Obituary: Saeed Jaffrey OBE, actor

Saeed Jaffrey, during his spell in Coronation Street. Picture: PA
Saeed Jaffrey, during his spell in Coronation Street. Picture: PA
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Born: 8 January, 1929, in Malerkotla, India. Died: 15 November, 2015, in London, aged 86.

For many years when British film and TV directors needed an actor for an Indian role Saeed Jaffrey would almost inevitably be near the top of their list of candidates. He appeared in adaptations of A Passage to India in theatre, television and film, even if David Lean did opt to have Alec Guinness “black up” for one of the other Indian roles.

In the 1980s Jaffrey played the Indian statesman Sardar Patel in Richard Attenborough’s Oscar-winning film Gandhi, he had major roles in British television’s two big Raj era literary adaptations – The Jewel in the Crown and The Far Pavilions, and he starred in the popular sitcom Tandoori Nights, playing the owner of an Indian restaurant called The Jewel in the Crown.

In the 1990s he had the recurring role of shopkeeper Ravi Desai on Coronation Street. Undoubtedly one of the best-known Indian actors in British films and television, Jaffrey was an even bigger star in India, where he made dozens of films for the domestic market, sometimes working on several at once.

And he claimed credit for introducing the ebullient Indian producer Ismail Merchant to the mild-mannered American director James Ivory, leading to the establishment of the Merchant Ivory company, which made films with considerable success, initially in India and then in England.

One of Jaffrey’s many memorable characters was as Sean Connery and Michael Caine’s lively little adjutant Billy Fish in the Rudyard Kipling adventure The Man Who Would Be King, forever buzzing round the two principals, seemingly moving and talking at twice the speed of anyone else in the film. Jaffrey brought much of himself to that particular role.

One journalist reported that in the course of a single interview Jaffrey regaled him with an endless stream of rich anecdotes, drank a fair amount of wine, quoted reviews about himself, sang a song, drew a picture of David Lean – who he did not like – and finally burst into tears at the memory of Ingrid Bergman intervening when he was bullied by a theatre director.

Jaffrey was arguably at his best in period dramas and there was something of a bygone age about him, telling this particular interviewer that he came from “rather good, aristocratic, Mogul stock”.

The son of a doctor, Jaffrey was born into a Muslim family in Malerkotla in the Punjab in 1929 and grew up under British rule.

His father’s job as a medical officer involved several moves and Jaffrey attended Muslim, Hindu and Church of England schools, which he credited collectively as giving him an excellent education and a very open outlook on life.

He took a degree in history and had more or less decided to become a teacher when he applied for and got a job with All India Radio, initially as an announcer. He started writing radio plays, including one with 35 characters, all of whom he played himself.

In his early 20s he set up the Unity Theatre company in Delhi to perform English-language plays. His first wife Madhur Bahadur was an actress with the company. She later enjoyed success in the UK both as an actress and with her Indian recipe books and food programmes, using the name Madhur Jaffrey.

The Jaffreys came to Britain in the 1950s and then moved to the US, where Saeed studied drama on a Fulbright scholarship at the Catholic University of America in Washington DC. He made his Broadway debut in 1962 in A Passage to India as the eccentric scholar Professor Godbole, the role Guinness would later play in the David Lean film. He also acted in several Shakespearean productions.

Jaffrey and Bahadur had married in 1958 and had three children. But he admitted he had a reputation as a ladies’ man and found “temptation all around” in New York. Bahadur left him after she discovered he was having an affair with an Indian dancer.

After returning to England Jaffrey had to establish his reputation as an actor all over again and between acting jobs he worked as a sales assistant at Harrods. “My former co-star Ingrid Bergman came in one day,” Jaffrey told one interviewer.

“I didn’t want her to feel sorry for me, so I put on my jacket and tie and acted like a customer. Ingrid said, ‘Oh Saeed, how lovely to see you – are you buying up Harrods?’ when in fact, I had about two pounds in my pocket.”

He appeared in a 1965 BBC adaptation of A Passage to India in a cast that also included Virginia McKenna and the legendary Dame Sybil Thorndike. He played Mr Hamidullah, the advocate who is also the uncle of Dr Aziz, the Indian character accused of sexual assault.

It was the same role he would play 20 years later in David Lean’s final film.

In between he appeared in numerous British television series, including Z-Cars, Crown Court and Minder, as well as the big-budget films and mini-series set in India.

He often played well-educated or aristocratic Indians, although he was just a punkah-wallah in the drama series The Regiment and has a great line when he is asked to identify an officer accused of rape and says the British all look the same to him.

He starred in the 1977 film The Chess Players, from the great Indian director Satyajit Ray. Jaffrey was one of two Indian noblemen more concerned with their game than with the British annexation of the hitherto independent kingdom of Oudh.

Richard Attenborough played the British General Outram and a few years later would work with Jaffrey again on Gandhi.

Jaffrey played the owner of the eponymous, misspelt establishment in My Beautiful Laundrette, which was made for Channel 4, but picked up for cinema distribution on the back of glowing reviews at the Edinburgh Film Festival in 1985.

It helped launch the career of writer Hanif Kureishi, propelled Daniel Day-Lewis towards film stardom and brought Jaffrey a Bafta nomination.

Jaffrey was honoured with the award of OBE in 1995, he voiced all 86 characters in a BBC World Service adaptation of Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy in 20 episodes in 1997, and he wrote an autobiography entitled Saeed: An Actor’s Journey, published in 1998.

He is survived by his second wife Jennifer, a casting director, to whom he was married for 35 years, and his three daughters from his first marriage.