Subhash K Jha fondly remembers one of the finest actors of the Hindi film industry, Farooq Sheikh on his birthday.
When I first met Farooq Sheikh, he was shooting for a serial Srikant in Film City. I was just starting out as a journalist. This was my first visit to Mumbai. I can never forget how warm and gracious Farooq was to me. From this gentle soul I learnt to always be nice to people who are starting out in this profession Shabana Azmi Azmi recalls Farooq as the epitome of elegant conduct. When she performed the 21-years-old-still-going-strong play Tumhari Amrita in Agra on 14 December 2013 against the backdrop of the Taj Mahal with her co-star Farooq Sheikh, she expressed to him a desire to end the lifespan of the play.
Farooq vehemently disagreed. ‘No, we can do it for another 21 years.’ He then did a very strange thing. He asked Shabana for a picture of the two of them on stage. Why did he do that? They had been performing it for 21 years. He had never asked for a picture.
Farooq going so cruelly is the biggest blow. He was not just a fine actor. He had the finest sense of humour, a sharp sense of repartee. He made his movie debut in Garam Hawa which Shabana’s father Kaifi Azmi was associated with. Shabana was in college with him. Farooq was the most popular boy on the campus, always helpful always ready to lend an ear to everyone’s problems. Throughout the three years in college, he won the Best Actor award. Even when he passed out he continued to be associated with his college. He was very popular on the campus even when he had passed out. His wife Roopa was then his girlfriend. He was the star of the college. He would sit down with students of both the gender and give them tips and lessons before their exams.
Farooq’s father was a lawyer and he wanted his son to take up the same profession. Eventually he convinced his father to let him be an actor and he did M. S. Sathyu’s film Garam Hawa. Farooq was also a flight purser. Muzaffar Ali worked with him in three of his films Gaman, then Umrao Jaan and Anjuman. Gaman was his first break as a leading man.Before that he had done a role in M.S. Sathyu’s Garam Hawa. Muzaffar saw him and cast him immediately.
Recalls the filmmaker, “I knew he had the quality of innocence and vulnerability that I needed in Gaman. Farooq was pitch-perfect as the migrant from a village in Uttar Pradesh earning a living in Mumbai by driving a taxi. Farooq really looked like he drove a taxi through the city. He actually mingled with taxiwallas. He possessed that quality of unalloyed honesty and transparency that made him look completely credible on screen. In Umrao Jaan I cast him as a Nawab. Though the role was culturally far removed from Gaman I still needed that quality of vulnerability which Farooq again projected in Umrao Jaan. In my Anjuman too he played an innocent man free of artifice and the manipulative spirit. He was like that in person as well. Was he trapped in playing goody goody roles? I wouldn’t know. I could only see him within the parameters of the characters that he played for me. We had a wonderful time working on all three films. All the three films were shot in and around Lucknow. So, I think the credit for introducing Lucknow to Farooq goes to me.”
In Gaman the journey of Ghulam Hussain (Farooq Sheikh) from his village in Uttar Pradesh could be the journey of anyone who comes to the city of Dreams laden with only an ambiguous optimism. It could have been the journey of Amitabh Bachchan who came to Mumbai in the 1960s with a driving licence to either light up the screen or drive taxis. Fate favoured the future mega-star. Ghulam Hussain is less fortunate. After 5 years in Mumbai, he cannot afford to visit his mother and wife in the UP village even once. It’s a toss-up for Ghulam between going home and sending money home. The stomach triumphs over the heart.
Significantly Muzaffar Ali wanted the Big B to play Ghulam Hussain. By the time Ali made Gaman the Big B had become a star. He couldn’t afford to relive his days of sleepless nights on the benches of Marine Drive. Reality check could wait. The Big B’s triplet of towering hits Muqaddar Ka Sikandar, Don and Trishul, ruled the box office in 1978. Gaman barely got a release. It was in those days a part of a movement known as the parallel cinema, though its fortunes hardly ran parallel to mainstream cinema. Gaman came during the year when the father of the parallel movement Shyam Benegal released Junoon ,his most expensive film to date.
Gaman got a very niche audience. I wonder how it would have fared today when the problem of North Indian migrants in Mumbai has acquired a renewed relevance. Muzaffar Ali chose Farooq Sheikh to play the disoriented migrant. The innocence of the native abroad is mapped on Farooq’s face. He is perfect for the part. The director surrounds Farooq’s forlorn persona in the uncaring metropolis with real-life taxi drivers in Mumbai who form a kind of core sena for the plot’s main course. We see them cruising the dispassionate streets of Mumbai with talkative passengers, rude commuters, impatient travelers…We get a feel of Mumbai in the backseat, so to speak. Sai Paranjpye worked with Farooq in two films Chashme Buddoor and Katha. During Katha the banter and the playful one-upmanship between Farooq and Naseeruddin Shah the teasing and ribbing between these two stalwarts was priceless. Farooq would say, ‘If Naseer and I are in a shot then it would be Naseer’s back to the camera.’ To this Naseer would retort, ‘Yes, of course, because my back is more expressive than your face.’
Farooq, recall friends, was very religious. Every Friday He had to be relieved of his work so he could go and pray. But Naseer was not at all religious. Yet he took his mother on a Haj pilgrimage. Farooq would tease Naseer about this. During the shooting of Chashme Buddoor in Delhi one of the light boys fell from the roof. He had to be hospitalized. Farooq would quietly visit the injured lightman and pay for his treatment. He said nothing about his generosity to anyone us. He was a silent doer. My dear departed friend Kalpana Lajmi once told me how supportive Farooq was when she directed her first film Ek Pal. “He didn’t charge money and told me he would take money only after release.I’ve seldom come across anyone as well-read and erudite as Farooque. He was a political liberal and an absolutely simple unostentatious man. He never owned a car and lived in a rented home all his life. He never drank or smoked and yet he died of a heart attack. I guess it could be genetic. I remember Farooque telling me his father had died suddenly of a heart attack at the Mumbai airport.”
Deepti Naval used to tease Farooq that in Katha he played his real self. Farooq was a big flirt. She worked with him in one of his last films Listen …Amaya. Deepti breaks down as she says, “When we worked together again in Listen….Amaya after 26 years he was still pulling my leg. I said, ‘Ab toh sudhar jao.’ He was adorable He never changed. The only change I saw in him during Listen…Amaya was that he would not sit with the rest of the unit after a shot. He would go back to his book. He was always reading. He was never seen without a book in his hand.”
Deepti had plans of working with Farooq all over again. “He had read three of my scripts. He kept prodding me to make those films. After doing Listen…Amaya together we realized how much we missed one another. We wanted to do a play together. We wanted to do so much more. Now we can never work together again.”