At his London funeral, tributes poured in for the Indian-born British actor whose career spanned over six decades and more than 150 international films. Amit Roy attended the poignant celebration of Saeed’s life.
Sir Mark Tully has been known to generations of listeners and viewers as the urbane and professional face of the BBC in India, but the veteran broadcaster broke down when delivering a moving eulogy to his close friend and former colleague of 50 years, Saeed Jaffrey, at the actor’s funeral in west London on December 7.
‘One of the reasons why he was so successful and loved was because of his Shia heritage—being born into a Shia family and very much a man who kept his roots,’ remarked Tully, 80, who struggled uncharacteristically to get out his words as several times his voice broke. ‘Why was he such a loved person?’ Tully wondered, before speaking of Saeed’s gentleness, generosity, warmth, sense of fun and remarkable achievements as an actor in both Britain and in Bollywood.
‘He wanted to build bridges between cultures. My friendship with him started in the heyday, the good old days of the BBC [in the 1960s],’ recalled Tully. ‘We were a very jolly group—[there were] long evenings together in Bush House Club. I regard that as one of the happiest times of my life and that was when my friendship with Saeed was formed. We must rejoice in the enrichment he brought to our lives.’
As Tully wiped his tears and returned to his seat alongside Jennifer Jaffrey, Saeed’s wife and ‘rock’ for 45 years, the entire congregation broke into spontaneous applause. ‘This is the first time I have had applause at a funeral,’ remarked Rev. Steve Paynter, vicar of St Mary’s Church, South Ealing, where he led the ‘service of thanksgiving and celebration for the life of Saeed Jaffrey, OBE: 8 January 1929-14 November 2015’.
After the 70-minute service, Jennifer hosted a reception at the Holiday Inn in nearby Brentford ‘to continue celebrating Saeed’s wonderful life’.
Saeed, who died aged 86, was born in Malerkotla, Punjab, India, to Shia parents of ‘rather good aristocratic Moghul stock’. He was proud of his perfect Urdu and English diction. Like many middle-class Indians, his schooling gave him an understanding of and sympathy for Christianity. In 1941 at Mussoorie, he attended Wynberg Allen School, a Church of England establishment. After completing his Senior Cambridge there, he attended St George’s College, Mussoorie, a boys-only Roman Catholic school run by the Brothers of Saint Patrick. He later travelled on a Fulbright scholarship to study drama at the Catholic University of America in Washington.
At some point in the last decade, Saeed formally converted to Christianity. In his address, Rev. Paynter said: ‘It has been a great delight and joy to get to know Saeed and Jennifer over the past eight years or so. Whenever we met, often after a service, he always exuded such kindness, warmth and pleasure. I loved to hear him read the scripture passages in church.
‘On one occasion he read a difficult lengthy passage from the Prophet Isaiah, which defeats most of us. At last, I know how it should be done.
‘A high point in our relationship was his baptism. Clearly for him, faith in God seemed so straightforward, obvious and uncomplicated. It was a joyful and faith-filled occasion.’
On top of Saeed’s coffin lay a bouquet of red roses. It was a rainy day but a bright sun filtered through the stained glass windows of the church almost exactly as Rev. Paynter began his service just after 1.30pm. The music was provided by the well-known cello player Anup Kumar Biswas, accompanied by Yoshiko Endo on the piano.
Later, father and son Neil and Luca Latchman sang ‘Ave Maria’. The hymns included John Bunyan’s ‘To be a pilgrim’ and Sebastian Temple’s ‘Make me a channel of your peace’. Saeed’s fellow actor Madhav Sharma read ‘Peace of my heart’, a poem by the first non-European to be awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, Gurudev Rabindranath Thakur. Another actor, Antony Zaki, read the poem ‘I’m free’.
The acting fraternity was also represented by Kulvinder Ghir, Shaheen Khan, Mamta Kaash, Nina Wadia, Amerjit Deu and Jatinder Verma. Director Waris Hussein said that when Saeed returned from America, ‘I cast him as the lawyer Hamidullah in my television film “A Passage to India” in 1965.’ There was also a glowing tribute from 95-year-old filmmaker Yavar Abbas. n
(Article reprinted with kind permission of Eastern Eye.)