Farrukh Jaffar, just like Gulabo Sitabo’s writer Juhi Chaturvedi, is a Lucknow girl. So, what does Jaffar then think of the portrayal of her city in the film in which she is the centre of attention as the spunky and spirited nonagenarian Fatima “Fatto” Begum? “It is true that parts of Lucknow are exactly as shown in the film. But like all cities there is the more modern side [to it] as well,” she tells The Hindu on an email interview.
Jaffar’s character, despite the sharp tongue, is actually the keeper of old world, genteel values of loyalty and love, even when it comes to something inanimate like her crumbling ancestral haveli Fatima Mahal. A belief system and philosophy that is fast on the decline; on its way to becoming extinct, in fact.
Just like Shoojit Sircar’s Gulabo Sitabo, Jaffar’s first foray on to the big screen—Muzaffar Ali’s Umrao Jaan—was also set in Lucknow. She played the courtesan’s mother. In an earlier interview with me she had referred to it as “filmi duniya ki sair ka pehla jeena (the first step in the journey through the world of films)”. Both recreations of the city are vastly different, set as they are in different times and cultures. “Every city has different corners. When you watch Umrao Jaan you may get the impression that Lucknow is one big brothel. After watching Gulabo Sitabo you might think that the entire population of the city is decadent and decaying. But each film is only a small part of the whole city,” she asserts.
Born in 1933, Jaffer was 16 when she left her village in district Jaunpur, to come to Lucknow following her marriage to eminent journalist and freedom fighter Syed Muhammad Jaffar. Her maternal grandfather and father were landlords. “I was very excited to leave the village behind. In Lucknow, I was glamour struck,” she recollects. Jaffer wanted to do many things but was not sure what. In Lucknow University she participated in cultural programmes and theatre. After graduation she did not want to remain a housewife, and so began her career in radio in 1963. “I landed a job at the radio station by accident, and I began to like the idea of speaking to countless people, some of whom fell in love with my voice,” she shares. She wrote and acted in several radio plays and also did a brief stint on stage.
Born to be loved
How do you relate to the world of radio and theatre as opposed to films? I ask her. “I like the idea of being loved by so many people and the idea of plays and films allowing me to play so many different characters in one life. The biggest high of showbiz is to be able to communicate with the whole world. Radio, films and theatre all work for me. All these are a medium for me to be loved by a maximum number of people. I love to be loved,” she declares.
I remember seeing her first on big screen in Anusha Rizvi’s Peepli Live! as the crochety old amma. In between, there have been outings in Sultan, Photograph, Tanu Weds Manu etc. But her character in Gulabo Sitabo has made an impact, like no other of Jaffer’s. She gives the credit to the direction of Shoojit Sircar and the writing of Juhi Chaturvedi. “I am a director’s actor. Shoojit explained my work so well to me, that it became easy for me to play it,” she says.
It was the first time for her to have been working with Sircar’s unit and she can’t seem to get enough of him. “He is able to explain what he wants in few words. He gave me tremendous confidence by saying ‘There is no other actress in the film except you. You are my leading lady. You are the heroine. It is just you and the Big B’,” she recollects. He told her that during the shoot she should not see Amitabh Bachchan as a super star but as the “creep” Mirza. “That made me dialogue with Amitabh fearlessly,” she says.
It’s clear that she has an energy and vivacity—similar to Fatto—that totally belie her age. Though she thinks that she isn’t as bold and cheeky as her latest on screen avtaar. “What I do give her character, is that twinkle in the eye. I believe in having maximum fun in life despite age or the economic situation,” she emphasises.
She loved her birthday scene in the film, “Fatto is happy that she, as a woman with age not on her side, still smarts the crooks.” She also liked it for getting to wear lovely clothes, jewellery and make-up which made her look good on the screen. However, in her own family, birthdays are not a big deal. “There is no celebration. When I do remember, I wish my grandchildren on their birthdays. I routinely forget the birthdays of my children.” I ask her whom she’d want to elope with in real life just like she does in the film. Her reply makes me smile, “I would not like to elope with anyone. I am very happy where I am in life today. Even Fatto Begum did not elope for love or for a man. She staged the elopement to spite the very greedy Mirza.”