,” or a “So wassup!” but then he belonged to another era. Saeed Jaffrey, the continent-trotting actor, could be at home in Lucknawi argot as he could be in the Queen’s angrezi.

This dual identity was his strong suit even though, in overview, it proved to be an uncomfortable fit in the show whirl of Mumbai-manufactured movies. “Amma yaar, musibat toh yeh hai ki,” he would say tetchily, “Bombay-wallas believe I’m in London and the Brits believe I’m in India. Think I’ll have to open my ‘dukaan’ as an actor in the Juhu-Vile Parle scheme. Hai na? Your filmmakers here just have to give me a shout.”

Actually, many did: from Raj Kapoor and Yash Chopra to Ramesh Sippy, Shyam Benegal and Sai Paranjpye, auteurs who could detect that here’s an actor who wouldn’t cut corners before the camera. Shekhar Kapur cast him aptly as a jesting-jousting buddy in Masoom, in which he broke into a boogie with Naseeruddin Shah, to the tune of R.D. Burman’s “Huzur is kadar…” A sweet vignette that.

The actor could be such a stickler for perfection that he insisted on finding just the right name for the memorable bidi-paanwalla incarnated in Chashme Buddoor. A story goes that he phoned Sai Paranjpye at the crack of dawn, to boom, “Hello, I’m your Lallan miyan”. The director responded, “Perfect!”, but within hours went on to wonder what the hell her Lallan was up to, calling for an abrupt respite in the day’s shoot.

Amidst the onlookers he had sighted a man wearing a magenta lungi emblazoned with a glitzy image of the Taj Mahal. The startled onlooker was stripped to his underpants by the crew’s assistants, paid and thanked profusely. Saeed Jaffrey changed into the lungi right away, never mind if it couldn’t be seen, since he had to stand behind a counter. “I feel perfect now!” he whooped. Sai Paranjpye laughed and said, “Okay, good for you! Let’s get on with the shoot now.”

Yet he could scare the willies out of you, fetching up bare-chested, or almost, as a leering, lascivious sort in the now-mercifully forgotten pop musical Star. When I asked him about that during an interview, he tinkled the ice cubes in a glass of Scotch, to mumble, “Forget it, forget it. To err is human, to forgive divine. Hai na?” There was no amma yaar, this time.
On being quizzed about his errors,

Saeed Jaffrey could be reticent but he would never clam up. He would recall his divorce, dating back to 1965, from actress-and-master-chef Madhur Jaffrey, nostal-gically, “We were insanely in love. She’s a super woman, she’s a better actor than I am, I just didn’t meet her exacting standards.” And this within the earshot of his second wife, casting agent Jennifer Sorell, who jibed back sportingly, “Right Saeed, now you’re talking.”

Per force, conversations with the actor had to be contained. After all, his sprawling oeuvre in Bombay, Hollywood and Britain, could never be covered entirely. As for his work on stage and television, that was another world altogether.

Of his filmography, quite clearly Satyajit Ray’s Shatranj ke Khilari was his crowning glory, responsible for assigning him the unshakeable image of an indolent nawab who fiddled while his country burnt. That was one performance in a gazillion, in which he stalemated Sanjeev Kumar as simply as popping another zarda-paan into his mouth. Despite the hookah puffs and paan-chewing, he articulated every word of the Urdu dialogue chastely. And now, there will be no more “Amma yaars” darted over Scotch.

The writer is a journalist and film director

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( Source : decan chronicle )
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