Farooq Sheikh as Nawab Sultan in Muzaffar Ali’s ‘Umrao Jaan’ (1981)
When I met Farooq Sheikh for the first and only time in the mid 1980s two adjectives came to my mind instantly—reflective and genteel. He was reading a book on economic theory which seemed incongruous considering he was waiting for a shot.
“I read anything and everything. Why miss out on knowledge?” he said to me as if to preempt a contrary view I might be harboring. For someone trained to be a lawyer, Sheikh came across as remarkably devoid of contention. There was a certain quietude about him, a certain polished demeanor that seemed entirely natural.
As I read the news of his passing at age 65 of a heart attack in Dubai, it struck me that I might have seen the most number of films of a single actor in Sheikh with a few possible exceptions. Going through his filmography on IMDB and elsewhere (Internet Movie Data Base) I counted close to 20 starting with his debut in ‘Garm Hawa’ (Scorching Winds) in 1973. It could be because he did movies that did not grab you by the scruff of your neck. Many of them had the distinction of being an easy watch where Sheikh excelled unfailingly without trying to excel.
I remember him telling me something to the effect that he wanted to “do as little as possible while acting”. “Chalo aaj acting kar lete hein,” (Let’s act today) is not how I see my profession,” he said. That summed up his long career in the movies and on television. He refrained from accentuating his gestures and instead chose to behave like any regular person would in real life. That said, Sheikh possessed that remarkable flair for comedy that often prompted him to “do as little as possible”.
His success as an actor of great substance did give Sheikh considerable fame and visibility but he made it look as if that was just something he chose to do just as he could have as easily become a lawyer or an economist. Quite like Balraj Sahni, one of Indian cinema’s finest actors, Sheikh had a screen presence that never came across as frenzied unless a performance demanded. There was no effort to keep the attention on himself. It always seemed as if his entire career was an ensemble piece even though in many of his roles he was the dominant presence.
Although often seen as a key figure in the so-called parallel cinema movement in the 1970s and 1980s, Sheikh’s made a transition into frothy and humorous romantic comedies effortlessly. There was always a lightness of touch to his performances that made those movies watchable without much fuss. Check out this scene from Satyajit Ray’s ‘Shatranj ke Khildai’ at cue 3.34.