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.
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.
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 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.