Versatility, good looks, boyish charm and great acting chops—Farooq Sheikh had them all to become a conventional, chocolate-faced hero in the Hindi film firmament. But his career was most unconventional and, despite some iconic films and landmark roles remembered even today, he was at his best when on the stage, acting with great sensitivity and depth. Sheikh died late Friday night in Dubai. He was 65.

Sheikh was born in a comfortable, landed family in Amroli in Gujarat but was educated in Bombay at St Xavier’s College before proceeding to study law. The call of progressive theatre proved too attractive and soon he was involved with Indian Progressive Theatre Association (IPTA), which was started by Leftists in 1942.

He first gained popular recognition as a quiz master on radio, but it was his participation, as an anchor on Bombay Doordarshan shows such as Yuvadarshan and Young World that made him a household name. A break in Hindi films was inevitable. Garm Hava, with its vast ensemble of IPTA alumni, in which he played the son of the family patriarch Balraj Sahni who refuses to migrate to Pakistan, was Sheikh’s first film. The old world, graceful and refined Muslim milieu was familiar to Sheikh and he stood out even among the stalwarts in the film.

Shama Zaidi, who had written the story of Garm Hava, was the dialogue writer for Satyajit Ray’s first Hindi film Shatranj ke Khiladi, set in a Lucknow full of debauched and effete nawabs. Sheikh got a role as Aqeel, the lover of Farida Jalal who played the Mir’s flirtatious wife. It was a dream start for the young actor and as if to contest the typecasting of working only in parallel cinema, he bagged the hero’s role in a Yash Chopra production Noorie, opposite Poonam Dhillon. The tragic love story, set in Kashmir, confirmed his position as a bankable actor but it was clear that he was not the singing around trees type nor the anti-hero variety, which was gaining ground in the mid-1970s.

In the 1970s, middle-of-the-road cinema was thriving. Basu Chatterjee, Hrishikesh Mukherjee and many others made small budget, clean, family-oriented films that fell somewhere in between the arty renditions of Shyam Benegal and the commercial masala films of Manmohan Desai. Sheikh showed his mettle in Gaman (1978) as the migrant Bombay taxi driver dreaming about going home to his wife and then, in a role that he is probably best remembered for today, as one of three slacker youths interested in the comely Deepti Naval in Chashme Baddoor (1979) directed by Sai Paranjpe.

Sheikh’s strengths by then were quite clear—he filled a niche that fell somewhere between the big stars Amitabh Bachchan and Rajesh Khanna and the intense art cinema actors such as Naseeruddin Shah and Om Puri. Sheikh’s good looks and control over his craft coupled with versatility got him roles in Umrao Jaan, Bazaar and Katha, all different films in which he played a range of characters.

The 1980s are best forgotten as a decade, and with parallel cinema in the doldrums, Sheikh, like many of his peers, was left nowhere. As the wimpy son of the harridan Bindu in Biwi Ho To Aisi (1988) he was serviceable, but it is only remembered for being Salman Khan’s debut movie.

Around this time, Sheikh returned to television, which was becoming a platform for good, long running serials such as Tamas and Buniyaad, but it remains a mystery why he wasn’t in any of the long-running shows on the small screen. His parallel career in theatre had continued and his name was a big draw for audiences. Tumhari Amrita, which opened in 1992, must surely be one of the longest running plays in India—the actors don’t memorize lines but read from the letters in front of them and those who have seen the play more than once say Sheikh had the ability to give a different flavour in each performance.

His film career was almost over except for some forgettable films though in his most recent outing, Club 60, he convincingly played a man coming to terms with the death of his son. But with so many outstanding roles to his name, Sheikh will be recalled by fans as one who exuded decency and gentleness on the screen and skilfully negotiated every role that he enacted.

Sidharth Bhatia is the author of Cinema Modern: The Navketan Story, and Amar Akbar Anthony, a book on the making of the Bollywood classic.

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