Obituary: Saeed Jaffrey
Versatile actor who featured in 'Gandhi', 'The Jewel in the Crown' and 'Corrie'
Published 22/11/2015 | 02:30
Saeed Jaffrey, who died last Sunday aged 86, was regarded as the best-known Indian actor in Britain as well as a much admired British actor in India; small, dapper, and youthful, with immaculate swept-back hair and a glint of worldly cunning in his eyes, he had a gift for portraying the less attractive human characteristics - self-importance, greed, slyness - with an emotional expressiveness which always won audiences' sympathy.
He made some 100 films in India, starting with Satyajit Ray's classic The Chess Players (1977) in which he played one of two chess-obsessed 19th-century noblemen who carry on with the game as their Indian state of Oudh is annexed by the British. He was best known to Western cinema audiences for his roles as Sardar Patel in Richard Attenborough's Gandhi (1982); Billy Fish in John Houston's The Man Who Would Be King (1975); Hamidullah in David Lean's A Passage to India (1984); and Nasser, the Thatcherite Pakistani businessman, in My Beautiful Laundrette (1985), for which he won a Bafta nomination.
Jaffrey had first made his name in Britain in Gangsters (1975-78), the BBC One drama series that first brought multi-racial Britain to a mainstream audience. It turned Jaffrey, who played the urbane gangster and "community leader" Rafiq, into a household name.
He went on to star in many other television series, including Staying On (1980); The Jewel in the Crown (1984, as the Nawab of Mirat); The Far Pavilions (1984); and the Channel 4 sitcom Tandoori Nights (1985-87). In 1998 he was memorable as Ravi Desai, the corner shop owner in Coronation Street.
As Jaffrey revealed in An Actor's Journey (1998), the demands of a busy acting career did not prevent him from enjoying a colourful private life. His publishers had been expecting a book of sedate recollections about his experiences working with famous directors. What they got was a 'bonk-fest' (including an account of how he acquired membership of "the mile-high club" on the London-Edinburgh shuttle with an American stranger), some of which was considered too salacious and had to be cut.
The eldest of four children, Saeed Jaffrey was born in Punjab on January 8, 1929, to what he described as "rather good aristocratic Mogul stock". His childhood was spent on the move as his father, a medical officer in Uttar Pradesh, went from post to post. "I was exposed to a Muslim school, so I learnt Urdu. I was exposed to a Hindu school, so I learnt Hindi. I was exposed to a Church of England school, so I got my Senior Cambridge certificate," he recalled.
His acting career began when, after obtaining a master's in history at Allahabad University, he joined All-India Radio, through which he met his first wife, the actress Madhur Bahadur, who would become famous as the television cook Madhur Jaffrey, and with whom he had three daughters. He went on to form his own English theatre company in Delhi, putting on productions of Shakespeare. He then went to America as a Fulbright scholar to take a master's in drama at the Catholic University of America, Washington DC. There he became the first Indian actor to tour Shakespeare, and the first to appear on Broadway - as Professor Godbole in A Passage to India.
In his autobiography, Jaffrey recounted how during his marriage to Madhur he had resorted to striptease clubs because he was "tremendously sexually charged" but did not want to be unfaithful. Such heroic abstinence did not last and in 1966 she left him after he had enjoyed a affair with a dancer. There followed, he said, "a rather divine period... when I decided I would please as many women as possible. Then, I think it was 21 ladies in 21 nights".
He also moved to Britain, where he found a job with the BBC World Service, for whom he wrote hundreds of scripts in Hindi, Urdu and English. His first appearance in the West End was as Brahma, in Kindly Monkeys, and he went on to appear in many other productions He was appointed an OBE in 1995.
In 1980 Jaffrey married Jennifer Sorrell, a casting agent, who survives him with the three daughters of his first marriage.