Saeed Jaffrey interview: New kid on the Street

The Deborah Ross Interview: At 70 Saeed Jaffrey is still brilliantly childlike. Doesn't understand money. Can't set a video. Can't drive. But - as viewers of Coronation Street will soon see - he can act

Deborah Ross
Monday 11 January 1999 00:02

Off, then, to meet Saeed Jaffrey - OBE, film star, TV star and, now, owner of the corner shop in Coronation Street - at what turns out to be his local. "Hello, darling!" he cries when he finds me waiting for him. He gives me a big embrace. He holds my shoulders steady with his small, plump hands. I am squashed up against his dapper, chocolate-brown Cerutti suit and glorious tie with its gold, bronze, red and green swirls. "It is rather magnificent, isn't it?" He's a bit of a one for ties. "Whenever I walk down Oxford Street I see thousands of ties and there is always one that winks at me and says `get me out of here', so I buy it." He kisses me moistly and lingeringly on both cheeks. He has a little, bristly moustache. I think this is what it must feel like to be seduced by a damp nail brush. It's not entirely unpleasant in its ticklish way.

Certainly, he seems a frisky sort of fellow. I even say, later: "You're quite a frisky sort of fellow, aren't you, Saeed?" He takes this as a great compliment and merrily acknowledges he most certainly is. "Oh yes. Many scores of ladies have come into my life and gone away happy." How many is that exactly, Saeed? "It wouldn't do to count. How egomaniacal! I never view my ladies as conquests. Still, there was a rather divine period after I split up from Madhur [Jaffrey, the actress-turned-cook who was his first wife] when I decided I would please as many women as possible. Then, I think it was 21 ladies in 21 nights." Truly? I gasp. Heavens, that even beats my own remarkable record of three in 37 years, all of whom were gone by morning and had somehow managed to leave the wrong phone numbers, the silly billies. "Oh yes, I have spread a lot of love," Saeed replies. Then: "You're not 37, are you? You only look 26, darling!" Normally, I am not in the least susceptible to such crude flattery, except on those occasions when I am, which is often. Strangely, I find I like him quite excessively from this moment on.

His local is The Bridge Hotel in Greenford, an unfashionable and rather ugly west London suburb which hugs the A40. Saeed lives in a semi round the corner. He says that whenever nouveau riche Indians give him lifts home they are perplexed. "They say, `Saeed, you living here? A big star like you?' But I like it here. I took a small part in Death on the Nile to pay the deposit on the house. Why do I need something showy?"

We move into the bar. He knows all the staff. "Martin!" he cries out to the barman. "This is my very good friend from The Independent. She is writing a very BIG piece on me. A glass of Chardonnay!" His usual drink is Scotch, actually, but he's off it at the moment. "My wife says it produces a verbal violence in me. She may well be right."

He spots Rachel, the assistant manageress. "Rachel. I'm going to be in The Independent. It's going to be a BIG piece. The whole FRONT of the second bit!" Actually, I interrupt, it's only going to be a tichy piece. Just the one paragraph under the crossword. Two if you're lucky. "Oh," he says, looking wholly crestfallen. Only pulling your leg, I quickly add, fearing he's going to burst into tears. "Oh good," he exclaims, much relieved. "Martin! Another glass of Chardonnay!"

I suspect Saeed Jaffrey may rather like attention. Indeed, he has just written his autobiography (An Actor's Journey, Constable, pounds 20) and is terribly upset it hasn't been more extensively reviewed. "You will do what you can, won't you? I don't understand it. It's such a very good book. Tell everyone to GET MY BOOK." I don't think the pressures of public life are going to ever put him in the Charter Clinic, frankly.

He has received a good deal of attention here, and rightly so. He has turned in many excellent performances both on television (Jewel in the Crown, Far Pavilions, Tandoori Nights, Gangsters) and in the cinema (A Passage to India, The Man Who Would Be King, My Beautiful Laundrette). But he is even more famous in Bollywood, where he has made over 100 films ("I'm usually the naughty uncle... sometimes you only get the script half an hour before going on") and is much-accosted by teenage girls who, he insists rapturously, "swoon, blow kisses and say: `You are the most adorable cutie pie in the industry.'" When I tell him that starring in Coronation Street, the most popular programme in Britain, will mean he won't be able to go down to Tesco without being harassed for autographs,he is ecstatic. "How perfectly lovely," he sighs.

He makes his debut in the soap, playing Ravi Desai, next week. He says that, on the whole, he prefers Coronation Street to EastEnders, "which I find a bit violent". He says the call from the producer came out of the blue. "I then had lunch with him and was on top form. Top form! I did my impressions of Marlon Brando and Marilyn Monroe and Michael Caine. Tah be or nah tah be... who wraht this shit? Hah! Hah! The next Monday they phoned my wife, Jennifer, who is also my agent, and said we would love to have Saeed if he will come. And I thought, why not?"

He doesn't, as of yet, know quite what his character is going to get up to. "But I have met the scriptwriters, and I said: `Please, no stereotypes. No Mr Patel with his newspapers.' They said: `Don't worry, Saeed. We have lots planned for you.' Who do you think they will get me involved with?" Romantically, you mean? "Of course!" Well, I suggest, Rita is possibly ripe for the picking. She may even be over-ripe. "Yes. Rita! That would be good." While you're about it, I continue, you might even have a poke about in her hair-do. It's become so spectacularly enormous lately I'm pretty convinced Mavis is hiding in there. "I will! I will!" he exclaims. Then, excitedly: "I think I could bring great comfort to Rita. Great comfort! Yes! Another Chardonnay, Martin!" Wine doesn't produce verbal violence in you, then? "No, darling. It just relaxes me."

Saeed Jaffrey is 70, but still brilliantly childlike. He lives blissfully in the present. He can do little for himself. He doesn't understand money. He can't set a video. He can't drive. Jennifer looks after him almost entirely. "Jennifer says I wouldn't know how to pay an electricity bill, and she's right." He says he sometimes calls her mummy. He adds that they've never had children together because "she says I am her child. That's the sort of affection we have for each other". This sounds a bit creepy, I know, and it would be if there were any kind of malice to him, but I don't think there is. Although, that said, he does occasionally like to put the boot in. He never much cared for David Lean, for instance, who directed him as Godbole in the film version of EM Forster's A Passage to India. "My part was halved, and the more interesting lines were given to Art Malik, a north Londoner who had to put on a phoney accent." However, this is more, I think, petulance than any true nastiness. He just hasn't learned to share his toys quite yet.

Mostly, he loves everybody. In particular, he loves Michael Caine. "He once saved my honour, but I'm not going to tell you about it. OK, maybe I will. No, I won't. Yes, I will! On the first day of filming The Man Who Would Be King [John Huston's take on the Kipling short story] this racist assistant director said: `Mr Connery, this is your chair with your name on it. Mr Caine, this is yours.' So Michael said: `Where is Saeed's chair?' The assistant said: `I've got him a stool. Indians are used to sitting anywhere.' So Michael shouted: `Come here, you racist, fucking gofer. Where is Saeed's bloody chair!' With-

in half an hour, I had my chair - with my name on it!" I wonder if he has encountered a lot of racism over the years. Absolutely, he says. He was once called a "wog" and beaten up by skinheads on Waterloo Bridge. He never especially enjoyed It Ain't `Arf Hot, Mum. "Rather offensive and untruthful." But: "I forgive. It is essential to forgive. Otherwise it stunts the growth."

He was born in the Punjab, the oldest son of a doctor. I think he was possibly highly sexed from the word go. He first fell in love at five years old with Rasheeda, who was four. "Her ayah used to take her to the park where my ayah took me. She was a very beautiful girl with long hair. On the days she didn't turn up I would cry and miss her terribly, but the smile would come back to my face the moment I saw her again."

At school, he was small and quite weedy so, to avoid bullying, he entertained the other pupils with imitations of the teachers. After university (where he got a first in English Literature) he helped set up an acting group in Delhi. In 1951, they put on a performance of Jean Cocteau's The Eagle Has Two Heads, in which his co-star was a certain Madhur Bahadur. The two fell "madly" in love, eventually marrying, settling in New York, and having three daughters - Zia, Sakina and Meera, now all grown up. But then the whole thing fell apart after Madhur caught him out with a dancer from an Indian dance troupe. He's always been frisky, as I said. Indeed, in his book, he even recounts how he joined The Mile High Club with an American woman in the seat next to him. All very well, but the flight was a shuttle from London to Edinburgh. Quick work, Saeed! "Yes," he accepts, much flattered. Then, quite boastfully: "And I even had time to order martinis!"

He did not want Madhur to go. "But she was deeply wounded. No amount of crying or kissing her feet could heal that wound." The children, then aged five, four and two, were dispatched back to India, to be brought up by Madhur's sister. "I was devastated. Devastated! The only way I could get to sleep at night was by drinking half a bottle of Scotch." Couldn't you have hung on to the children? "Madhur's father sent them the plane tickets. What was I to do? I was not in a position to look after them."

He seems, now, to have quite a distant relationship with them. I don't think, frankly, he was ever cut out to be a father. He just isn't the mature or responsible sort. He still comes across Madhur occasionally, and might be a bit jealous of her success. "I hear she has a very nice place in Martha's Vineyard," he announces sulkily. He gets quite annoyed whenever he reads the blurb on her cookery book jackets. "They say: `Madhur Jaffrey lives with her American husband and three children in America.' No mention of how she got the name Jaffrey! Still, let it pass. Let it pass. Martin! Another glass!"

Anyway, he's now been married to Jennifer, an Englishwoman, since 1980 and he is, he says, very faithful and content. He has just started filming The Street, and it's proving a lot of fun. "Everyone is very warm. Ken Barlow said to me: `It's wonderful, Saeed, to have wonderful actors like you!'" I hope he does get up to a bit of hanky-panky with Rita. I hope the nail brush gets to take on the hairdo, and possibly releases poor Mavis on its way. Anyway, time to part. More embraces. More moist kisses. A fight over the bill. "You must let me pay, darling!" A last cry to Martin and Rachel. "You won't forget to buy The Independent on Monday, will you? A very BIG piece!" And off he happily trots. He's quite a happy man, I think.

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