The family favourite
The death of the actor Farooque Shaikh called up a swell of love, especially for the generation of Indians who grew up in the pre-liberalisation 1980s, who repeatedly expressed an almost personal sense of loss at his passing.
For this generation — my generation — he was like a family favourite. He was the older cousin who topped the university but treated this with nonchalance. When he visited, your grandmother made her famous mutton curry reserved for very special occasions. He made the girl-cousins feel grown-up, by saying how they were getting so pretty he’d have to take the brotherly duty of keeping scoundrels at bay seriously now! He kept secrets with boy-cousins that made them feel simultaneously almost-men, yet with someone to watch over them.
When we grew up, we found other, post-liberalisation pleasures, ambitions, greed and drifted away from this world. But in our minds he was still there, in his old house. If we should visit suddenly, he would forgive us our prodigality, and would make, what else, but our grandmother’s famous mutton curry, making us feel like children again — simple, hopeful, nicer. Because everything is simpler and nicer when it’s in the past, no? Perhaps the tragedy of this actor was that, barring notable exceptions like Shanghai, it was precisely this flattening and sentimental nostalgia that came to him as roles in later life.
The marvellous thing about an artist is that even if she somehow represents the gestalt of the time, she is also so much more than that, suggesting through persona, a way to be. An actor’s body, presence, the look in their eye function in an almost primeval way, affecting us physically, sensually, infusing us with the desire to be an emanation of the idea they represent.
Farooque Shaikh played the man in striped shirts — so common as to be unremarkable, with an uncommon humour and charm, lifting him out of the sludge of undifferentiated aam aadmi-ness. He had, perhaps, the most flexible twinkle-in-the-eye, a twinkle that could be mischievous and teasing, sexy and flirtatious or avuncular and affectionate, depending. He mined his central quality of charm with amazing diversity — from the likeable to the caddish to the menacing charmer, deepening the understanding of charm itself. He pre-figured the Shahrukh persona in his ability to share confident space with women. But in a self-aware version of this, he often played the charming, confident man who totally gets the attractions of unconventional, uncontainable women, whose flip side is weakness because of which he eventually lets the women down (Umrao Jaan, Katha). Unlike the cuteness he is mis-remembered by, he often played highly fallible characters, but in ways that demanded a compassionate gaze from us — and in doing so, turned a compassionate gaze on our own common-ness.
The urbane ambiguities of his presence suggested that there is something false in taking yourself too seriously, and made him a good fit in films that shrugged off the manipulative pieties of the art/commerce and politics/entertainment divide. They told stories with intelligence and emotional complexity without eschewing the pleasures of entertainment — humour, romance, pizzazz.
These were not films that sought to shame and uplift us via the machismo of so-called political worthiness nor to subjugate us into genuflecting before the power-trinity of producer-star-marketing. Rather, they made a bid for the popular by making themselves vulnerable to the love of the audience, which did not mind being eye to eye with audiences in a spirit of give and take.
With the passing of Farooque Shaikh, perhaps we mourn that lost possibility of our cinema, too.
Paromita Vohra is an award-winning Mumbai-based filmmaker, writer and curator working with fiction and non-fiction. Reach her at www.parodevi.com.
The views expressed in this column are the individual’s and don’t represent those of the paper.