Farooque Shaikh would have been 70 on March 25. He died in 2013 at the age of 65, leaving behind a string of gentle comedies tinged with timid romance that were conducted in what he might have called “shareefana andaz”.
Shaikh’s enduring screen moments from the 1980s include the laugh riot Chashme Buddoor, Jagjit Singh-Javed Akhtar’s immortal ghazal Tumko Dekha from Saath Saath, his courtship with the burkha-clad Supriya Pathak in Bazaar and his turn as the nawab wooing Rekha in Umrao Jaan. In the early years of his career, which began in 1973 with MS Sathyu’s Garm Hava, Shaikh displayed an intense, brooding quality that was not fully explored by filmmakers after he became a household name.
In Raman Kumar’s Saath Saath (1982), Shaikh plays Avinash, a Socialist writer whose heart-wrenching novel about slum-dwellers in Mumbai has been rejected. “Such grim subjects don’t sell,” the publisher’s rejection note reads, ending with a piece of advice: “Pick a lighter subject next time.”
Circumstances force Avinash, now married to college sweetheart Geeta (Deepti Naval), to work at a printing press owned by a classmate. Geeta is shocked as Avinash transforms himself from an idealist into a greedy businessman. In an angry outburst, Avinash reminds Geeta that ideology and morality are a sham: “There’s only sadness and frustration in the honest path of life.”
Sai Paranjype’s comedy Chashme Buddoor (1981) stuck Shaikh with the label of the thinking woman’s pin-up. The smooth-skinned and clean-shaven Shaikh, with his hair slicked back, had a laidback sexiness about him in the buddy comedy. Paranjpye broke the mould two years later with Katha (1983), for which she cast Shaikh as Bashu, a smooth-talking conman and an evasive creep. Bashu’s arrival in a Mumbai chawl sets off a frenzy of interest among its residents, most of whom are unable to see through his wiles and tall tales. Promising marriage to Sandhya (Deepti Naval) while conducting affairs with other women, Bashu ditches her in the end.
If Bashu had been played by any other actor, he would have been immensely disliked. But Shaikh made Bashu a lovable rogue. While it appears that Shaikh was cast against type in Katha, the director apparently saw things differently. In one interview, Shaikh revealed, “Sai always tells me, unfortunately, that she’s the only one who cast me true to type [as Bashu].”
Shaikh’s performance in Muzaffar Ali’s Gaman (1978) – the first of the director’s Awadh trilogy along with Anjuman and Umrao Jaan – had already challenged the notion that he was mainly suited to romantic comedies.
The movie, Ali’s first as director, is dedicated to the “Taxi Drivers of Bombay” and his hometown of Kotwara. Ghulam (Shaikh) is one among numerous taxi drivers who have migrated to Mumbai from Uttar Pradesh to make a living. Ghulam is introduced to the ruthless side of the city on his first day in Mumbai. A man has died on the railway tracks, and all the impatient commuters can think of is reaching their offices. “He had to find only this train to die?” one man grumbles.
Death and morality haunt Ghulam throughout the film. His mother falls ill in his absence even as his new bride (Smita Patil) waits for his return. The death of a taxi driver in an accident is given added poignancy by Shahryar’s poetry (“Suna hai aaj koi shaks mar gaya yaaron”) and Jaidev’s haunting score. The demise of Lallulal (Jalal Agha), a friend from the village and a fellow taxi driver, sounds the death knell for Ghulam. One is not sure if Ali uses the title, which means departure, to mark Ghulam’s decision to leave his village or the city.
Shaikh delivers an intense and moving performance as Ghulam, the village layabout who initially washes cars in Mumbai and then gets behind the wheel of his rented taxi. He sports a stubble throughout the movie, giving him a plaintive, weather-beaten visage. Even though he is the protagonist, the alluring Smita Patil casts a long shadow on the narrative. Theirs is an epistolary love story, manifested in a different way in the future stage production Tumhari Amrita, in which Shaikh was paired up with Shabana Azmi. Gaman’s posters featured only Patil – perhaps because she was a bigger star than Shaikh at the time.
Shaikh’s sober side was later explored by the films Lahore, Shanghai and Listen… Amaya. Dibakar Banerjee’s Shanghai, in which he played a corrupt bureaucrat, was a smart piece of counter-casting.
Yet, Farooque Shaikh’s image in public memory remains one of the everyman who romanced women nervously on the screen. For a sophisticated man of poetry, he played a surprisingly large number of rural characters, and was convincing in nearly all of them. He had his share of Awadhi decadence in Shatranj Ke Khilari (1977) and Umrao Jaan (1981. His erudition in real life and impeccable manners reflected in his performances and his conduct in public.
Unlike his contemporaries, Shaikh took on work only if it matched his integrity and personal values. Perhaps that is because he never saw himself as a movie star in the first place, and neither did the audience.