“Adaab. Is this the number of Ms Shubhra Gupta who writes for Ind Exp ( sic)? Farooque Shaikh”. With this text message, I began a series of conversations with one of the finest actors that Hindi cinema has had the privilege of hosting. He had nice things to say about a piece I had written, and ended that exchange with : “allah karey zor-e-kalam aur zyaada”.
Our last phone chat happened earlier this month, after the release of his ‘Club 60’, in which he said, “for actors like us, we need sensible, sensitive opinion, to tweak our ears and keep us on our toes”. From any other actor who had been on the job for over forty years, it would have seemed like a humble brag, a reverse I-am-so-regular-even-when-I-know-I’m so-great-kind of comment. From Farooque Shaikh, it came across as exactly who he was : an actor of ineffable gladness and a gentleman of civility and nuance, who brought a vanishing ‘nazaakat’ to his lines. With his passing, Hindi cinema and theatre has lost a terrific artiste, and a lovely man.
Farooque Shaikh came to Hindi cinema when actors like him were given the parts they deserved. The mid 70s and some of the 80s were the years when middle-of-the-road was not just a smart phrase. They produced a kind of cinema which addressed, with a great deal of gentleness, sharply-observed humour and excellent writing, the needs of an audience which was happy to see their own stories. Along with Amol Palekar, Farooque became the poster boy of that kind of film-making. As Hindi cinema turned into Bollywood, and began coasting on crass and vulgar content, he found himself on stage ( the play ‘Tumhari Amrita, a two-actor dialogue between him and Shabana Azmi, was an unforgettable experience), and television, as a genial and engaging host. His film appearances became fewer, but they invariably lifted the projects he said yes to.
The pleasure that a good performer can give does not depend upon how much time he is on screen. This is evident in his very first brief outing, in M S Sathyu’s classic ‘Garam Hawa’ ( ‘73), in which he plays a young student who swings between idealism and despair, representing the voice of a new India struggling with ethnic and religious identities . It was the same enthusiasm and zest which shone through in the be-sixty-and-happy ‘Club