By Akbar Ahmed
When I launched my book, Jinnah, Pakistan and Islamic Identity, at the School of Oriental and African Studies, London University, in the summer of 1997, there in the front row sat Christopher Lee. I have a delightful photograph of Lee in conversation with Mohtarma Benazir Bhutto, who graciously spoke at the event, and myself.
Lee had developed a genuine admiration for Jinnah and during the film shoot in Pakistan when we faced great challenges on many fronts and even the completion of the film seemed uncertain, Lee would tell me “Just as Mr. Jinnah created Pakistan, I will make sure that we finish the film.” Until his death in June 2015, Sir Christopher Lee, actor, singer and author, talked often and loudly with pride of what he considered his best performance in his movie career – as Mr Jinnah in the film Jinnah. 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.
He often discussed ownership of the Jinnah film. I explained it was owned by Quaid Project Limited. I was head of the company and owned its only share. He would often talk to me in the stern tones of an elder brother admonishing his sibling: “Stop being a professor. Don’t be so trusting. Be a producer. You are dealing with sharks and they will eat you up.” Lee’s commitment to the film was inspiring. At the start of the shoot in Karachi in early 1997, a military officer with a beard and 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. Upon his report, would depend the soldiers General Jehangir Karamat, the sympathetic Commander-in-Chief, had promised me for the crowd scenes.
I asked the officer 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 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 Lee and the film. The negative press about Lee and the film which had been skilfully manipulated in the newspapers on our arrival by someone who imagined he was a better candidate to play Jinnah genuinely baffled Lee (see Dare to Dream https://www.youtube.com/watch?v= VKmJFbWXuzc). So far no one has apologized for spreading lies and distortions.
“Why don’t the Pakistanis understand that we are here to pay tribute to the great man,” Lee would say with a hint of exasperation. “They object to my having played Dracula – and that 40 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.” I told him that Pakistanis were very big-hearted people and whatever nonsense he was reading in the press was motivated mainly by personal malice and that as a test next time he was in a Pakistani restaurant or taxi he would see I was right. Later he said I was right, and would tell me how Pakistanis recognized him and thanked him warmly for his role.
Lee’s career went on 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. He was even singing and publishing songs. The Queen recognised him as one of the great British actors and knighted him. Lee completed his autobiography, Tall, Dark and Gruesome, in1999 and kindly sent me a copy inscribed, ‘To Akbar Ahmed who gave me the opportunity to portray a giant of history. With appreciation.’ In the last section, ‘Jinnah,’ he again showed his generosity by putting my name first on a list of people he thanked to ‘pay tribute’: ‘Execu-tive Producer, Akbar Ahmed, a distinguished Islamic scholar who was the originator of the project, having worked on it for a decade. He was determined that we would fulfil our obligations’ (p. 300).
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”(p. 302). A befitting tribute to the Quaid from a great actor.
(The writer is an author, poet, filmmaker, playwright, and is the Ibn Khaldun Chair of Islamic Studies, American University in Washington, DC. He formerly served as the Pakistani High Commissioner to the UK and Ireland. He tweets @AskAkbar)