“I would rather not be remembered: Everyone comes into and goes from this world. I have no great desire to be remembered after I am gone.” This is how Farooq Sheikh, actor, television anchor and an out-of-the-box human being in the synthetic world of cinema described his wish in a first-person piece in 2002. But it is difficult for his fans and the Indian audience to forget a person like him.
Sheikh will be remembered for his fine performances under some of the best directors in Indian cinema. He will be remembered through his films that are there for the next generation to watch and admire. He will be remembered for the warmth and the happy camaraderie with which he anchored that long-standing television show Jeena Isika Naam Hai born much before the colourful, loud and bizarre reality shows came along. The re-telecast of this show on another satellite channel still attracts a good audience. He will be remembered for Tumhari Amrita. Tumhari Amrita, directed by Feroz Abbas Khan, remains one of the best known and longest running theatre productions, its original star cast including Shaikh and Shabana Azmi. It is an Indian context adaptation of A R Gurney’s American play, Love Letters (1988), staged first in 1992. Last but never the least, he will be remembered for his versatile performance is different kinds of roles in very distanced films across the span of his career spanning four decades. Later, he played the same role in a sequel to the play called Aapki Soniya opposite Sonali Bendre.
Born on March 25, 1948 in Amroli in Vadodara District in Gujarat, Sheikh had a luxurious childhood because his father was a zamindar and they lived in a grand mansion with a string of servants. But his father a civil and criminal lawyer, shifted to Bombay and the family comprised of wife and five children, followed suit. Farouque was the eldest among them. His love for acting began with the stage when he was in St Xavier’s College with Shabana Azmi and Satish Shah as his college mates. Their friendship continued through the years. He performed in some plays staged by IPTA where he got introduced to Sagar Sarhadi. He was also a very good cricketer in college, a passion he gave up because he was also a topper in academics. Following his father’s footsteps, Farouque did his law after graduation and even went into practice. But he gave up soon after when he saw that most cases did not even reach the court and were solved at the police stage. Disillusioned, he chose acting. He never attained stardom but he did not chase stardom either. His needs were limited he would insist and he was content with whatever was offered to him.
In 1973, a friend introduced him to MS Sathyu for his film Garm Hava (1973). He played the role of Sikandar Mirza, the younger son of Saleem Mirza (Balraj Sahni) who does not wish to move to Pakistan following the Partition. The film was based on a story by Ismat Chughtai and Sheikh’s character, full of hope and optimism that he would be able to sustain his father’s wish to live in India, turns to frustration and disillusionment when he finds that his communal identity comes in his way of getting a job. In the beautiful climax, when the entire family is forced to leave for the station to take the train to Pakistan, they encounter a large crowd of protestors marching against unemployment and discrimination. His friends in the crowd call out to him and Salim Mirza pushes him to listen to their call. The film closes on this note of hope and optimism.
His next big film was Satyajit Ray’s Shatranj Ke Khilari (1977) based on Munshi Premchand’s short story of the same name. Farouque played a short but very interesting cameo of Aqueel, nephew of Mir Roshan Ali (Saeed Jaffrey), who is shown having a clandestine affair with Nafisa (Farida Jalal), Mir Roshan Ali’s begum. His brief appearance added both comedy and satire to this period film and shows the life and customs of 19th century India on the eve of the Indian rebellion of 1857.
In Gaman (1978) directed by Muzaffar Ali, he played the role of a young family man forced to migrate from Badaun in Uttar Pradesh to Bombay due to family responsibilities and financial pressures. He leaves with the hope of coming back but the return never happens because money is always short and his homecoming becomes a distant dream.
Sai Paranjpye’s Chashme Buddoor (1981) provided to be a sort of turning point in Sheikh’s career because it established him as a romantic hero in romcoms of a certain kind. He and Deepti Naval became a popular romantic pair of middle-of-the-road cinema with simple storylines and unpretentious treatment heightened by good performances and good music. They appeared in several films together like Chashme Buddoor, Saath Saath (1982), Katha (1983), Kisise Na Kehna (1983), Rang Birangi (1983), and Tell Me Oh Khuda (2011). They recently did Listen… Amaya (2013) together.
Umrao Jaan (1981), based on Mirza Hadi Ruswa’s novel Umrao Jaan Ada (1885), was directed by Muzaffar Ali. Ali carefully manipulates the cinematic technique to recount the story of a famous courtesan, Umrao Jan of Lucknow in the mid- nineteenth century. Sheikh plays the scion of a Nawab family who falls in love with Umrao but cannot marry her because there are class differences he does not have the courage to defy. Sagar Sarhadi’s Bazaar (1982) was a moving film on the trafficking of young Muslim girls in Hyderabad under the guise of a nikaah with rich Arabs in the Gulf.
His common man image defied stereotyping which allowed him to portray negative characters with effective ease whenever given the chance, even if rare. Among these are Kalpana Lajmi’s Ek Pal (1986) and Sai Paranjpye’s Katha, a modern-day satiro-comic take on the Aesop story of the hare and the tortoise. In Maya Memsaab (1992), adapted from Gustave Flaubert’s controversial Madama Bovary, Farouque played Dr Charu Das the naive and simple doctor who falls in love with Maya and marries her but forgets about her physical desires that make her seek fulfillment from other men. His filmography will remain incomplete if one does not mention Noorie (1979), one of his only fully blown commercial film produced by Yash Chopra and directed by character actor Manmohan Krishna. Even the producer did not expect the film to be the biggest super-hit of the year. It was a syrupy tale of tragic love where the lovers die a tragic death in the climax. Shrikant, based on a four-part novel by Sarat Chandra Chatterjee, Chamatkar and Ji Mantriji are the popular television serials that made him popular with small screen audiences.
The best part of his ‘style’ in acting is that he had none. He was natural and spontaneous and sustained a consistency in performance rarely seen in many established actors and heroes. His latest films, Lahore (2010), for which he won the National Sward for Best Supporting Actor, Shanghai (2012), directed by Dibakar Banerjee, and Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewani (2013) are befitting signatures of an under-rated and under-stated actor in Bollywood cinema. In Shanghaihe plays to perfection the negative character a slick, sophisticated and diabolic power broker in politics. In Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewani, as Ranbir Kapoor’s father, he gives perhaps the most moving performance of the film of a father who loves his son but is pained by the fact that the son refuses to accept and acknowledge his kind-hearted step mother. Club 60 directed by Sanjay Tripathy his last-released film, shows him as Dr Tarique who lives in Pune with his wife. They have lost their 20-year-old son to a mindless act of terror in Denver, USA. They sell off their clinic and move to Mumbai. But the house they come into is the one they had bought for their son. So the memories instead of going away, are re-awakened. Dr Tarique is so affected that the tragedy drives him to attempt suicide but his wife saves him though she is going through the same shock and its aftermath.
Mrityunjay Devvrat’s Children Of War is perhaps Sheikh’s last film. It is based on a true short story related to the birth of Bangladesh in 1971 focussing on the genocide where nearly 400,000 women were raped and three million people were killed. The film has three parallel stories and Farooq plays the leader of the Dhakka Guerillas, an influential man who stands against the atrocities in Pakistan and fights for a free nation.
Farooq Sheikh passed away in Dubai on December 27, 2013 due to a massive heart attack. Whether he likes it or not, he will be remembered today and tomorrow by those who have seen his films and those who will, through the legacy he has left behind. He went away at a time when technology ensures that people like him cannot be forgotten.