Farooq Sheikh: An actor nonpareil and a wonderful human soul

Rupen Ghosh is a Delhi-based senior GoI officer with a keen interest in arts and literature.

Rupen Ghosh

It is extremely painful to reconcile that Farooq Sheikh, a prominent member of socially meaningful cinema during the 1970s and the 1980s, is no more, as Shabana Azmi paying tributes to this wonderful actor, a quintessential gentleman, who lived and worked with quiet dignity, simplicity, and inherent goodness, said that it was difficult to be speaking about Farooq in the past tense. His understated performances, the effortlessness and the ease with which he essayed those delightful roles, that were part of mainstream, but not quite so, roles that remain permanently etched in memory, and that earned him a place in the revered pantheon of parallel cinema greats in India. Such old world charm, such lack of guile and deception, such innate honesty, are seldom seen in the intensely competitive cut-throat world of Hindi commercial cinema. That is why he did not fit in there and always remained an outsider, performing off-beat roles, for almost a niche audience, who loved him, adored him. What an ensemble cast of great actors the parallel cinema created – Naseeruddin Shah, Om Puri, Shabana Azmi, Smita Patil, Deepti Naval, Supriya Pathak and many others! Some of them were method actors, some of them got into the skin of the roles so perfectly that they became inseparable from the characters they portrayed, actors with such sensitivities and aesthetics, and Farooq was proud to belong to this group, though it must be admitted that some of his films won universal and mass acclaim too, other than critical appreciations, and were not just meant for avant garde audiences.

A still from Umrao Jaan (1981)
In Umrao Jaan (1981)

Farooq was a well-read person with modern, liberal and progressive outlook, and for a while in the late seventies-early eighties it appeared that parallel cinema or serious independent cinema would carve out a permanent niche, throwing a serious challenge to faux glamour and glitz and the huge world of make-believe that commercial cinema represented. But that was not to be, and the influence of political conscious cinema with realist premises, that was a reflection of the legacy of the socio-political unrest in the late ‘60s and mid ‘70s, gradually waned, with the memories and echoes of those troubled times slowly receding from the background and becoming a thing of the past. Parallel cinema was the product of its time and with the change in taste, it found hardly any takers, but so long it lasted, they were acclaimed by the critics for their aesthetics and for sensitively handled subjects. The era was also known for those remarkable film makers as MS Sathyu, Saeed Mirza, Vijaya Mehta, Sai Paranjpaye, Jabbar Patel, Govind Nihalani, Muzaffar Ali and many others who carried the torch of alternative cinema with a new idiom and vocabulary, a new thematic treatment of socio-economic realities. Farooq Sheikh worked with some of them like Sathyu and Muzaffar Ali, but strangely for some reason not with Shyam babu and Nihalani.

Before he got into films, Farooq had a stint with the progressive theatre movement of IPTA in the then Bombay and his life-long obsession with the stage continued. With Shabana Azmi, he was associated with one of the longest running plays, Tumhari Amrita, that had the quite unusual theme of unrequited love, expressed through letters exchanged between the two leading protagonists over three decades. His cinematic journey began with that cult film Garam Hawa, a most poignant and moving film about the Partition of the sub-continent, in the aftermath of the terrible human tragedy of immense suffering of mass migration, and violence and destruction that ensued. This 1973 film, based on a short story by the famous Urdu writer Ismat Chugtai, was poignantly captured on celluloid by MS Sathyu. As the younger brother of the leading protagonist, Balraj Sahni, who gave one of his finest performances – the critics rate his sensitive, balanced, angst-ridden and nuanced portrayal as the head of an ill-fated family, perhaps his best – Farooq decides to stay back and reposes faith in the wonderful and unique concept of India, the nation that had recently liberated itself from the clutches of the colonial masters, and as a nascent country that cherished the ideals of being progressive, liberal, inclusive, modern, tolerant and forward looking. Farooq’s hopes amidst terrible family suffering were a kind of silver lining and he remained steadfast in the belief that there was still future for everyone, regardless of caste, community, gender, religion, language, in the syncretic and eclectic vision of India., a country of such immense diversities and complexities.That was a great message of hope and optimism, of idealism, in the midst of desperation and gloom, misery and unspeakable sufferings, of traumatic experiences. The last scene of this deeply tragic film comes alive, symbolising hope and idealism, as Balraj Sahni and Farooq Sheikh, as father and the younger son, who were to take the train, forget their journey and join a massive protest march that professes to speak for the marginalised.

As his cinematic journey progressed, Farooq and Deepti Naval starred in a delightful romantic comedy Chasme Baddoor, which remains so evergreen, so sparklingly fresh and unusual, that even today after 30 years, it has not lost its warmth and spontaneity. His two good-for-nothing, but adorable and lovable friends add to some confusion and much mirth and amusement, and the film ends with the two lovers uniting, but not before reminding us that clean, good entertainment was possible within the mainstream format, without being larger than life, outlandish and over-the-top.

With Dipti Naval in Chashme Buddoor (1981)
With Dipti Naval in Chashme Buddoor (1981)

Farooq’s role as a decadent nawab in Muzaffar Ali’s Umrao Jaan, who breaks the courtesan’s heart and settles for domesticity could not have been more poignant from the point of the talented singer, dancer and poet that Umrao Jaan was. The story, set in the 18th century Lucknow, was about the life of a girl uprooted from her familial protective environment, and was brought into a different, alien world, of glamour and glitz, where she had to entertain people, in a decadent and morally degrading environment, even if she were to suffer pain, loneliness and dejection. As she increasingly turns to relationships, to be disappointed again and again, she takes to writing beautiful, poignant verses, to let out her pain and love, and the poetry becomes her medium to express her inner thoughts. Till the end, all Umrao Jaan aspires for was home, freedom, love, recognition and peace. Though Farooq as a timid, pusillanimous lover couldn’t summon courage and accept Umrao Jaan and ended up with one more heart-break for her, such was the power of his performance and such charm that one seldom hated him; rather, one ended up sympathising with him.

The film Bazaar (1982) with an ensemble cast of Naseeruddin Shah, Smita Patil, Farooq Sheikh and Supriya Pathak, deals with gender and class exploitation, and is a strong critique of the social system that places women in a disadvantaged predicament. Poverty and the resultant helplessness of the protagonists also act as impeding factors in their coming together, as the greed and the dominating role of money and the market forces lead to a heart-wrenching ending. Farooq Shaikh as a helpless lover, unable to seize his destiny and ultimately crushed by materiality and the power of wealth, gives a standout performance The film stands out with the issues of gender discrimination, patriarchal laws and the triumph of materialism and greed over love and humanism, handled with sensitivity, objectivity and without melodrama and sensationalism.

In between came another beautiful film Katha (1982) loosely based on one of the well-known Aesop’s fables, of the oft-repeated tale of ‘The Tortoise and the Hare’ and how the tortoise sincerely and honestly, excruciatingly slow in his strides, facing severe odds, plods along, trudges, never giving up, and finally wins the race over an ever-boastful hare. The hare always taunting and teasing the slow-paced tortoise, gets his just deserts, when complacent, contemptuous and dismissive of the painfully slow tortoise and sure of victory, decides to have forty winks – a quick nap which turns into a deep slumber – and wakes up too late, to his horror, to find the tortoise reaching the winning post first.

A publicity poster of Listen Amaya (2013) featurin co-actors Dipti Naval and Swara Bhaskar
A publicity poster of Listen Amaya (2013) featuring co-actors Dipti Naval and Swara Bhaskar

The tortoise in this case was Naseeruddin Shah in an author-backed role of an honest, hard-working, simple man, helpful, caring and giving to others, liked by all, a loser in today’s cut-throat world, who finally wins the girl who he loves all along, but was too shy and hesitant to admit, over the smooth talking, suave, opportunistic, morally neutral old school friend of his, the hare in the fable. Who else than Farooq, who as Basu, was as cynical and opportunistic as one could be? Naseerddin Shah as Rajaram, the good soul, the eternal do-gooder, is in love with his neighbour’s daughter, Sandhya (Deepti Naval), but his innate shyness and old-world values of never ever expressing oneself so openly in such delicate matters, comes in the way of opening his heart and expressing his feelings towards her; he remains too good, as Deepti Naval painfully bemoans when at the end tragedy strikes her of being so cruelly betrayed by the Basu. Overshadowing them all was Farooq as a smooth-talking, worldly-wise, clever and suave, Basu Bhatt, who cons his way into the hearts of the chawl residents, freeloads on his friend, manages to sweet talk and impress the boss of Rajaram to offer him an executive’s job in the same company where poor Rajaram was an honest, hard working clerk, without any qualification worth the name (quite an amazing achievement indeed!). Farooq proves to be such a loveable charlatan and a smooth operator that you don’t condemn him outright as a villain, even when he betrays innocent Sandhya’s trust, and flies off to another destination to ply his trade elsewhere, of conning and playing his tricks with another set of people, in another time and space.

With Rekha in Umrao Jaan (1981)
With Rekha in Umrao Jaan (1981)

Farooq’s another memorable performance was in Gaman, meaning ‘the departure’. It is a most sensitive film about the plight of urban migration for livelihood and survival, the dislocation and disruption that the poor suffer when they land in a big city, the heartbreaks from tragic human situations of families uprooted, portending a dismal present and an even drearier, grim, desolate and depressing future, a future without much hope. As the story unfolds, Farooq in the role of an poor taxi driver in Mumbai, after having migrated from UP, finds the life equally harsh and unforgiving, hardly offering any opportunity to save enough to visit home. His mother and his wife, back home in the village, have an equally gloomy, distressing, sombre existence and wait for the periodic letters and money orders to keep their hopes alive. There is no future for him in the big city of dreams too as the only place he finds shelter is a shanty tenement about to be demolished. The closing shots show him driving taxi, his fate inextricably tied to the city and he has nowhere to go, his family condemned to living a dreary, dismal life back home. The air of despondency that hangs in the air and the dreams that just evaporate into disappointments is the tragic tale of this pathos-laden film. No wonder, Farooq was quite natural and believable in the role of a non-descript taxi driver, and his performance won much critical acclaim. The film with its theme of urban migrations remains as relevant as it was three decades back.

A genteel, affable and natural actor, who consciously maintained a low profile all through his life, a trifle laid back though, he excelled in cinema, theatre and television in equal measure. His sudden departure is a loss that is irreparable and will be felt more acutely by his legion of admirers and all those who are connoisseurs of good, socially meaningful cinema. But, his memory will survive through some of the most beautiful and wonderful films that he was part of, and his cinematic odyssey through those years when parallel or independent cinema was making its presence felt, would be remembered for generations.

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