Farooque Sheikh — Nice Person First, First-rate Actor Later

SEVERAL SENIOR scribes I have interacted closely with have admitted to being a little shy of their first few by-lines, often bracketing them as somewhat trifle. Ditto with me.

I distinctly remember that sub-editor gently admonishing me that day for being “tangent”, “wayward” and “unfocused”, as he went into hammering the copy into a more readable piece.

I am referring to that interview I did of veteran Bollywood actor Farooque Sheikh way back in late 1995. It was the first interview I did of a famous person, and as far as I can remember, it was among my first few stories, and that too as a trainee journalist!

Forget about the finesse or the way with words. All that mattered to me at the time was how well Farooque saheb had treated me; how he had wanted a copy of the newspaper carrying his interview; and how, when I went to hand him the newspaper at the Patna airport, he — despite being mobbed by a motley crowd — made that extra effort to collect the copy from me while saying a courteous ‘thank you’.

Different aura

There was a different aura about that man. You could feel that air of honesty and straightforwardness when he was around.

Yesterday morning, as I heard the news of the demise of the actor who lent his skills to such meaningful and classic films as Bazaar, Saath Saath, Umrao Jaan, Shatranj Ke Khiladi, and the unforgettable comedy Chashme Buddoor among others, I was transported to that social event in Patna where Farooque was a guest speaker, and I had asked him for a few news bytes. I was completely taken aback by his modesty when he offered me a lift in his car to the hotel he was staying in, offering a detailed interview there.

Sheer chance

“By sheer accident,” was his reply when I asked him how he had got his first break in Bollywood, as he came from a typically traditional, trading family. He narrated to me in detail how it was sheer fate that kicked off his rendezvous with a career in acting.

I could notice that there was not an iota of pretence with this man, attired in his trademark white kurta-pyjama, as he insisted on making tea for me.

He told me he had decided to sponsor the education of a few girl children and would continue doing so in the years to come.

If every capable person can sponsor the education of even one girl child, it will be a completely different world, I remember him telling me.

Having started his Bollywood career in the year 1973 with the classic Garm Hawa, he tasted big success with Noorie, a 1979 love story produced by Yash Chopra. He told me he was flooded with similar roles but chose not to join the rat race. And while he excelled in both parallel as well as mainstream cinema, Farooque was not one to be awed by the grammar of the showbiz.

Just a few weeks back I had watched Bazaar on my laptop. What a performance! He looked every inch of the tragic character he essayed. And when I watched the movie, I thought of that very same interview I had done of him as not-so-mature-a-scribe. I always had this feeling that Farooque saheb could have given me a few tips on how that story could have been given a better shape. And I had always wanted to interview him a second time. Alas, that desire remains unfulfilled! Alwida Farooque saheb. RIP.

To Question Or Not To Question, Is The Question

TO QUESTION or not to question, is the question. That indeed is the question that is haunting me, and dare I say, to very many like me, for quite some time now.

The question assumes an even greater relevance in this ‘age of selfies’.

The profession of pen-pushers has always been associated with the need to question, and question, and question more. But if we are in such complete awe of any person that we jostle for selfies with them, shall we ever be able to put difficult posers to him, or her? Questions, that may unsettle them?

So should journalists be jostling for selfies with others, whosoever, however high or mighty?

I can already guess some of the questions coming my way.

‘What’s wrong about (or with) selfies? I am a huge fan of this person. He is such an inspiration to me/us? It was such a privilege.’

Picture perfect, I say. But there is a problem here. True, scribes too are part and parcel of the social milieu they come from. And their perceptions are very much shaped by the social milieu.

It’s also true that the sciences engaged in mapping human behaviour do not ascribe to the theory of 100 per cent objectivity. If the subject of investigation is human behaviour, subjectivity is bound to creep in.

But would that imply that the scientist then wantonly abandons his primary tools? Can an intelligent observer of human behaviour afford to ignore the larger picture? Should they not at least try to maintain a bare minimum distance from the subject in order to arrive at an objective assessment? After all, one has to observe things from a distance if one wants to present an unbiased picture. Try one must, even if cent per cent detachment from the subject may be an impractical idea.

For journalists, therefore, very much like social scientists, it’s imperative not to look at things from the prism that others have reserved for them.

Selfies are selfies. But what about the questions?

If we are not supposed to ask questions then what is this business of high tea with the collective of scribes? Is this journalism? Or, as we all suspect, are we PR guys masquerading as journalists?

We are no longer asking questions. We are churning out ‘truth’ as others want to get it manufactured through us. That, indeed, is a colossal tragedy.

While there is nothing wrong to stress our social affiliations or groupings or even the primordial loyalties, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to tell us from the well-oiled propaganda machinery.

And, the way we have been giving our basic journalistic ethos a go-by, whatever we may be left with, we are bound to jostle for those selfies more often now at the cost of professional pride and competence.

It’s the job of a journalist to inform. It’s not just about taking dictations.

Which brings me to what Romila Thapar was quoted as saying in that New Delhi meeting: “There are more academics in existence than ever before but most prefer not to confront authority even if it debars the path of free thinking. Is this because they wish to pursue knowledge undisturbed or because they are ready to discard knowledge, should authority require them to do so.”

The whole debate here is about the path of free thinking. If we have the liberty of thinking, then as a natural corollary to that, we also have to have the liberty to ask questions — difficult questions, questions that make others grope for the exit route.

In the imperfect society that we live in today a plethora of questions are begging our attention. So why are we not asking those difficult questions?

Have we, in our over-zealousness for selfies, forgotten to delve deeper into our inner selves and look at things as they are, and not what we have assumed them to be.

And, if we have wilfully chosen to be silent, can we do justice to our profession?

It’s even worse if our silence turns out to be a selective one.

I believe there’s no pressing need yet to write an obit piece on the journalism of courage. But one must confess that the trend in the Indian media these days is forcing us to revisit the moot point time and again: to question or not to question?

That, I reiterate, is the question.

(This article first appeared in the Times of Oman on October 30, 2014. Below please find the page)

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A Deficit Of Trust

A WORLD largely in the developed parts of the globe this time accusing bankers and politicians of wrecking their economies’ it’s time, perhaps’ to cast a closer and more meticulous look at some of the basic premises of the corporate mantras so effortlessly ingrained into our collective conscience.

While the global protests may — or may not — have been galvanized by the Occupy Wall Street movement in the US, the fact is that it has been moving in all direc- tions so far — Auckland, Rome, Sydney, Tokyo, Manila, Taipei, Taiwan, Paris, Madrid, Berlin, Frankfurt, Vien- na, Sweden, Helsinki…

It perhaps was no sheer coincidence that the erup- tion of the global protests had coincided with the Group of 20 meeting in Paris, where finance ministers and central bankers from the major economies were hold- ing crisis talks.

In fact, one of the questions uppermost on the minds of people in these rather extraordinary times is when London would see its very own ‘Occupy the London Stock Exchange’ as well!

More than anything else, the current wave looks driv- en by a deficit of trust; increasingly, people around the world seem to be losing their faith in the political and corporate classes and even fewer seem to be counting on their political elites to help them wriggle out of the crises after crises.

Austerity cuts are a reality all across the world and it may not be about just a handful of countries. “What is happening (debt-driven financial melt- down) in Greece now is the nightmare awaiting other countries in the future. Solidarity is the people’s weap- on,” the Real Democracy, a Greek group was recently quoted as saying sometime back.

The problem is that for far too long the bankers and financial mandarins were given a free hand to run the affairs the way they liked to while they continued to run riot with the public money, the economies started to bleed.

However, it’s the growing disparities among peoples across nations that have acted as the real multiplier of woes digging the hiatus deeper and deeper in these times of global recession.

The invisible hand of the market no longer has the unquestioned support and trust of the people the suf- fering of the people all around is just too plain visible to give a short shrift to.

Exposed and bare, and no longer seem to be the desired and highly cherished values.

A recent Facebook post posted by a journalist friend said a lot. “One man died (Apple founder Steve Jobs) and a million cried, a million died (in Somalia) and not one cried!” There clearly seems to a subtle anger against the premises that the profit motive of the corporates is the most desirable thing for the mankind; that everything else can, and should, wait.

The point here is that while a visionary like Jobs continues to inspire one and all, a large number of peo- ple are now questioning the ethos where the invisible market forces are supposed to take care of the teeming millions, a very substantial chunk of which goes to the bed hungry not knowing where the next meal will come from. So long as the global economy was working fine, few questioned the status quo. Just transport yourself — for a moment — to an era just half a decade back and try imagine an anti-corpo- rate demonstration in the streets of Greece! What? Not possible! Just plain unimaginable…isn’t it?

Times have changed. As a large part of the developed world gets entangled deep into the debt morass, the fears that we might be standing on the thresholds of yet another bout of global recession, is writ large on count- less faces all across the continents.

We are indeed living in extraordinary times these. It’s time the political and corporate class does a serious re- think on the ‘profit-is-supreme’ motto.

It’s time to seriously ponder the future of the future generations. The corporate leitmotif is leading us no- where close to a solution to the global financial crisis. Leaving the masses sans social security to fend for themselves and to continue supporting the corporate goals without any remorse is anything but a value asso- ciated with what we call a welfare state.

In fact, besides the politics, the economics of the wars of the recent times needs to be scrutinised too, because some indeed trace the winds of the global recession to those illegal wars.

Not much serious academic work has been done to study the economics of the wars of the past decade — how much of the global economic quagmire the man- kind faces today owes to the rushed and rash decisions of some of the most well known leaders of our times? These questions are crying out for attention now.

(This article first appeared on the Edit Page in the Times of Oman newspaper on October 25, 2011. Below please find the page)

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An Ode To A ‘Pucca’ Indian

MF HusainTHERE WAS was something about Maqbool Fida Husain that almost every journalist who met him in his forced exile days noticed, unfailingly. What’s more, most of these scribes ended up creating the edifice of their stories on this particular facet. But then, there was an irony here.

These words were in almost cent per cent cases, ac- cording to my guess — hardly spoken at all! And yet, one ended up ‘reading’ it almost every moment one spent with him. His eyes would say it. His body language would churn out ample indications. Those bursts of sudden, almost unannounced, silence would say it all.

Having had the fortune of spending some precious time with him and among the few ones to interview him in detail in his ‘exile’ years, I almost found the decibels of those unspoken words deafening.

Now, let me put to rest this puzzle straightaway. One is talking about the man’s yearning for his native country. That’s the reason I was least amused to read what Bol- lywood’s dhak dhak girl Madhuri Dixit, one of Husain’s favourite muses, had to say about him: “He was a pucca Indian at heart”.

Madhuri described in a few words what most of our fraternity of scribes have always known: Husain’s uncon- ditional love for his country. One almost feels like saluting her for putting our words into her mouth.

Yesterday, as Husain Sahab was laid to rest at Brookwood cemetery at Woking in Surrey, south of London, I couldn’t help feel that tinge of a piercing, and strange, melancholy. And it was time for nostalgia as well.

I still remember how confidently Husain had told me, much to my amazement, that he would be visiting India soon, during that interview in a villa in Jumeirah in Dubai, in February 2007.

When? I had promptly asked. Silence… I repeated my question. Silence again. Waiting to lap up a scoop of Himalayan heights, I had persisted with my ‘when’.

This time, there was some bodily movement, some awkward stances, some uneasiness, a deep breath. I got the message. So I changed the topic almost instantly, mindful of the fact that this was going to be a detailed in- terview, and not a quickie.

On the hindsight, it all seems more unreal than real now. A 95-year-old man, globetrotting, mainly Dubai and London, and later Qatar, but unable to visit a land that he had so loved, even breathed!

An artist whose brush so finely captured the nuances of a great eclectic culture, but those very creations not getting an iota of physical space in distinguished art galleries in that very land!

One could agree, or disagree with the charges his critics levelled against him, depending on one’s definition of rationality. Those in the former category had been most vocal over the past few years so one could hear them from a long, long distance, loud and clear, bang on target.

Those in the latter grouping had been barely audible. If they were able to mumble a word or two, they would almost always get blown away in the hustle and bustle of the din.

Without delving into the polemics of this particular facet, one would rather ask a few questions to oneself, now that Husain is no more. Did Husain love India?

Was Husain a less patriot than those who had been baying for his blood all along?

Did he hurt the feelings intentionally, or whether he just went ahead about doing — what all he painted — at the call of the artist within him? And, if he had indeed hurt the feelings intentionally, did he ever say he was not ready to disown some of his own works, or that he was unwilling to tender an apology? Also, did he not face the ire of the members of his own community on account of his creations, albeit a film called Meenaxi:

A Tale of Three Cities, and not a few pieces of painting that had earned him the ire of a section of the majority community? And now a question for those who loved him: did they do enough to convince the 90-plus man to catch the next flight back home, or, not to surrender his passport permanently? Didn’t the political class fail him?

And last, but not the least: did he breathe his last long- ing to at least once touch the land that had given him the wherewithal to shine on the world stage like an international jewel? By now, we all know of his last wish to be buried in the land where he breathed his last. So, a supplementary question: was that fair enough?

What his youngest son Owais said, when asked for a comment on behalf of the family after his death, per- haps best summed up the momentous occasion and the momentous man they called the Picasso of India: “There were many absences, but even in his absences, there was a lot of his presence….”

It is this presence that I was talking about.

(This article first appeared on the Edit page in the Times of Oman newspaper on June 12, 2011. Below please find the page)

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