Updated: March 31, 2020 9:57:13 am
In a career full of sensitive and well-meaning performances, it is hard to say which is Farooq Sheikh’s best role or movie. The assessment is made even tougher thanks to his small but dynamic body of work. To most filmgoers, particularly those who grew up during Doordarshan’s glory days, Sheikh is a dearly-loved relic from the offbeat cinemas of Sai Paranjpye, Sagar Sarhadi, Hrishikesh Mukherjee and Muzaffar Ali. He was conventionally better looking than Amol Palekar, the indie stalwart a.k.a everyone’s favourite everyman but not quite as heroic as Amitabh Bachchan, the de factor superstar of the masses. Dare we say, if Bachchan was winning fans, men like Palekar and Sheikh were winning hearts. Among them, there was a dance going on between reality and fiction. While Bachchan represented fantasy and wish-fulfillment, Sheikh stood at the opposite spectrum — the common man’s poster boy, with whom a pre-liberalised India could relate to and see its own image reflected back. Did that image unnerve you? Why would it, if that visage belonged to the charming Sheikh? In fact, it wrapped you in a comforting hug. Critics never tire to point out how natural and effortless he appeared on screen. Audiences laughed with him in Chashme Buddoor and Rang Birangi, sang along in Saath Saath, felt the pain of Partition in Garm Hava, agonised over his plight in Gaman, rooted for his tragic romance in Bazaar and for a change, allowed him the luxuries of Awadhi royalty in Umrao Jaan. And then, there is Katha. A marked departure, Sai Paranjpye’s morally uplifting tale gives Sheikh a role he had never played before, bordering on the anti-hero/antagonist. Okay, let’s just agree to call Katha’s Bashu (Sheikh) a ‘loveable rogue.’
Hare Today, Gone Tomorrow
Famously cast against type, Sheikh joins the formidable Naseeruddin Shah in this 1983 comedy based on a Marathi play that satirised the time-tested ‘tortoise and hare’ fable. Bashu is a version of the hare, the pompous showboat with full belief in his ability to ace the race. The tortoise is Rajaram (Shah), the quintessential good guy. He’s humble and self-doubting, at hand to help anyone (from blood donation to suffering neighbourly fools). Both are vying for the “liberated” Sandhya’s (Deepti Naval) attention. The film is set in a chawl, one of Hindi cinema’s most authentic depiction of these noisy and cramped settlements common to Mumbai and Pune. Paranjpye has described Katha and Disha as two of her “most Marathi” films. Indeed, the Marathi milieu is not hard to miss. Chaklis and sabudana vadas are a staple here. Rajaram, Sandhya’s family and a vast majority of the neighbours are Marathi. But what Paranjpye probably means is Katha’s Marathi sensibility. Bashu, by contrast, is the anglicised dreamer. The film opens with Rajaram being promoted as a “permanent” staffer in a shoe company. His professional ambition is to be a head clerk someday even as personally, he’s smitten by Sandhya. Slowly and steadily, he’s moving towards that goal, but it’s rudely interrupted with the arrival of the cunning Bashu, an old friend. He’s a curiosity and the chawl-dwellers are immediately hypnotised. “Kaun aaya yeh kaun aaya,” goes the refrain. Boastful, rather a flamboyant liar, that’s Bashu for you. But also endearing, he has everyone eating out of his hands. He can get away in fancy restaurants without clearing the bill, chawl neighbours routinely ply him with free snacks, a dream job lands on his lap as though it were a gift from heaven, this man can get away with murder. No Hindi film hero has ever been blessed with such gift of the gab. Sandhya, for one, falls for this England-returned’s tall tales much to Rajaram’s distress. Humming a song, she can’t make up her mind if Bashu is a magician or thief. After a while, Rajaram can see through his lies, but a game of oneupmanship between the two heroes has ensued. In an ideal world, Rajaram would win the day, and thankfully, Katha is eventually his story and his victory. It’s uplifting to see Rajaram and Sandhya ending up together, despite the brief deviant joys that Bashu brings to the table. Sheikh makes Bashu likeable but never likeable enough to cheer for him. The middle-class sympathies will always lay with Rajaram and Sandhya, two of our kinds. Naval’s Sandhya is coy but inquisitive, fresh-faced as a flower in her lush braid whereas Naseeruddin Shah embodies Rajaram with a resounding accessibility and do-goodness.
Clash of Titans
Sheikh is a revelation as a creep, duping his way through life. But Naseeruddin Shah is no pushover. His Rajaram is waiting in the wings, hanging in there despite everyone taking advantage of his innocence. The versatile Naseer was a platinum performer back in the 1980s, an actor’s actor who switched artfully between parallel and mainstream screens. Is it possible that the smug star of parallel cinema had contempt for actors who he thought beneath himself? Did he resent his talented counterparts? At the heart of Katha is the friendship between Rajaram and Bashu. But this on-screen bonding belies their classic clash of ego on the sets as Paranjpye herself revealed decades later. “During Katha, the banter and the playful oneupmanship between the two of them, the teasing and ribbing between these two stalwarts was so precious,” Paranjpye recalled. “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.’ And they would go on like this.” They also had religious differences. Naseer was a famous rationalist as opposed to Sheikh, who was a staunch and practicing Muslim. Following Sheikh’s untimely death in 2013, at age 65, the reclusive Paranjpye told the press at the time, “Farooq was very religious. Every Friday we’d have to relieve him 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.” On the contrary, Sheikh and Deepti Naval who had become Hindi cinema’s cutest screen pair after Chashme Buddoor’s runaway success in 1981 were real-life friends and shared a comfortable chemistry. They went on to act together in several hits, a long and creative partnership that lasted from Chashme Buddoor and Saath Saath in the 1980s all the way down to 2013’s Listen… Amaya. “He was not just a constant part of my career but also of my life,” Naval once said, best summing up their relationship. (Read Naval’s tribute to her favourite co-star here).
A Big Flirt: Playing Himself
One must note that Paranjpye and Sheikh, too, made for an impressive team. Paranjpye, who shows up in a dead mother’s photo frame in one scene in Katha (she does have a cracking sense of humour) was a trendsetter in her own way. She started her career with the critically acclaimed Sparsh (1980), which made a big splash piling up three National awards including one for debutante Paranjpye and Naseeruddin Shah each. One of Bollywood’s most unconventional love stories, Sparsh explores the beautiful and fraught relationship between a visually impaired man (Naseer) and a young widow (Shabana Azmi). Neither too parallel on the lines of Shyam Benegal nor middle-of-the-road like Hrishikesh Mukherjee and Basu Chatterjee, a cross between populist and artsy, Paranjpye occupies a singular position in Bollywood — dub her the ultimate ‘middle of the middle’? Her films stand out for their verisimilitude, trademark humour, natural acting and middle-class settings. “I always see the funny side of things,” she once told The South Asianist magazine in a candid tete-a-tete. “Human foibles, frailties offer an unending source of humour. I would quite simply describe my brand of humour as very homey or homely.” She directed Sheikh in two major films which, over the decades, were deemed ‘relevant’ enough to be remade, by David Dhawan (Chashme Buddoor, 2013) and Khalid Mohamed (Katha, unreleased).
In the cult Chashme Buddoor, a rollicking comedy centred on three bachelors falling for the same girl-next-door (Deepti Naval, who else?), she offered Sheikh the leading role as a bookish guy-next-door often bemused by the antics of his two acolytes, the inimitable Ravi Baswani and Rakesh Bedi. She followed it up with Katha, this time, as conventional wisdom goes, giving Farooq Sheikh what many agree to be perhaps his most unusual role to date. Or is it? According to Paranjpye, Sheikh was quite a ladies man and didn’t waste any opportunity to impress on her as well during Katha’s shoot. So, all the ‘soft-spoken’ and ‘gentleman’ image that Sheikh’s on-screen characters had cultivated — even encouraged — turned on its head after all when Naval said, shortly after his death in 2013, “In Sai’s Katha, Farooq played this incorrigible flirt. I used to tease him that in Katha he played his real self.”
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