Saeed Jaffrey

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Saeed Jaffrey
Native name سعید جعفری
Born (1929-01-08)8 January 1929
Malerkotla, Punjab, British Raj
Died 15 November 2015(2015-11-15) (aged 86)
London, England
Nationality British
Ethnicity Shia Muslim[1]
Education Minto Circle, Aligarh (1938–1941)
Wynberg Allen School, Mussoorie (1941–1943)
St. George's College, Mussoorie (1943–1945)
Allahabad University (1945–1948)
BA English Literature
Allahabad University (1948–1950)
MA Medieval Indian History
The Catholic University of America (1956–1957)
MA Fine Arts, Drama
Occupation Actor
Years active 1961–2014
Children Zia Jaffrey (b. 1959)
Meera Jaffrey (b. 1960)
Sakina Jaffrey (b. 1962)

Saeed Jaffrey, OBE (Punjabi: ਸਈਦ ਜਾਫ਼ਰੀ, Urdu: سعید جعفری; Hindi: सईद जाफ़री; 8 January 1929 – 15 November 2015) was an Indian-born British actor whose versatility and fluency in multiple languages[2] allowed him to straddle radio, stage, television and film in a career that spanned over six decades and more than a hundred and fifty British, American and Indian movies.[3]

He was able to breathe life into the smallest of roles through intense preparation and a nuanced performance, like that of the translator and guide Billy Fish in The Man Who Would Be King (1975), an act that brought him international attention.[4] His seductive, resonant voice[5] combined with a gift for mimicry and a sharp ear for accents[6] made him the natural choice as narrator for audio books. His narration of the Kama Sutra titled The Art of Love (1996) was listed by Time magazine as "one of the five best spoken word records ever made".[7] He voiced all 86 characters in the 1997 BBC World Service broadcast of Vikram Seth's novel, A Suitable Boy.[3]

During the 1980s and 1990s he was considered to be Britain's highest-profile Asian actor, thanks to his leading roles in the movie My Beautiful Laundrette (1985) and television series Tandoori Nights (1985–1987) and Little Napoleons (1994).[8]

He played an instrumental part in bringing together film makers James Ivory and Ismail Merchant[4][9][10] and acted in several of their Merchant Ivory Productions films such as The Guru (1969), Hullabaloo Over Georgie and Bonnie's Pictures (1978), The Courtesans of Bombay (1983) and The Deceivers (1988).

He broke into Bollywood with Satyajit Ray's Shatranj Ke Khilari (1977) for which he won the Filmfare Best Supporting Actor Award in 1978. His cameo role as the paanwala Lallan Miyan in Chashme Buddoor (1981) won him popularity with Indian audiences.[11] He became a household name in India with his roles in Raj Kapoor's Ram Teri Ganga Maili (1985) and Henna (1991), both of which won him nominations for the Filmfare Best Supporting Actor Award.[12][13]

He was the first Asian to receive British and Canadian film award nominations. In 1995 he was awarded an OBE in recognition of his services to drama, the first Asian to receive this honour.[14][15] His memoirs, Saeed: An Actor's Journey, were published in 1998.[16]

Jaffrey died at a hospital in London on 15 November 2015, after collapsing from a brain hemorrhage at his home.[17][18][19]

Early life and education[edit]

Jaffrey was born into a Punjabi Muslim family on 8 January, 1929 in Malerkotla, Punjab. At that time, his maternal grandfather, Khan Bahadur Fazle Imam, was the Dewan or Prime Minister of the princely state of Malerkotla.[20] His father, Dr Hamid Hussain Jaffrey, was a physician and a civil servant with the Health Services department of the United Provinces of British India.[21] Jaffrey and his family moved from one medical posting to another within the United Provinces, living in cities like Muzaffarnagar, Lucknow, Mirzapur, Kanpur, Aligarh, Mussoorie, Gorakhpur and Jhansi.

In 1938, Jaffrey joined Minto Circle School at Aligarh Muslim University where he developed his talent for mimicry. In 1939 he played the role of Dara Shikoh in a school play about Aurangzeb, the last great Mughal Emperor. At Aligarh, Jaffrey also mastered the Urdu language and attended riding school.[22] At the local cinemas in Aligarh, he saw many Bollywood movies and became a fan of Motilal, Prithviraj Kapoor, Noor Mohammed Charlie, Fearless Nadia, Kanan Bala and Durga Khote.[23]

In 1941 at Mussoorie, Jaffrey attended Wynberg Allen School, a Church of England public school where he picked up British-accented English. He played the role of the Cockney cook, Mason, in the annual school play, R. C. Sherriff's Journey's End. After completing his Senior Cambridge there, Jaffrey attended St. George's College, Mussoorie, an all-boys' Roman Catholic school run by Brothers of Saint Patrick. He played the role of Kate Hardcastle in the annual school play, Oliver Goldsmith's She Stoops To Conquer. At Mussoorie, Saeed and his brother Waheed would often sneak out at night to watch British and American films at the local theaters.[23]

In 1945, Jaffrey gained admission to Allahabad University where he completed his B.A. degree in 1948 and M.A. degree in 1950. At Allahabad, Saeed learnt about Hindu religion and mythology for the first time. While visiting his father in Gorakhpur in the winter of 1945, Saeed discovered the BBC World Service on the shortwave radio.[24] When India gained independence from Britain on August 15, 1947 Jaffrey heard Jawaharlal Nehru's inaugural speech on All India Radio as the Prime Minister of India, titled Tryst with Destiny.[25] The partition of India caused all of Saeed's relatives in New Delhi and Bannoor, Punjab to flee to Pakistan. [26]

Saeed was awarded his second post-graduate degree, in drama, by The Catholic University of America in 1957.[3]


New Delhi (1951–1956)[edit]

In February 1951 Saeed traveled to New Delhi to try his luck as a cartoonist, writer or broadcaster. He successfully auditioned for an announcer at All India Radio. He started his radio career as an English Announcer with the External Services of All India Radio on 2 April 1951 for a salary of ₹250 / month.[27][28] Unable to afford a place to stay and having no relatives in the city, Saeed spent his nights on the bench behind the office building. Mehra Masani, the station director, eventually arranged for him to share a room at the YMCA for ₹30 / month. Saeed bought a Raleigh bicycle for the commute.[29]

Along with Frank Thakurdas and 'Benji' Benegal, Saeed set up the Unity Theatre, an English language repertory company at New Delhi in 1951.[1] The first production was of Jean Cocteau's play The Eagle Has Two Heads, with Madhur Bahadur playing the role of the Queen's Reader opposite Saeed as Azrael.[30] Unity Theatre subsequently staged J. B. Priestley's Dangerous Corner, Dylan Thomas' Under Milk Wood, Molière's The Bourgeois Gentleman, Christopher Fry's The Firstborn and T. S. Eliot's The Cocktail Party .[31]

After graduation from Miranda House in 1953, Madhur joined All India Radio. She worked as a disc jockey at night.[32] Saeed and Madhur, having fallen "madly in love", dated at Gaylord, a restaurant in Connaught Place.[33] At Unity Theatre, Madhur and Saeed acted together in Christopher Fry's A Phoenix Too Frequent, followed by Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest, Tennessee Williams' Auto-da-Fé, and William Shakespeare's Othello.

In early 1955, Madhur left to study drama formally at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (RADA), a drama school in UK.[34] In late 1955, Saeed Jaffrey won a Fulbright scholarship to study drama in America the following year.[18] In spring 1956, he approached Madhur's parents in Delhi for her hand in marriage but they refused because they felt that his financial prospects as an actor did not appear sound.[35] In summer 1956, Saeed resigned from his position as Radio Director at All India Radio. He flew to London on his way to America and proposed to Madhur. She refused but gave him a tour of RADA where she pointed out a young Peter O'Toole and other English stage actors who would later achieve prominence. A few days later, Saeed boarded the RMS Queen Elizabeth to sail across the Atlantic Ocean from Southampton to New York City.[36]

New York (1958–1965)[edit]

In 1957 Saeed graduated from Catholic University of America's Department of Speech and Drama and was selected to act in summer stock plays at St. Michael’s Playhouse in Winooski, Vermont.[31] Saeed arranged for Madhur to join him there after she graduated from RADA.[37] He played the lead in three of the plays put on by St. Michael’s Playhouse: Sakini, the Okinawan interpreter in The Teahouse of the August Moon; barrister Sir Wilfred Robarts in Agatha Christie's Witness for the Prosecution; and Voice of God, with Gino, in The Little World of Don Camillo.

In September 1957, Madhur and Saeed Jaffrey returned to Washington, D.C. where Saeed rehearsed for the 1957 – 58 season with the National Players, a professional touring company that performed classical plays all over America.[38] He was the first Indian to take Shakespearean plays on a tour of the United States. He was cast in the role of Friar Laurence in Romeo and Juliet. He played Gremio in The Taming of the Shrew.[39] Midway through the tour, Saeed returned to Washington DC from Miami to marry Madhur in a modest civil ceremony.[40][7] The next day, they traveled to New York City where Madhur was taken on as a tour guide at the United Nations while Saeed undertook public relations work for the Government of India Tourist Office. They lived on West 27th Street, between Sixth and Broadway. Between 1959 and 1962 Madhur and Saeed had three daughters, Meera, Zia and Sakina.[13]

In 1958 Saeed joined Lee Strasberg's Actors Studio and played the lead in an Off-Broadway production of Federico García Lorca's Blood Wedding. At this time, he met Ismail Merchant who had recently arrived from Bombay to attend the New York University Stern School of Business.[41] Merchant approached Saeed with a proposal to put on a Broadway production of The Little Clay Cart starring the Jaffreys. Saeed took him home for dinner, where he met Madhur for the first time.[42] In 1959, James Ivory, then a budding film maker from California, approached Saeed to provide the narration for his short film about Indian miniature painting, The Sword and the Flute (1959).[43] Saeed provided the narration for Ismail Merchant's Oscar-nominated short film, The Creation of Woman (1960). The same year, he appeared in a limited run off-Broadway production of Twelfth Night at the Equity Library Theatre in the role of sea captain Antonio.[44]

In 1961 when The Sword and the Flute was shown in New York City, the Jaffreys encouraged Ismail Merchant to attend the screening, where he met Ivory for the first time.[45][46]They subsequently met regularly at the Jaffreys' dinners and cemented their relationship into a lifetime partnership, both personal and professional.[8] The Jaffreys planned to go back to India, start a traveling company and tour with it.[32] They would often discuss this idea with James Ivory and started writing a script in his brownstone on East 64th Street.[47]

In 1961 Saeed was forced to give up his job as Publicity Officer with the Government of India Tourist Office. He went back to radio and joined The New York Times Company's radio station WQXR-FM where his first broadcast program was Reflections of India with Saeed Jaffrey.[48] Saeed also took up acting on stage. The pay for such roles was generally $10/hour.[43]

Within a year of Saeed's joining the Actor's Studio in 1958, he was able to get Madhur admitted there too. However, they left by 1962 because they felt the criticism offered by Lee Strasberg was too much for their sensitivity.[49] He played the role of the Wigmaker in a three week run of a theatre version of Akira Kurosawa's Rashomon at Fort Lee Playhouse in New Jersey. He appeared briefly in Rabindranath Tagore's The King of the Dark Chamber along with Madhur. From January to May of 1962, Saeed appeared at Broadway's Ambassador Theatre in a stage adaption of E. M. Forster's novel A Passage to India in the role of Professor Godbole.[50] In November 1962 Madhur and Saeed appeared in Rolf Forsberg's Off-Broadway production of A Tenth of an Inch Makes The Difference. Their performance was described by The New York Times drama critic, Milton Esterow, as "sensitive acting" that made up "the brightest part of the evening".[51]

In 1963, Saeed toured with Lotte Lenya and the American National Theater and Academy to perform Brecht on Brecht, a revue which was seen in Boston, Chicago, Milwaukee and Detroit. In summer 1964, Saeed along with some actor friends, created a multi-racial touring company called Theater In The Street, giving free performances of Molière's The Doctor Despite Himself in Harlem, Brooklyn and Bedford–Stuyvesant.

By 1964, the Jaffreys' marriage had collapsed.[52] Madhur arranged for their children to live with her parents and sister in Delhi while she went to Mexico for the formal divorce proceedings.[53] The divorce was finalized in 1966.

London (1965–2000)[edit]

In 1965 Saeed was offered the role of the Hindu God Brahma in Kindly Monkeys at the Arts Theatre, London. Favourable reviews of the play brought an offer from the BBC World Service to write, act and narrate scripts in Urdu and Hindi.[54] Jaffrey played the small part of barrister Hamidullah in the BBC Television adaptation of A Passage to India.[55] In order to pay the rent on his one bedroom flat in Chelsea, Jaffrey took a job as an assistant cashier at Liberty's, a department store selling luxury goods.[47]

In early 1966, Jaffrey returned to New York City to play the haiku-karate expert Korean police chief Kim Bong Choy in Nathan Weinstein, Mystic, Connecticut that opened on Broadway at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre.[56] In summer that year he played a role in The Coffee Lover, a comedy starring Alexis Smith that toured Massachussets, Connecticut and Maine.[57] Later that year, he recorded a narration of the Kama Sutra titled The Art of Love for Vanguard Records. It was listed by Time magazine in February 1967 as "one of the five best spoken word records ever made".[7]

Back in London, Saeed was given the opportunity to shoot in India for the next Merchant Ivory film, The Guru (1969). He flew to Bombay in December 1967 and met his daughters after a gap of three years. He returned to London in the summer of 1968. He became the first Indian in a starring role in London's West End theatre when he played a Pakistani photographer in On A Foggy Day.

In the 1980s Saeed got meaty roles on British television in colonial dramas like The Jewel in the Crown and The Far Pavilions plus the British Indian sitcom Tandoori Nights, Little Napoleons (1994) and the ITV soap Coronation Street.


Jaffrey worked with actors including Sean Connery, Michael Caine and Pierce Brosnan. He starred in popular cinema directed by Satyajit Ray, James Ivory and Richard Attenborough.[31]

His film credits include The Man Who Would Be King (1975), Shatranj Ke Khiladi (The Chess Players) (1977), Gandhi (1982), A Passage to India (1965 BBC version and 1984 film), The Far Pavilions (1984), The Razor's Edge (1984), and My Beautiful Laundrette (1985). He has also appeared in many Bollywood films in the 1980s and 1990s. For television he starred in Gangsters (1975–1978), The Jewel in the Crown (1984), Tandoori Nights (1985–1987) and Little Napoleons (1994). He also appeared as Ravi Desai on Coronation Street and in Minder as Mr Mukerjee in Series 1 episode The Bengal Tiger.[58]



Saeed Jaffrey was the first of four children of Hamid Hussain Jaffrey and Hamida Begum. His younger siblings consisted of his brothers, Waheed and Hameed, and his sister, Shagufta.

Waheed married Mavis Giddens, a childhood friend from Allahabad and became a chartered accountant in Britain. They have two sons, Rafe and Marc. Rafe Jaffrey is a chef.[59] Marc Jaffrey was awarded the OBE in 2009 for his services to music and education.[60]

Hameed (1934–2011) married Valerie Salway. They had two daughters, Genevieve and Shaheen, and a son, Sahil Jaffrey. Genevieve's daughter Kiara Advani is also an actress.[61] Hameed and Valerie separated, after which Hameed married Bharati, Ashok Kumar's daughter.[62]

Saeed had three daughters from his marriage to Madhur Jaffrey: Zia, Meera and Sakina. Saeed Jaffrey's autobiography Saeed: An Actor's Journey (1998) describes their relationship in the early years of his life.[63] Sakina Jaffrey is also an actress and acted alongside her father in the Canadian film Masala (1992).[18]

In 1980 Saeed married Jennifer Sorrell, an agent and freelance casting director.[64]


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  28. ^ Screen Online credits
  29. ^ Jaffrey, Saeed (1998). Saeed: An Actor's Journey. Constable. p. 59. ISBN 009476770X. 
  30. ^ Jaffrey, Saeed (1998). Saeed: An Actor's Journey. Constable. p. 62. ISBN 009476770X. The other significant feature of that 1951 production of The Eagle Has Two Heads was the arrival of Madhur Bahadur in my life. Four days before we opened, we found out that the girl who was playing the rather important role of the Queen's Reader in the play had eloped with her lover and was untraceable! There was no understudy and we were really seriously in trouble. But a boy called Bahadur bailed us out by suggesting that we audition his cousin, Madhur, who was studying for her BA at Miranda House, a prestigious girls' college attached to Delhi University, and who had acted in her college productions. Along came this thin young girl in yellow pedal pushers, wearing glasses over a prominent nose. She auditioned brilliantly, impressed us all and made the part completely her own. In the play the Queen's Reader resents Azrael, the new man in the Queen's life. But in real life, M – for that was her nickname – and I fell madly in love with each other. 
  31. ^ a b c Prasun Sonwalkar (16 November 2015). "Saeed ‘versatile’ Jaffrey passes away at 86". Hindustan Times. Retrieved 16 November 2015. 
  32. ^ a b Judith Weinraub (2 December 2010). "Madhur Jaffrey Interview – Part 1: An oral history project conducted by Judith Weinraub". Fales Library, NYU. Retrieved 15 October 2015. 
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  36. ^ Jaffrey, Saeed (1998). Saeed: An Actor's Journey. Constable. pp. 77–78. ISBN 009476770X. 
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  38. ^ Jaffrey, Saeed (1998). Saeed: An Actor's Journey. Constable. pp. 83–92. ISBN 009476770X. 
  39. ^ BBC UK Desert Island Discs review of Saeed Jaffrey
  40. ^ Jaffrey, Saeed (1998). Saeed: An Actor's Journey. Constable. p. 93. ISBN 009476770X. 
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  46. ^ Ismail Merchant, Laurence Raw (9 April 2012). "James Ivory and Ismail Merchant: An Interview by Jag Mohan, Basu Chatterji and Arun Kaul, 1968". Merchant-Ivory: Interviews. University Press of Mississippi. p. 3. ISBN 9781617032370. 
  47. ^ a b Jaffrey, Saeed (1998). Saeed: An Actor's Journey. Constable. p. 147. ISBN 009476770X. Jim used to talk to me and write down notes about a film which would feature a Shakespeare company touring America, obviously inspired by own experiences with Players Inc. 
  48. ^ Jaffrey, Saeed (1998). Saeed: An Actor's Journey. Constable. pp. 115–117. ISBN 009476770X. 
  49. ^ Jaffrey, Saeed (1998). Saeed: An Actor's Journey. Constable. pp. 106–108. ISBN 009476770X. 
  50. ^ Jaffrey, Saeed (1998). Saeed: An Actor's Journey. Constable. pp. 126–130. ISBN 009476770X. 
  51. ^ Milton Esterow (13 November 1962). "Theater: Zen Buddhism; Plays by Rolf Forsberg Open at the East End". New York Times. Retrieved 15 October 2015. The brightest part of the evening is the sensitive acting of Saeed Jaffrey and Madhur Jaffrey. Some of their colleagues, however, are not so skillful. 
  52. ^ Jaffrey, Saeed (1998). Saeed: An Actor's Journey. Constable. p. 133. ISBN 009476770X. M finally got me to confess about my affair with the dancer fro the Indian dance troupe. She was deeply wounded by it and nothing I said or did – my making passionate love, my crying, and kissing her feet begging her forgiveness – nothing, healed her wound. I started drinking fairly heavily out of a sense of guilt, and the children were often frightened and distressed by the quarrels between the parents. The whole calm, loving atmosphere of warmth and caring started to crack up and our older daughters, Zia and Chubby, were deeply affected by this change. 
  53. ^ Deborah Ross (25 January 1999). "Saeed Jaffrey interview: New kid on the Street". The Independent. Retrieved 15 October 2015. 
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  58. ^ Hard Talk Interview of Saeed Jaffrey BBC NEWS Thursday, May 6, 1999 Published at 16:33 GMT 17:33 UK
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External links[edit]