Interviews Sue Gaisford
Sunday 23 October 2011 01:24

The actor Saeed Jaffrey was born in the Punjab and studied at Rada and in the USA. His first British work was for the World Service; he went on to make innumerable screen and stage appearances, and has starred in more than 100 `Bollywood' films in his homeland. He is now married to his agent, Jennifer; his first wife was the cookery writer Madhur Jaffrey. Mark Tully, 61, broadcaster, writer and vocal opponent of the Birtist changes at the WS, was born in Calcutta. For 22 years, until 1993, he was chief of the BBC Delhi bureau, and is still much in demand for his knowledge of India. He lives in Delhi with the writer Gillian Wright; his wife Margaret, with whom he has four children, lives in London

MARK TULLY: I can't remember precisely when we met, but it must have been in 1969. Saeed was in a trough and so was I. I'd just come back from four gloriously happy years in India and I'd been given the job of Hindi programme organiser. I didn't like living in London and I didn't really like the job: it involved a lot of administration and I was arrogantly bored by that - difficultly bored by it, as far as my bosses were concerned. So my delight and joy was Saeed, and one or two other friends from the India and Pakistan Service.

We must have met in a pub somewhere. We were certainly introduced by the broadcaster Aley Hassan, who was a great character. Aley did this programme called Guest of the Week. He'd do an interview in English, translate it into Hindustani, and then Saeed would enact the guy who'd been interviewed and I'd produce the thing.

So, one day we'd been to interview this old, old man. He was the last man to have charge of a famous jail in the Andaman Islands and now he lived out to the west of London. Saeed began reading the script. He's a really great mimic is Saeed, and he did this old man's quavering voice. He hadn't just got an old man, he'd got this particular old man - and I began laughing and just couldn't stop. There was nothing I could do. In the end I was laughing so much we had to stop production and arrange to do the programme another day.

At the beginning, I thought Saeed was very friendly, very open-hearted, very talkative, very talented as a mimic. No. What I really thought was: "Ah, here's another nice Indian friend for me." There were six or seven of us who used to spend a lot of time together, in pubs mostly, and I was the only sort of regular Englishman among them. I think at that time Saeed wasn't married - he was separated from Madhur - and I don't remember going to his house, but he'd come to mine and we had a series of parties: he's a marvellous cook with a fund of stories.

Then there was a time when I fell off a cliff and broke both ankles and I was in Whipps Cross Hospital in London. My mother was sitting by my bed: she was born in India herself but, well, she's quite conservative. Suddenly there was a commotion at the end of the ward and there was Saeed shrieking "Mark!", before rushing up and kissing me on both cheeks. My mother didn't know what to make of it. Then he turned on her and completely charmed her. She was utterly bowled over.

Fortunately I was only stuck in London for two years. When I went back to India, Saeed always came to see me, very regularly. And then the time came when he went from being well-known in Britain to being a huge star in India. Apart from the films, you see huge pictures of him all over the place, advertising a pink substance called pan masala: he's really very famous. So when he comes to see us in Delhi, the whole neighbourhood knows and my status is hugely boosted in the locality. The next day, you get a taxi and they all tell you about it: "Jaffrey Sahib was here last night: Saeed was here!" Even my faithful servant Ram Chandra gets very excited now.

Saeed and I enjoy sitting and drinking and talking, but he has a very eccentric habit: whenever he comes to see me he brings his own whisky and his own water. I always tell him that he knows I have whisky in the house and that I've lived there for 20 years without dying of water-poisoning, but it makes no difference: he still brings them.

We talk about religion a lot. He and I agree that, despite him being a Muslim and me being a Christian, there is great merit in Hinduism as well - in the liberality of it, in the concept of the permanent search, that you're not told what to believe but you're told you have to work it out for yourself. He likes to talk about the religions of the desert: we often talk at great length about that.

He has a great sense of humour. It must be really hard to act opposite him - I'd be roaring with laughter all the time. I love him for that. There's a wonderful Hindi word called dosti, which means, really, friendliness. There's a huge, warm-hearted dosti-ness about Saeed. Whenever you see him, you just find yourself wanting to hug him.

SAEED JAFFREY: Mark is a really important landmark in my life and in my career. We met in Bush House at the end of the Sixties - I think he was then head of the Urdu department for the World Service. It was a struggling period for me, because I'd left New York in order to make London my home. My real friend and protector was the World Service.

I must have met him in the BBC Club, I think, over a drink. It was Mr Joshi who introduced us - my dear friend Joshi, no longer with us, whom I'd known since my days at the Allahabad University (which was, when I was a young man, the Oxbridge of India). I remember Joshi and his wife Usha and Mark and Margaret at parties. Yes it must have been him.

I thought Mark a very handsome, very intellectual English person who spoke Hindi rather well and who was fun to be with - a lovely person to have a drink with and talk about all sorts of things: England, the rest of the world.

We did a radio series together about a group of people who had gone out to India a century before the Raj, before 1857, and had learnt Urdu well enough to write poetry in it. There were 14 programmes about these English poets in Urdu: it was right up Mark's alley, if you see what I mean. And soon after that we did a series with Aley Hassan about old Indian characters. Mark always remembers the time when I was playing an old jailer from the Andaman Islands: he still laughs about the way I did it - he was laughing again this morning.

After a couple of years, he got the chance he'd been waiting for, to be the BBC representative in India. He absolutely flourishes in India. In 1972-73 I was doing a series there about the last great Sikh king. When we'd finished that, I spent some time with Mark and Margaret and the children in New Delhi, and it was wonderful. Already, all the taxi- drivers knew who he was, even then. They couldn't pronounce his name: they called him Two-Lee Sahib. "Oh, yes, yes," they'd say; "Two-Lee, Two-Lee, we know where he lives: Nizamud- din, that's where Two-Lee Sahib lives."

He has always treated me like family: there was always a room in his bungalow for me. One day when I was staying there, that first time, his youngest son began to cry: everyone was worried, asked him why he was crying - and in the end he said: "Uncle Saeed is going away tomorrow and I can't stay without him. I'll miss him every day."

Mark has done some marvellous work: his book Full Stops in India is wonderful. Then, he and his co-writer Gillian Wright have written short stories about Uttar Pradesh - the truth of them springs off the page. He loves to talk Hindi with me, and he and Gillian love to hear all about what I have been doing - one of the things I really enjoy is to play all the parts in a reading and they love me to do that for them.

We picked up our friendship every time I went to Delhi - and we still do. The best thing is to have dinner in his house. He has lovely servants who have remained faithful to him all through the years, and they look after me too. His cook provides very good meals and there's always a glass of whisky. And we talk, we love to talk.

I'm not very well-versed in politics, but he knows everything about Indian politics, and he is always right. I trust his judgement completely. And about such things as the future of the BBC, I support him all the way.

We talk a lot about religion. Though I was born a Muslim, my father's job as a medical officer meant that we travelled a great deal and I went to Hindi schools, Muslim schools, public schools, C of E and Catholic schools. With this chequered background, I am a creature of the universe, so I was very surprised to learn that Mark thinks the same as me. We want to do a programme about Hinduism. You see, Hinduism is not confined to the strictness of the desert, but belongs to the universe. Judaism, Christianity and Islam become limited by desert boundaries, but Hinduism is much freer - there are no set rules.

What delights me about Mark is his personality and his warmth, but what astounds me is his capacity for understanding life and all its complexities and subtleties, particularly in India. That sort of thing keeps all of us young. Although today he was saying that he'd had food poisoning yesterday, he still looks just like the Mark I met 30-odd years ago - as young, as vibrant, as fresh and as knowledgeable as ever.

! Saeed Jaffrey can currently be heard reading Vikram Seth's `A Suitable Boy', 8.15am Mon-Fri on BBC World Service Radio, while Mark Tully's story, `Beyond Purdah', will be dramatised 8.30pm Sat; both are part of the World Service's celebration of 50 years of independence for India and Pakistan.

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