Mumbai: Neesha Singh was a mere teenager when she played the part of Naseem in ‘Bazaar’. She had accepted the part because she was charmed by the Farooque Shaikh she had seen in ‘Garm Hava’, gentle yet intense, not macho or overpowering.
Shaikh Sahab’s 71st birth anniversary is being celebrated today. He was born Thursday March 25, 1948 in his native village of Amroli in Naswadi taluka of Vadodara, Gujarat.
Neesha Singh relived memories of their landmark film over the phone from her residence in New Delhi. “Before Bazaar (1982), I had done a film with MS Sathyu named ‘Kahan Kahan Se Guzar Gaya’ because my father knew him. By coincidence, it was Sathyu Sahab’s iconic ‘Garm Hava’ which had introduced Farooque Shaikh. Now director Sagar Sarhadi was Sathyu’s friend, and he was looking for a new face to cast in ‘Bazaar’. Sathyu Sahab recommended my name.”
Neeshaji’s scenes with Shaikh Sahab in ‘Bazaar’ are a textbook portrayal of unrequited love in Hindustani cinema.
The first time, he arrives at her home and urges her to introduce her to her friend Shabnam (Supriya Pathak). Neeshaji puts her hand to her heart and jovially says Shabnam (dew) evaporates with sunrise while Naseem (a gentle breeze) would serve him better. When he eventually gets her to agree, he says, ‘Main jaanta tha tum jaan par khelkar bhi mera kaam kar jaogi.” She replies, eyes downcast, “Bas hamin nahin jaante the.”
Another poignant shot occurs when the two women tease Shaikh by arriving veiled in burqa. After Supriya lifts the naqaab and goes to stand beside him, he gestures to Neesha, “Ab tum yahan kya kar rahi ho! Apna raasta lo?!” She says, “Haan, aaj se hum apna raasta badal lete hain”, and turns away sadly.
Unfortunately, Neeshaji’s personal experience mirrored the loss that her character Naseem undergoes in ‘Bazaar’. She says, “I was barely 18-19 years old at the time. I knew nothing about cinema. Which is why I did not realise that when the director narrates the script to you, he may only tell you that part of the story which concerns your character. He may not tell you the full story. I was given to understand from Sagar Sarhadi that ‘Bazaar’ was a love triangle featuring three characters, that is Farooque, Supriya and me. I was happy to be cast opposite Farooque Shaikh. So I said yes.”
That the lion’s share of footage focussed on Naseeruddin Shah, Smita Patil and Bharat Kapoor came as a revelation to her.
“Moreover, most of my portions were edited out from the film, perhaps because it got too lengthy. That is why the audience will see that although I am supposed to be Supriya’s best friend, there are scarcely any scenes of us together. I think I looked so young and fragile that Sagar Sahab did not want to allow the audience to contrast and compare us, lest they wonder why Farooque Shaikh had chosen Shabnam over Naseem,” she says. “The only scene one would remember of us together is where both of us wear a burqa and Farooque has to guess who is Shabnam.”
“So initially I thought the project did not turn out well for me (for I was a supporting actor). In the film industry people tend to stereotype you and give you the kind of roles they have seen you play. So until I got Ankush, I did not do any other picture. Naturally, I wanted a major role.”
At the time, though, Farooque Shaikh was the reason she accepted ‘Bazaar’. “Sathyu Sahab showed me ‘Garm Hava’, and I must say I was utterly charmed by Farooque. There was a certain gentleness and sensitivity about him. I was only 18, and to a young girl, it was nice to see that he did not come across as macho or overpowering. At the same time, alongside being gentle and sensitive, there was a marked intensity. One could see that in his eyes, his expressions. I was so charmed by ‘Garm Hava’.”
Once they began filming in Hyderabad, Neeshaji found that her impression of him was true in real life. “Farooque had a delightful sense of humour. He would tease a lot, but gently. He said to me, what is your name. I said Neesha Singh. He said why Neesha Singh, it should be Nishinder Kaur! He said that because I belong to a Sikh family. My real name is actually Muneesha. He said, chaliye aapka koi aur naam rakhte hain. He then began to call me Nazakat Ara! It would be Nazakat Ara aap yahan aiye, or Nishinder Kaur idhar baithiye!”
The memory of another incident makes Neeshaji laugh now but had caused annoyance and anxiety at the time. She says, “One day, we were shooting in a house which belonged to a relative of Bazaar’s cinematographer Ishan Arya. We were sitting in the courtyard and I was wearing a burqa. In between takes, I would raise the veil because I was feeling hot. To my surprise, every time I raised the naqaab, somebody from behind kept pushing it back to cover my face. Each time I turned, I could only see a group of old women sitting behind me. I was sure they could not be doing this so I moved further away. Yet the same thing kept happening. I was spooked by now. I went to Ishan Sahab and said, I don’t know what is happening but I am not imagining this. He made inquiries, and it turned out it was the old ladies who were pushing my veil back! They thought I belonged to some well regarded Muslim family and complained, hamari ladkiyon ko khule moonh bitha dete ho!”
Everybody had a sound laugh. Neeshaji says, “Farooque got another handle to tease me after that. He would say, dekhiye Mohtarma Nazakat Ara, aap khule moonh na baitha kijiye!”
Neeshaji has warm words for Naseer Sahab and Smita Patil as well. “Naseer was very protective. Smita gave me good advice. I had done two art films, and she was a master of the genre. I said I wanted to continue doing offbeat cinema. But she said, kis duniya mein rehti ho Neesha. Your looks are not pedestrian, you don’t fit the part of a lean, impoverished or rural woman. You look like a princess from Malabar Hill, you are fragile and slim. You must explore commercial cinema.”
(Neesha Singh with her daughter)
Neeshaji did not belong to a film background. She lived in Malabar Hill and studied at Cathedral and John Connon School. Then she went to college in St Xavier’s, which is also where Shaikh Sahab studied. She took her Masters Degree from Elphinstone College.
Her notable work apart from ‘Bazaar’ and ‘Ankush’ includes ‘Buniyaad’ and also the first English serial produced in India, ‘A Mouthful of Sky’. It was produced by Plus Channel and introduced several artistes like Milind Soman, Madhavan, Rahul Bose and Arjun Rampal.
In 1997, Neeshaji got married and moved to Delhi and then Singapore with her Dutch husband. She has been living in Delhi since 2003. “But I am a Bombayite by heart,” she laughs. “I feel like I am in exile in Delhi!”
Unfortunately, she never got a chance to work with Farooque Shaikh again. “We did not remain in touch after ‘Bazaar’. You know, when you are doing a particular film, that unit becomes your family. Especially if you are outdoors on location, living and working together day and night. But once you move on to the next project then that unit becomes like family. These are like short love affairs!”
Neeshaji met Shaikh Sahab in 2012, a year before he passed away. “He had come to Delhi for a play. He saw me and exclaimed, Nazakat Ara, kis ghaat ka pani peeti ho tum?! You look just as charming and youthful as ever!” she laughs. “I look back on our time in ‘Bazaar’ with such fondness.”