The irony hits you only in retrospect. When you remember that Saeed Jaffrey played Mr. D’Silva, a jolly and down-on-luck owner of a shabby chic bar in Ramesh Sippy’s wannabe romantic opus Saagar, while his former wife Madhur played an imperious matriarch overseeing an empire. You did not notice anything other than two actors in character because both Saeed and Madhur, had by then, together and individually, lived a life so rich that they did not bring any toxic baggage to any space they worked in. Saeed in any case was one of the most confounding actors.
He was a ‘type’..the kind steeped in nafasat, refinement and the etiquette of a nawabi culture that we saw replayed in Ray’s bejewelled Shatranj Ke Khiladi and the stirring TV series, The Jewel In The Crown. But he was also a quicksilver performer who could play anyone. Do anything.
He was the genial, generous, Lallan Miyan, a witty paan stall owner in Sai Paranjpay’s Chashme-Buddoor chiding young boys for their spending habits and laughing over their romantic failures. The straight-talking, dangerously radical Kunj in Raj Kapoor’s Ram Teri Ganga Maili who openly lives with a woman in defiance of a society where woman are either subservient wives, docile daughters or commodities to be used at will. Suri saab, the Punjabi show-off in Shekhar Kapoor’s Masoom who flaunts his cricket playing son and his riches, gets high in parties as he sings Huzur iss kadar bhi..but then gets reflective and empathetic as his best friend gets sucked in a family crisis. The steely Sardar Patel in Gandhi. The hyperventilating filmy dad in Dil and Yeh Dillagi. The wily Biju Ram in Far Pavillions.
The man who could flare nostrils and modulate his voice to match the overwrought pitch of Bollywood inanities to the powerful yet understated performer in cross-cultural narratives like My Beautiful Laundrette, A Passage to India, The Guru and so many more stories spread across cinema screens, theatre and television. He was conversant with the span and depth of the works of Shakespeare, Tennessee Williams, Fry, and Wilde, was the star student of the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London, was a Fulbright scholarship winner and had two post-graduate degrees.