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Foreign Film Friday: Remembering Farooq Sheikh, the unsung legend of Bollywood

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My first introduction to the legend that was Farooq Sheikh happened in 1998. I was merely two years old, and I don’t recall a lot of things from that age except the fact that I loved watching television.  I was extremely fond of this man with long hair who’d invite Bollywood personalities over to his show to talk about their lives. 

I am not sure if its the impact of the bright screen or the amount of attention I paid to the screen, or just the excitement with which new shows were looked forward to in my middle-class family - maybe its a little bit of all of these factors. But most of all, it is possibly the charm of Farooque Sheikh that he brought to the screen as the host of the first season of Zee TV’s talk show Jeena Isi Ka Naam Hai (This is what life is all about). 

He was born in 1948, in a village near Surat, Gujarat but grew up in Mumbai, where his father Mustafa Sheikh was a reputed lawyer. He completed his education at the city’s well known St. Xavier’s College. During his time at the institution is when he began his journey as an actor, where he was an active part of the college’s theatre group and performed several plays - some of them with Shabana Azmi as his co-star. 

Xavier’s is also where he met his wife Rupa, whom he married after nine years of dating. Initially, after graduation, Sheikh’s plan was not to get into acting. He completed a degree in law from the Sidharth Law College in 1973, in the hopes of carrying on his father’s legacy. However, as destiny would have it, Sheikh soon realized he did not identify with the atmosphere in which the legal system functioned and shifted the course of his career. 

He returned to theatre and performed plays with Indian People’s Theatre Association, and in his last year of law school received his first film offer from MS Sathyu for a supporting role in the movie Garam Hawa (1974), based on the partition of India. Over the next two decades, he went on to perform several memorable roles, in movies across genres from Chashme Baddoor (1981), Kisi Se Na Kehna (1983), Shatranj Ke Khiladi (1977), Noorie (1979), Biwi Ho To Aisi (1988) and many more memorable roles. 

His most typical characters, however, involved his representation of a common man or aam aadmi of the 1970s decade on screen. He portrayed his characters with such simplicity and charm that they were impossible to ignore, and his smile complemented his acting genius well. Not only was Sheikh the perfect on-screen representation of the common man, he was also a common man himself. Money was never his priority or concern, which he made clear from his actions more than his words. He never became a fully commercial actor, only doing roles he believes he could do justice to. 

He was not one for awards and fame either. His competitors in the 70s included India’s first superstar Rajesh Khanna, and the beloved Angry Young Man Amitabh Bachchan - but Sheikh managed to create his own identity both on and off screen.  Throughout his career, Sheikh continued doing smaller gigs across radio and television - which is what contributed to him being a common household name, especially his roles in the political satire series Ji Mantriji (2001) and the celebrity chat show Jeena Isi Ka Naam Hain.

He was often paired with actress Deepti Naval, including in his last film Listen….Amaya (2013) and his most memorable role in Chashme Baddoor. The way Naval and Sheikh complemented each other on screen is a chemistry rarely seen in Bollywood. They were witty and humorous, but more importantly, they were genuine - and no matter which character or plot they were a part of, the audience found them more relatable. The other characters and romances on screen, which were more symbolic of the audience’s fantasy and ambition than their on-ground reality. 

Sheikh was true to his work, for he continued working till his last breath. In June 2013, when I sat with my friends in a theatre watching Ayan Mukherjee’s coming of age romance Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewani, I was barely expecting to see Sheikh as one of the supporting cast. And yet, when he showed up I couldn’t help but feel how perfectly he fit into the role of yet another middle-class father, supporting his son’s ambitions and dreams. Sheikh passed away in December 2013, much like he did in the film, leaving behind a void that’s impossible to fill and an unmatchable legacy in parallel Hindi cinema. 

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