In the cookie-cutter world of mainstream Hindi cinema, actors need stock ingredients to deliver salable performances. Farooque Shaikh was never on the list.
Shaikh’s untimely death at the age of 65 on December 27, 2013, has left a void in Indian cinema that still hasn’t been filled. Setting out to become a lawyer like his father, Shaikh realised early on that his passion lay elsewhere. After working in theatre, Shaikh got his first break in MS Sathyu’s landmark film Garm Hava (1973), which chronicled the aftermath of Partition through the story of a Muslim family in Agra that decides to stay back, but confronts suspicion and hostility.
After notable performances in such movies as Satyajit Ray’s Shatranj Ke Khilari (1977), Shaikh appeared in his first lead role in Gaman (1978), a searing portrait of alienation in Mumbai. In Muzaffar Ali’s directorial debut, Shaikh played Ghulam Hasan, a migrant taxi driver from Uttar Pradesh who is never able to earn enough to support his wife Khairun (Smita Patil) and ailing mother.
The remarkable music by Jaidev and haunting lyrics by Sheheryar and Makhdoom Moinuddeen underline the pathos of the lead characters, superbly portrayed by Shaikh and Patil.
Shaikh appeared next as the romantic hero in Yash Chopra’s tragic love story Noorie (1979) with Poonam Dhillon. Aided by Khayyam’s popular soundtrack and lyrics by Jan Nisar Akhtar, the movie was a huge hit.
The 1980s were an exciting decade for Shaikh. He proved his mettle as a comic actor as well as a romantic hero. He teamed up with Muzaffar Ali again for Umrao Jaan (1981), in which he plays Nawab Sultan, who has an enduring relationship with the titular courtesan (Rekha) but does not have the courage to risk social condemnation and marry her.
Shaikh one again played the passionate lover to perfection in Sagar Sarhadi’s Bazaar (1982). Sarju fails to save his love, Shabnam (Supriya Pathak), from being wedded to a much older man. Shaikh shines in an tearjerking scene in which Sarju questions the values of a society in which women are reduced to commodities to be traded in the marriage market.
Shaikh found his comedic grove with Sai Paranjpye’s Chashme Buddoor (1981), a delightful tale of three room mates who fall for the same woman, Neha (Deepti Naval). This was the first time that Shaikh and Naval were cast together, and the two went on to become one of the most charming on-screen pairs in the ’80s.
In Saath Saath (1982), Shaikh gave a nuanced performance as an idealistic young man who sacrifices his principles for money. Geeta (Naval) shuns her wealthy to marry Avinash (Shaikh), an academic with a distaste for material excesses. Raman Kumar’s film traces the couple’s gradual estrangement as Avinash transforms into an unscrupulous businessman, much to Geeta’s dismay.
Shaikh’s crowning glory was his brilliant turn as the boastful and gregarious Bashudev (Bashu) in Paranjpye’s Katha (1983). When Bashu comes to live with the shy and timid Rajaram Joshi (Naseeruddin Shah), his shenanigans turned life in the once-peaceful chawl upside down. Bashu is the proverbial hare to Joshi’s tortoise, beating him to woo Sandhya (Naval). The shameless and unrepentant Bashu, who juggles his relationship with Sandhya with an affair with his boss’s wife (Mallika Sarabhai) while also flirting with her daughter Jojo (Winnie Paranjpye), is easy to detest. Instead, Shaikh makes him irresistible.
The ’80s saw Shaikh appear in three more comic capers with Naval: Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s Kissi Se Na Kehna (1983) and Rang Birangi (1983) and Basu Chatterji’s Lakhon ki Baat (1984).
By the mid-’80s, the era of genteel comedy had run out of steam. Shaikh was relegated to playing supporting roles in mindless potboilers, including Faasle (1985), Gharwali Baharwali (1988), Biwi Ho to Aisi (1988) and the Amitabh Bachchan-starrer Toofan (1989).
It was only in the odd film such as Muzaffar Ali’s Anjuman (1986), about the lives of exploited chikan embroiders, or Ketan Mehta’s Maya Memsaab (1993), an adaptation of Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, that Shaikh got the opportunity to display his ample talent.
In the late ’90s and early 2000s, Shaikh’s genius found a platform on the small screen. He appeared in the serials Chamatkar and Ji Mantriji, an Indian take on the British comedy Yes Minister, and the popular talk show Jeena Issi Ka Naam Hai, which made its debut in 2002 and returned for a second season in 2006.
Shaikh made a comeback to cinema in his later years. His utterly forgettable roles (including in the insipid 2010 movie Lahore, which ironically fetched him his first National Film Award) were offset by stellar performances in Dibakar Banerjee’s Shanghai (2012) and Avinash Kumar Singh’s Listen...Amaya (2013).
Just as he was making his resurgence, Shaikh’s career was cut short by a heart attack while he was holidaying with his family in Dubai. The actor who once said that he does not wish to be remembered has left behind an enduring legacy through performances that make him impossible to forget.