We had become friends during the shoot, as had our wives, and he would make it a habit of ringing from his hotel room after a hard day’s shoot and dropping in to chat with me on a variety of subjects, including the shoot itself. He would often talk to me in the stern tones of an elder brother admonishing his sibling: “Akbar, you have to stop behaving like a professor and you must become a producer. This business is full of sharks and you will not survive if you do not.” Lee would go on to explain that professors lived in their own gentle world of books and ideas while the film business was a cutthroat world of unscrupulous people with little care for the niceties of life. I understood what Lee wished to communicate – and his sincerity – but would laugh it off by saying, “Do not worry: it will be the professor who will complete the film without compromising.”
At the start of the shoot in Karachi in early 1997, a bearded military officer wearing civilian clothes asked to see me. He said he represented the Army and was the liaison officer. He held the rank of Major and I suspected he had been asked to submit a detailed personal report of the film. He had been reading the negative media reports and had many questions, especially about Lee’s capacity to play Jinnah. I needed to convince him.
I asked him to meet me alone in the basement of the hotel where we kept our wardrobe, late one evening. I then rang Lee and requested him to meet me there too, after dressing up like Jinnah. I had seen the impact he had on Pakistanis when he was fully dressed as Jinnah. Lee was always a good sport and fully cooperative when it came to protecting and projecting the film project. Our cast and crew were marvelous, doing things their agents would normally not allow.
Lee was dressed in the full Jinnah outfit – black sherwani and white shalwar with the karakuli hat on his head. I told him to stand still in the middle of the dark room with a bright light shining on him. I then went out and brought in the Major. On seeing Lee, the Major thought he was actually seeing an apparition of Jinnah. With an exclamation he seemed to jump back a few inches, murmuring that this was the Quaid-i-Azam. After that, I never had any problem with him and he became an enthusiastic supporter of the film.
The Major thought he was seeing an apparition of Jinnah and jumped with an exclamation
Lee did not hide his admiration for the man he was playing. In one of the many meetings where he accompanied me to try and win over Pakistanis, someone asked him how he could play Jinnah who was thinner and shorter than him. It was the kind of question that Pakistanis would pose.
Lee stood up to his great height of 6 feet 4 inches and said in his magnificent voice, “Would you not like the great Quaid-i-Azam to stand tall and tower over Gandhi?”
The negative press about him and the film had been skillfully manipulated in the newspapers on our arrival – by someone who imagined he was a better candidate to play Jinnah. Lee was baffled. He knew how dangerous the incitement to hatred was. Published articles were urging Pakistanis to physically stop the production as it was a conspiracy against the country.
“Why don’t the Pakistanis understand that we are here to pay tribute to the great man? They object to my having played Dracula – and that was 30 years ago. If people thought like this then the Americans would object to Anthony Hopkins playing an American president after he acted in The Silence of the Lambs as a psychopathic killer.”
But Lee was big-hearted enough to ignore the personal attacks. Once it was all over and he returned to his home in London, he remained a passionate champion of both Jinnah and the film made in his honour.
Lee turned up loyally at the launch of my book Jinnah, Pakistan and Islamic Identity which was being launched at the School of Oriental and African Studies in the summer of 1997. He saw how warmly Pakistanis received him. When we talked – which we did fairly frequently over the years – he would say with a laugh that whenever he enters a taxi driven by someone he thinks is Pakistani or visits a Pakistani restaurant, he is invariably recognised and very kindly treated.
Lee’s career went from strength to strength as he got starring roles in some of the biggest Hollywood blockbusters of all times, like the Lord of the Rings and Star Wars films. He was even singing and publishing songs. The Queen recognised him as one of the greatest British actors and knighted him.
In spite of a heavy working schedule, Lee completed his autobiography, Tall, Dark and Gruesome (1999) and kindly sent me a copy inscribed “To Akbar Ahmed who gave me the opportunity to portray a giant of history.” In the book he had a section called “Jinnah” in the form of a post-script. Once again showing his generosity, he put my name first on a list of people he thanked.
But his choicest words were reserved for the Quaid himself. Lee declared that his role in the Jinnah film was his “own personal tribute to an extraordinary man and great statesman … this Great Leader, the Father of the Nation, who literally gave his life for his country … whose image has been so shamefully distorted by the ignorant and whose reputation and achievements have been so grossly maligned. May he truly rest in peace!”
Professor Akbar Ahmed is Ibn Khaldun Chair of Islamic Studies at the American University, Washington DC.