Tribute: Amidst the high seas of mainstream Hindi cinema, Farooq Sheikh carved out an estuary of soothing, meaningful entertainment.

With Farooq Sheikh’s demise we have lost an alternative. An alternative to the behemoth called Bollywood, he braved the crass consumerism and the values that come with it. Together with Naseeruddin Shah, he was among the first Muslim lead actors to not only retain his real name on screen but was somebody who continued to play Muslim characters till his last film, “Club 60”. For all his body of work, Dilip Kumar played only one Muslim character in his entire career but Sheikh was never conscious about losing out on audience if he was named Yusuf on screen. In fact, it was as Yusuf in “Noorie” that he made his way into popular imagination.

One asked him about the impact of Muslim socials and the naming business, he said, “We have to understand that cinema is still an expensive medium. There is no point in criticising filmmakers for when you queue up to watch monkey dance you are supposed to eat and throw peanuts.” Sheikh said people make a lot about nomenclature in Hindi cinema. “To me the idea is to keep it simple so that people could easily remember the name. I haven’t seen a single character named Shatrughan in a Hindi film despite the fact that we have a popular actor of this name.” That was Sheikh, never eager to make headlines, never keen to take an extreme view but that didn’t stop him from making his point. Like the characters he essayed a lot had to be found in his impish humour, in between the lines.

He got his grounding in acting in theatre but there was nothing theatrical in his performances. Perhaps, it was fortuitous that he got to learn the ropes under Balraj Sahni, the master of underplay in “Garm Hava”, his first film. Like Aqueel, there was a lot of molten lava in the young Shiekh, a regular at IPTA plays where often Shabana Azmi used to be his co-actor. Like most of us in life, he didn’t need to pick a gun to register his presence, to score a point. He was trained to argue in court but he found his expression on screen. And in Muzaffar Ali and Sai Paranjpye he found the right gardeners to nurture him. He picked his fruits with care – always meaningful, seldom boring. It is a combination that is hard to get and that’s why his filmography doesn’t run into reams. And perhaps that’s why Satyajit Ray waited for his return from Canada to cast him for a supporting role in “Shatranj Ke Khiladi”.

He was the face for Shahryar’s timeless anguish of the common man – “Seene Mein Jalan Aankhon Mein Toofan Sa Hai” in Ali’s tale of urban migration, “Gaman”. With “Umrao Jaan” he brought alive Ali’s vision of a Lucknawi Nawab with a heart of gold but whose spine gives in when family’s pressure comes into play. He seemed a misfit in an era where acting was to be seen to be believed but if you care to look beyond Rekha in “In Aankhon Ki Masti Ke Mastane Hazaron Hain”, Sheikh’s eyes complete the journey from diffidence to desire. There was no stock mannerism to define his acting style. Perhaps that’s why no mimic could copy him and that’s why he proved a successful television host in his second innings.

When the Bollywood hero was in danger of being reduced to a stalker, Sheikh’s courtesies and chivalry with a courtesan came as a cultural shock for many but if you look dispassionately he kept the civility alive on screen and off it. When male gaze was the order of the day, he politely reminded that there is something called male grace as well. He was always in danger of getting slotted in the image of an obedient boy, who needs a jolt to revolt against the authority as seen in “Biwi Ho To Aisi”, his second outing with Rekha. With no inclination to chew the scenery, he was always an easy choice in films where the female character dominated the show like “Maya Memsaab”. However, with cinema never being his sole source of bread and butter, he had the guts to say no.

Sheikh never focussed too much on styling. When the Bollywood hero was sporting slim fits with flaring bottoms, Sheikh was serenading Supriya Pathak in short kurtas and Aligarhi pyjamas in “Bazaar” with his hair going all over the place. His usage of Dakkhani Urdu added spice to Sagar Sarhadi’s dialogues. Years later he charmed us with the accent again as coach Rao in “Lahore”, which won him the National Award for the best supporting actor.

It is not that he didn’t play characters who were selfish or men taken over by material greed. In “Katha”, Sai Paranjpye’s retelling of rabbit and tortoise story, he played the quintessential rabbit eager to distort the ethics of the game. In Raman Kumar’s “Saath Saath”, he was the husband whose values get corrupted in search of a better life and it’s the wife who takes a stand against him. His rendering of a headstrong urban youngster high on hormones in Sai Paranjype’s “Chashme Buddoor” has withstood the test of time despite several inspired efforts and an official remake. Here again the moral compass of Siddharth was refreshingly ambivalent.

He forged a formidable partnership with Shabana Azmi and Deepti Naval on screen. Azmi has always maintained that Zulfi, the character he played in the play “Tumhari Amrita” was very close to his real personality – A friend in need, a motivator but at the same time somebody who knew his boundaries. Naval, who first met Sheikh at Delhi Doordarshan gives him the credit for motivating her to go and meet Vinod Pande who was looking for a new girl with big eyes and long hair for “Ek Baar Phir”. When cinema offered him straitjackets he found the ambivalence on television in serials like “Srikant” and later “Ji Mantriji”.

His fondness for rich food – which many suggest led to the heart ailment – was adroitly blended with his character of a crafty bureaucrat by Dibakar Banerjee in “Shanghai”. Take the scene where Kaul keeps staring at the paneer tikka after his not so noble intentions become clear.

Of late he was in the midst of a comeback of sorts. Recently, he left an impact as a liberal father – an antithesis of Amrish Puri’s character in “Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenege” – in “Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewani”. In the last interview to this journalist he said once again he is getting to read and meet some meaningful scripts and sensible directors. The flight of the screen’s common man though has been cruelly cut short by fate.

Timeless songs picturised on Farooq Sheikh

Aaja Re O Dilbar Aa Jaa (“Noorie”)

Seene Mein Jalan Aankhon Mein Toofan Sa Kyon Hai (“Gaman”)

Zindagi Teri Bazm Mein Lati Hai Hamein (“Umrao Jaan”)

Phir Chhidi Raat Baat Phoolon Ki (“Bazaar”)

Tumko Dekha To Yeh Khayal Aya (“Saath Saath”)