Farooque Saheb and Me

The legendary Farooque Sheikh would have turned 70, this March. His untimely demise has left an undeniable void which can only be fulfilled with his precious memories, writes Rana Siddiqui Zaman.

Google on March 25, 2018, honoured the ace Indian actor Farooque Sheikh by creating an exclusive doodle commemorating this legendary actor. This year he would have been 70. A genius, gone too early, at the age of 65 in 2013.

My association with Farooque Saheb started just like any other journalist but grew to become almost like a father-daughter bond. And, this had reasons. The first was his grace – a tie that he would create with his interviewers, the utmost respect he would grant them, irrespective of their age, experience and knowledge, a khandani trait as they say. And second, was his humility; a humility to accept that not all reporters are well-versed with all subjects they write on. I had seen many young reporters asking him questions that would irk other seasoned actors, notable being Naseeruddin Shah and the Late Om Puri. I have seen them getting irritated, and rightly so, on questions like "So, which was your first film or play and how did you get that role." They rightly ask them, sternly, to complete their research before interviewing. I wholeheartedly agree with them though I still found Farooque Saheb gently answering all clichéd questions with the ease of a teacher who doesn't mind his students repeatedly asking silly questions. That's what set him apart from his contemporaries, then and even now.
Farooque Saheb was always dressed in impeccable white lucknowi embroided kurta and pyajama – quite stiff with starch, and he would apply itr. His baby-pink complexion and salt-n-pepper hair would enhance the elegance he embodied. Not very fit though, he would often say, "I need to exercise more, though I walk daily, you know" and laugh sheepishly, knowing I wouldn't buy it.
I met Farooque Saheb on the sets of the play Aapki Sonia (co-starring Sonali Bendre), a sequel to the masterpiece Tumhari Amrita, which also had Farooque Saheb and Shabana Azmi. Aapki Soniya is a sort of hate mail exchanged between his beloved's daughter and him, who writes to him about how her mother kept on missing him all her life, and then died.
With his intense acting and naturalness of a left alone, old lover, Sheikh brought to the eyes of everyone who watched it. For long, there was a pin drop silence in the auditorium, as if, even clapping would break the rhythm of a highly emotional drama, taken from real lives. Amid sob-sob, thunderous claps and a standing ovation lasting no less than 10 minutes, Sheikh and Sonali made the viewers' day. Meeting him after this play strengthened our bond. It was 2009. We started either messaging or talking regularly. I would quote him in my stories on theatre or the Hindi film industry and he would make himself available at any time. Such was his grace and humility that despite asking him to call me by my first name, he never did so. He would always call me Rana Sahiba. For a week or two, I couldn't call him around early 2013. He called up to say, "Sab khariyat hai Rana Sahiba? Kahi dino se aapki khabar nahi?" Apologising, I said, "Sir, (by then, I had started calling him Sir, out of sheer respect), I have been suffering from frozen shoulder for over a week now. It pains like hell. I can't even lift my right arm properly." Little did I realise that he also was a great knowledge-house on homeopathy. He suggested a few remedies to me right then and there. To my utter surprise, every morning for over a week, ten days, I would wake up to a message from him, "Aaj kaisi tabiyat hai?"or "Kuchch farq aaya?" (How are you today, any difference in pain?). It made me feel guilty to say, I was still not okay. Such warm were his ways of asking that it influenced me to make sure I got well soon! "You will have to take care of yourself, if you don't, no one will", he would always say.
Sometimes during my emotionally turbulent days at the time of my father's illness, he would calm me like a father figure and assure that I could call him whenever I want. "If you don't mind, treat me like your father and share whatever you can," he would say. In the absence of my father, he played that role so easily, as if we had some natural blood connection.
Towards the last days of December, he had come to Gurugram for a film shooting. I called him and mentioned how we hadn't met for a long time. Immediately, he said, "Come, let's meet up; I am in Gurugram. But come fast because I have a flight to catch. I am going with my family for a quick holiday.They complain that we haven't been together for some time."
I saw my watch. It was useless to attempt to travel to Gurugram from Mayur Vihar so quickly. By the time I would've reached, he would be rushing for the airport. I told him so, expressing my annoyance on why didn't he tell me earlier? "Arrey bitiya, shooting main busy thaa. I have to come again here next in just a few weeks. We will meet then for a long chat and lunch, what say?" he asked. I didn't like it but I sheepishly agreed. I had no option.
Little did I know that just a couple of days later, I would wake up to the shocking news of his demise, on December 28, 2013. Needless to mention, there was a void taking over my consciousness. How desperately I wished I had gone to see him, even if it was for a few minutes! Till date, I have all his messages saved in my old mobile, "Bitiya, kaisi ho?", "Rana Sahiba, aaj shoulder kaisa hai?" A few nice exchanges and few advises on life – only a well-wisher and an elderly person would care to do so.
It is not just the celebrity whose absence I moan today or every year, but a person who taught me that humility, despite stature, is a thing to carry, forever. He has left an undeniable void, which can never be fulfilled. May his soul rest in peace. Amen!
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