Farooq Sheikh relished being able to step into the circus ring that is Bollywood,play his part and then take his seat and watch the show.
Perhaps the most vivid memory I have of the iconic and gentlemanly Farooq Sheikh is from the second day of shooting Listen Amaya. We were in the chaotic and uncontrolled environs of Paranthe Wali Gali in old Delhi,trying to shoot a long,conversational scene. It was hot,noisy and the narrow lane was increasingly occupied by curious onlookers. We were between shots and the production had relaxed the set-lock so crowds could go about their morning routine. Two men,hands on each others necks in the classic Indian male camaraderie pose,sauntered by. One of them spotted Farooq sir and came right up to Farooq sirs face,close enough for me to smell the gutka on his breath,peered at him and exclaimed to his friend,Abey Frook Saik ko dekh ley! The friend also brought his face close,looked and rejected the proposition,pointing a scoffing finger at Farooq sirs nose. Abey yeh Frook Saik thode hai! Chal bey! They argued a bit more,peering and pointing,till the first friend turned to Farooq sir and asked,Abey tum Frook Saik ho kya? Farooq sir said apologetically,Haan bhai sahib,hoon. Maaf kar do,agley janam mein yeh galati nahi karunga! That day I discovered the most telling aspects of Farooq sirs nature: grace,dignity and wit in any circumstance.
Another quality that defined Farooq sir was generosity he was always giving gifts. But his generosity had the mark of an aristocrat. A touch of the nawabs he has essayed memorably. Back in the bylanes of old Delhi,as we shot,we passed a sweet shop. Swara ji,would you like a gulab jamun?
Sure sir! said I. He turned to the man behind the counter and said How many gulab jamuns do you have,bhai? The man replied,How many do you want?
How many do you have,my dear man? repeated sir.
First you tell me how many you want, the man replied.
Ill take as many as you have, said Farooq sir calmly.
I have 25 kilos, smirked the man.
Ill take them all, smiled Farooq sir. Turning to the spot boy on our set,he said Dada,distribute these among the entire unit.
As an actor,Farooq sir was remarkable to observe and his technique was difficult to fathom. He never spoke much about the craft of acting or his process,and one often found him reading a book between scenes. But to watch him in action and witness his effortless performances,one could see that here was an actor with finesse and control. Perhaps his defining philosophy as an artist with a true understanding of the medium was a remark he made while telling a story about Hrishikesh Mukherjee. Mid-narration,Farooq sir said,An actor can never go beyond the vision of a director. This is the truth of our cinematic medium,and its very important for an actor to understand that. And then,with the characteristic twinkle in his eye and a lopsided smile,he quipped,There,you have an excuse to shirk hard work!
But amidst all the jokes and wisecracks there was a profound decency. And more importantly,a quiet wisdom. These qualities deservedly brought Farooq sir a reputation of a man as spotless as his impeccably starched white chikankari kurtas,and much affection and warmth from audiences. A raconteur par excellence,Farooq sir was a repository of stories about the industry,actors,directors,stories he had witnessed,stories he had heard,about his own time and the time gone by. And with each story,he would sigh and philosophise about the human condition.
It must have been an acceptance and understanding of the fickle nature of stardom that allowed Farooq sir to carve out his own space and identity within the industry and win the longstanding affection of audiences in an industry which generates superstars with almost mechanised efficiency. Though,in his own words,he laid all the credit and blame for his attitude,his success and his place in the industry on laziness.
But he was being characteristically modest. Nothing about Farooq Sheikh-at-work suggested a lazy actor. There was another reason: he was an observer. He had that quality that perhaps is considered more apt in philosophers of observation,understanding,analysing,but never judging. He was a person with great empathy. Never once in the (albeit short) time that I was blessed to know him did I hear a harsh judgement from him. Even when he was criticising someone,it seemed as if he had empathy for the persons flaws.
He seemed to relish being able to step into the circus ring that is Bollywood,play his part and then step out,take his seat and watch the show with that knowing smile on his face. Perhaps that was what was truly unique about Farooq Sheikhs place in Bollywood: an insider who was equally an outsider; an actor,but also an observer. And that is why,in an industry that generally espouses the when in Rome,do as the Romans do maxim,Farooq Sheikh held his own,and lived and worked on his own terms.
The writer is a Mumbai-based actor