This is a guest post by actor Swara Bhaskar. She worked with Farooque Shaikh in her film Listen Amaya.
Perhaps the most vivid memory I have of the iconic and gentlemanly Farooque Shaikh is from the second day of shooting Listen Amaya. We were in the chaotic and uncontrolled environs of the Paraathhey Wali Gali of Old Delhi, trying to shoot sync-sound (!) a long conversational scene. It was hot, noisy and the narrow lane was becoming increasingly stuffed with curious onlookers since word had got around that the much-loved veteran actor was in Puraani Dilli. We were between shots and had eaten a large number of paraathhaas, and the production had relaxed the ‘set-lock’ so that crowds could go about their morning routine. Two scrawny men, hands-in-one-another’s-neck in the classic Indian male camaraderie pose sauntered by. One of them spotted Farooque sir and started. He came up right upto Farooque sir’s face, close enough for me to smell the gutkaa on his breath (!), peered at Sir with beady eyes and exclaimed to his friend, “Abey Frook Saik ko dekh ley!” The friend also brought his face close, looked and rejected the proposition pointing a scoffing finger at Farooque sir’s nose. “Abey yeh Frook Saik thodey hi hai! Chal bey!” They argued a bit more in this vein, peering and pointing, till the first friend turned to Farooque sir and asked nonchalantly, “Abey tum Frook Saik ho kya?” Farooque sir looked regretful and said apologetically, “Haan bhai sahib, hoon. Muaaf kar do, agley janam mein yeh galati nahi karungaa!” And that day I discovered the most telling aspects of Farooque sir as a person – grace, dignity and wit in any circumstance.
In the days that came, still shooting in that bustling, throbbing, historic part of the Capital I discovered Farooque sir’s wit was ever-ready, always decent and sometimes wicked! Again we were waiting between shots, this time in an air-conditioned sari shop in Dariba Kalan. Farooque sir sat with his back toward the shops entrance. I looked up two minutes into having entered the shop and found the glass windows of the shop plastered with faces, staring and pointing at Farooque sir’s back. “Sir you are going to be mobbed, how will we get out of here?” I asked. “Don’t worry, I’ll tell them all you are Katrina Kaif and then watch them clear out of my way.” I smiled at his reply. A minute later we were called to location. The single and novice assistant director escorted us out of the shop. Sure enough Farooque sir began to be mobbed. Holding a protective arm around me and totally unfazed he said in a loud voice in Hindi, “So Katrina! How did you like riding a cycle rickshaw?” A murmur ran through the crowd and some people began to crowd around and peer at my face before expressing their disappointment vociferously! Farooque sir however reached the cycle rickshaw comfortably and merely smiled at my horrified exclamations.
Generosity was another quality that defined the great actor. Farooque sir was always giving gifts. But his generosity had the mark of an aristocrat. The flourish of the Nawabs, who he has essayed in more than one memorable portrayal. Back in the bylanes of Old Delhi, as we shot, we passed a sweet shop.
“Swara ji, would you like a gulab-jamun?”
He turned to the man behind the counter and said “How many gulab jamuns do you have bhai?” The man replied in Delhi’s typical surly manner, “How many do you want?”
“How many do you have my dear man?” repeated Sir.
“First you tell me how many you want.” Replied the man now cocky.
“I’ll take as many as you have.” Said Farooque sir calmly.
“I have 25 kilos.” smirked the man.
“I’ll take them all.” Smiled Farooque sir and turning to the spot-boy on our set said “Dada, distribute these among the entire unit.”
15 minutes and a scene later we stood on location and a jaamun seller wheeled his fruit laden cart by us. “Swara ji do you like jaamuns?” Asked sir.
“Yes sir.” I smiled now expecting a bag full of the tangy purple berries.
“Bhai..” Said Farooque sir, putting a gentle hand on the street vendors thin shoulder. “Give me all these jaamuns.”
The jaamun seller stared at Sir in disbelief. “This entire cart-load?” He asked.
“Yes.” Said Farooque sir simply and turned to our spot-boy, and repeated the words we would hear again and again throughout our shoot “Dada, distribute these among the entire unit.”
As an actor Farooque sir was a remarkable lesson to observe and his technique was difficult to fathom. He never spoke much about the craft of acting or his ‘process’ and one often found him reading a book between scenes. But to actually watch him ‘in action’ and witness his effortlessness when performing or (the most difficult task for an actor) just ‘being’ in the moment; one could see that here was an actor with finesse, control and depth in his craft. But perhaps what marked him as an artist with a true understanding of the medium was an aside he once made while narrating a story about Hrishikesh Mukherjee. Mid-narration Farooque sir paused and said, “An actor can never go beyond the vision of a director. This is the truth of our cinematic medium and it’s very important for an actor to understand that.” And then with the characteristic twinkle in his eye and a lopsided smile he quipped, “There you have an excuse to shirk hard-work!”
But amidst all those jokes and wise-cracks there was a profound, well-bred, well-read, genteel decency-of-conduct. And more importantly, a quiet wisdom. These qualities deservedly gave Farooque sir a reputation and public image as spotless as his impeccably starched white chikankari kurtas, and so much affection and warmth from his audiences. A raconteur par-excellence Farooque sir was a fund of stories. Stories about the industry, about actors, directors, stories he had witnessed, stories he had heard, about his own time and about the time gone by. And with each story he would sigh and philosophize about the human condition. In one such account involving an incident between a producer and a-then-superstar, Farooque sir ended with the well-known saying that “just because the sunlight is falling on you does not mean you’ve become the Sun. Today it shines upon you, brightening your countenance, tomorrow it will bestow this grace upon someone else.” Seemingly, obvious and mundane; but in our fame hungry and glory thirsty industry, what a precious-lesson-well-learnt-but-often-forgotten! It must have been an acceptance and understanding of this fickle nature of stardom that allowed Farooque sir to hold his own, carve his own unique place and identity and win the affections and remembrance of audiences in an industry that generates super-stars with almost mechanized efficiency. Though in his own words he laid all the credit and blame for his attitude, his successes and his place in the industry to ‘laziness’. Co-star and friend of many years Deepti ma’am (Deepti Naval) would oft-times chide Farooque sir saying “You MUST write Farooque! Why don’t you write??”
“Who will make the effort? All that hard-work is for your type, I have neither the discipline nor the brains.” Farooque sir would retort and begin to tease Deepti ma’am again.
But he was being characteristically modest. Nothing about Farooque-Shaikh-at-work suggested a lazy actor. It was something else. Farooque sir was an observer. He had that quality that perhaps is considered more apt in philosophers – of observation, understanding, analyzing but never judging. For a man of such sense, education and judgement, Farooque sir was also a person with great empathy. Never once in the (albeit short) time that I was blessed to know him, did I hear a harsh judgement from Farooque sir. Even when he was critiquing someone, it seemed as if he was empathizing with the person’s flaws. A man with a clear understanding of society and politics and Farooque sir always had a perfectly balanced, liberal and fearless position on world events. He seemed to relish this position. Of being able to step into the circus-ring that is Bollywood, play his part and then step out take his seat and watch the show, with that knowing smile on his face. Perhaps that is the true uniqueness of Farooque Shaikh’s place in Bollywood: an insider but equally an outsider; an actor, but also an observer. And that is why in an industry which generally espouses the ‘when-in-Rome-do-as-Romans-do’ philosophy, Farooque Shaikh held his own, and lived and worked on his own terms, truly nawab-like.
Goodbye Farooque sir, but not fair. Too soon! You’ve denied us so much that was yet to come. So many more great performances, warm stories, witty quips, wise observations, promised dinners and that peti of aam!
(An edited version of this was published in Indian Express)