Farooq Sheikh was better known for his acting in the so-called parallel cinema of India during the 1970s and 80s — but he was also a very good stage actor. That contribution was eclipsed due to the much greater outreach of cinema.
He was eclipsed for another reason as well: The parallel cinema of that time was studded with other talent that gained much more fame and earned greater accolade for their work. Naseeruddin Shah, Smita Patel, Shabana Azmi and Om Puri were hailed as those who liberated the Indian cinema from the opiate of song and dance format.
After a while, as the hard and fast lines started to blur, the actual talent of each was reassessed once again. Farooq Sheikh did not fare badly in this silent reassessment and continued to diversify his talent to radio and television.
He was something of a rebel — as he left the comfort of his home and the more secure environment of a legal profession, looking for a vocation outside the socially-acceptable confines. Such wanderings took him to Muzaffar Ali, who later gave him a relatively more important breakthrough in his popular film Umrao Jan.
Sheikh had tasted the forbidden fruit of the cine screen as he played the role of an optimistic young man in Garam Hawa before being cast by Satyajit Ray in Shatranj ke Khilari.
But the bug of the performing arts had bitten him even earlier as he worked in the plays of the Indian People’s Theatre Association under the guidance of playwright Sagar Sarhadi. He went back to stage after his successes in the films and paired up with Shabana Azmi for a play adapted by Javed Siddiqi from the famous play Love Letters by A.R. Gurney.
The play was based on epistolary exchange between a man and a woman called Tumhari Amrita and directed by Feroz Abbas Khan and, with almost the same cast, it was appreciated by audiences the world over for 12 years till 2004. In all Tumhari Amrita completed its 20-year run in 2012.
It was a difficult role to perform because it just meant reading out letters to the other character who is also on stage doing the same. The lack of action in the play had to be compensated by immense control over the voice because that was the only craft that could be used. He did that quite well as the response of the audience showed year after year — and in it he must have been helped by his association with the radio.
In the early years of the cinema, it was usual for actors, writers, directors to be familiar with stage and radio before graduating to the film. Television became a fallback medium. Farooq Sheikh was well-versed in all these and therefore had a more rounded approach.
Tumhari Amrita was an exchange of letters between Zulfikar Haider and Amrita Nigam spanning over 35 years in which both grow from their teens into middle-age. The tension and frustration of the relationship based on unrequited love is weaved through words.
A sequel to this play, again penned by Javed Siddiqi, was staged in India in 2004 titled Aapki Soniya with Farooq Sheikh playing the lead — this time round with Sonali Bendre.
Muzaffar Ali has said that the character of Farooq Sheikh had a certain vulnerability about it. He appeared to be full of resolve but in the most trying of circumstances often gave way to temptation. And probably this was the reason of his success and longevity — because he played the ordinary man, who had mighty resolve but did not live up to that in reality, who dreamt big but in practice made compromises one after the other.
This realistic and close to the ordinary/common man is what poised Farooq Sheikh as a counter to the more assertive and heroic Naseeruddn Shah or the high-spirited Om Puri. It was not a matter of chance that he worked well with Deepti Naval, an impressive talent but not in the league for stardom in tinsel town. The two in their very ordinary ways were able to capture the small hopes and disappointments of the men and women who live precariously from day-to-day, never giving up at the same time.
He also acted in a film called Lahore, and won an award for it as well. Another film by the same name was made a few years after the Partition. That film with Nargis and Karan Dewan in the lead was full of nostalgia and a tragic colouration after the unleashing of the bloodbath and division of society on communal lines. But this film was a contest between two people, representing their respective countries.
If the initial film was about regret and loss, this was more about one-upmanship.
He presented the TV show, Nawa. In the late 1990s and acted in a number of television serials, Chamattkar on Sony, Ji Mantariji on Star and Shrikant among many others. He also compered (hosted) the Binny Double or Quits Quiz contest which was telecast over Vividh Bharathi.