The day I in­ter­viewed Sir Christo­pher Lee


It was March 1997 and very much a rou­tine day at The Re­view, Dawn’s mid-week mag­a­zine.

The team was hud­dled over a desk brain­storm­ing cover sto­ries, when one of my col­leagues rushed in and breath­lessly an­nounced that there was a press con­fer­ence at the Pearl Con­ti­nen­tal Ho­tel where the cast and crew of Jin­nah, the movie di­rected by Jamil Dehlvi and pro­duced by Ak­bar Ahmed, wanted to en­ter­tain the press.

There was a hush-hush air about it since ap­par­ently each pub­li­ca­tion was asked to send two or three jour­nal­ists to talk to the peo­ple be­hind, and in the movie.

I turned to my col­league and friend Yadullah Ijte­hadi and screeched, ‘Do you think we’ll get to see Chris Lee and Shashi Kapoor? Maybe they’ll send some­one else and not us, you think?’

I was one of the three sent to the Pearl Con­ti­nen­tal, and that day re­in­forced my ‘work wardrobe’ motto: Dress like you will be en­gag­ing a celebrity ev­ery­day.

The Pearl Con­ti­nen­tal was just a five-minute drive from Ha­roon House, and that fact still re­mains, but in those days there was lesser traf­fic and no ex­ten­sive se­cu­rity checks or me­tal de­tec­tors to go through — times were sim­pler.

Ar­riv­ing at the PC, we walked into the lobby and took the lift, Yadullah and I, and walked into a room full of fel­low jour­nal­ists, some fa­mil­iar faces some not. Greet­ings were ex­changed, seats were taken; we all waited with baited breath to ques­tion Sir Christo­pher Lee.

Sir Lee, Mr. Kapoor (the nar­ra­tor) and Sha­keel (play­ing Li­aquat Ali) were all miss­ing from the room but Ak­bar Ahmed was very present wear­ing a very crisp cot­ton white kameez shal­war.

But I was obliv­i­ous of Mr. Ahmed’s pres­ence, Where was Sir Lee? And then, all but 10 min­utes into the room he walked in.

Mag­nif­i­cent he was, I could see his re­sem­blance to Jin­nah, though he was health­ier and taller than Quaid-eAzam.

‘A re­spect­ful si­lence’

He was wear­ing a dark suit and walked pur­pose­fully to the Vic­to­ri­an­look­ing chair in the room. There were no oohs and aahs, but rather a re­spect­ful si­lence and cue for Ak­bar Ahmed to in­di­cate to us the start of the Q&A ses­sion.

It was then that Sir Christo­pher Lee looked straight at me and said, “Since you are the only pretty lady in the room let us be­gin the ses­sion with your ques­tion.”

With my heart pound­ing, I pressed the record but­ton on my Dic­ta­phone, looked down at my scratch pad, read my ques­tion and voiced it with­out miss­ing a beat, my ner­vous­ness in com­plete check.

Me: “You choose to play Mo­ham­mad Ali Jin­nah — what was it about the stal­wart leader that con­vinced you to play him?”

Sir Christo­pher Lee: “I am 75 years old now; In 1947 I was 25 and aware of Jin­nah, maybe as much as I was of Mo­hatama Gandhi.

“I was much ac­quainted with Jin­nah the po­lit­i­cal leader, the lawyer, the per­son, the hu­man.

“His name was all over the news­pa­pers and news­reels in the Bri­tain of 50 years ago, and since I had just come out of ser­vice I was quite aware of the pol­i­tics of the world.

“In the war I had served with Sikhs, Mus­lims and Hin­dus, all were In­di­ans pre-par­ti­tion, and there­fore noth­ing about play­ing this role seems strange.

“All Pak­istani and In­dian ac­tors cast in the movie are very ac­com­plished, as are the moviemak­ers, and I am very ex­cited about play­ing this role.

“In­so­far my visit here I no­tice, or have been told, that all build­ings of con­se­quence, public or oth­er­wise have an in-house big pho­to­graph of Jin­nah. He is an icon, a revered fig­ure, but oddly enough a fig­ure that most in Pak­istan know noth­ing about ex­cept that he is the fa­ther of the na­tion, hence I feel it’s a very im­por­tant role to play.”

With that Sir Lee turned his at­ten­tion to the oth­ers in the room; it gave me a chance to ob­serve him: he was very stately, com­mand­ing and in com­plete con­trol of the in­ter­view.

What struck me was that he was in Pak­istan, on our turf, sur­rounded by over 40 sea­soned jour­nal­ists throw­ing ques­tions at him left, right and cen­ter, but he was com­pletely at ease, re­spect­ful of our rev­er­ence for the Quaid and ready to han­dle the most con­tro­ver­sial of queries.

My friend and col­league Yadullah Ijte­hadi de­scribed him well call­ing him “aus­terely en­gag­ing.” In his in­ter­view ar­ti­cle ti­tled, The Man They Call Jin­nah pub­lished in The Re­view on March 20, 1997, Yadullah wrote;

“An en­cy­clo­pe­dia de­scribed him as gaunt. His white hair was like ici­cles slicked back. In his 70s, tall and hand­some, he looked at you in a cer­tain way that could best be de­scribed as aus­terely en­gag­ing.

“Trag­i­cally, the movie Jin­nah did not re­ceive the im­por­tance it de­served, and the rea­sons for that are many, but re­gard­less, the per­for­mance of Lee as Jin­nah was im­pres­sive and con­vinc­ing.”

And as for me, my face-to-face with Sir Lee be­came an anec­dote to be told at par­ties. More im­por­tantly, it im­pressed my chil­dren when while watch­ing Lord of the Rings with them I ca­su­ally said, “I’ve in­ter­viewed this man.”

They looked at me and said, ‘Is there any­one you don’t know?’ But luck­ily for me, they did not wait for my re­sponse.

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