Iftekhar: Talented Artist Who Became Hindi Cinema’s Stock Policeman
By VIKAS DATTA
Whenever Hindi filmmakers needed a canny yet commanding police officer who could devise strategies to outsmart criminals, tackle emotional subordinates, or just serve as a reasonable authority figure, there was one man they could rely on. Iftekhar, with his chiseled features (including prominent cheekbones), air of authority, and measured voice, verging on curt when required, was an obvious choice.
“Bhagne ki koshish mat karna. Humne tumhe chaaron taraf se gher liya hai. Bhalai isi mein hai ke tum apne aap ko kanoon ke hawaale kar do,” or its near variants, became the template for the denouement of scores of action Hindi films from the 1950s to the 1980s, as a pistol-toting Iftekhar, usually accompanied by a squad of policemen, reached the spot to rescue the hero and heroine and/or round up the villains.
While his near-contemporary Jagdish Raj (Khurana) holds the record of maximum outings as a police officer in Hindi films (144), Iftekhar was not far behind with 75-odd such roles, playing an Inspector/DSP/SP/Commissioner in top films like “Ab Dilli Dur Nahin” (1957), “Guide” (1965), “Teesri Manzil” (1966), “Do Dooni Char” (1968), “Ittefaq” (1969), “Johny Mera Naam” (1970), “Hare Rama Hare Krishna” (1971), “Zanjeer” (1973), “Majboor” (1974), “Fakira” (1976), “Don” (1978) and “Krodhi” (1981), among others.
His performances were so convincing that several times, he was saluted by policemen on the road and even his traffic violations ignored! Apart from khaki, he was equally at home in military uniform, playing an IAF officer in Raj Kapoor’s “Sangam” (1964), an Army officer in Dev Anand’s “Prem Pujari” (1970), as well as in “Sharmeelee” (1971), and crime thriller “Achanak” (1973) and then a retired one – with still stringent standards on duty, responsibility, and moral fibre – in “Kaala Patthar”.
Iftekhar could also don the white coat of medical professionals in films like “Cha Cha Cha” (1964), “Khamoshi” (1970), and “Karz” (1980), and more, and the black coat of the legal fraternity, usually the prosecution side, in “Apne Huye Paraye” (1964), Manoj Kumar’s “Shaheed” (1965), “Safar” (1970) or “Dostana” (1980) and others. But all these do not reveal the multi-facetted talent of Iftikhar – a good singer, a talented artist – whose sketches were commissioned for the casting credits of a film too, a fluent French speaker, and a skilled chess player, apart from being Bollywood’s favorite policeman.
Born Sayedna Iftekhar Ahmad Sharif in Jullundur on this day (February 22) in 1920 in an affluent family, he was not interested in the family business and went to study fine arts in Lucknow. A good singer, following the styles of his favorites K.L. Saigal and Pankaj Mullick, the just-over-20 Iftekhar, at the insistence of his friends, went to Calcutta to audition for a singing career. There, he was so impressed by music director Kamal Dasgupta, who not only cut two records for him for HMV but also recommended him for acting roles.
Iftekhar went on to star in half a dozen odd films, opposite such top stars of the time as Kanan Devi, Jamuna Devi, and Paro Devi before Partition ended the first phase of his film career. While his parents and all his siblings crossed over to Pakistan, Iftekhar, his wife, and two daughters, decided to stay back in India. However, given the circumstances and charged atmosphere, Calcutta was not safe, and he was advised to shift to Bombay. Like for many other transplanted actors, the transition proved difficult initially. “I didn’t know anyone in Bombay and started with a small part of an old man in filmmaker H.S. Rawail’s ‘Jhoothi Kasmein’ Look how times change – from a lead actor, I was relegated to an extra!” Iftekhar said in an article he wrote for Urdu film magazine ‘Shama’ in April 1976. However, this would be an uncredited appearance, as most records identify Iftekhar’s first role in independent India as a gardener in Rawail’s “Patanga” (1949).
It was then that he met Ashok Kumar, who proved to be of much help in getting him established in the Bombay film industry and became a lifelong friend. In fact, Iftekhar also revealed that it was he who popularized the name ‘Dadamoni’ for the veteran actor as this was only used by his family members while the industry called him “Mr. Ashok” or “Mr. Ganguly”. He also taught Ashok Kumar French and chess and encouraged him to take up painting too. However, Iftekhar was now slotted as a supporting artiste.
One of his earliest prominent roles was Emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar in “Mirza Ghalib” (1954), where he, aged only in his early 30s, played a septuagenarian with aplomb. It was in Raj Kapoor’s “Shree 420” (1955) that he first played a policeman – and this would become a familiar role till the end of the 1980s. And while he was mostly cast in roles of urban professionals in his 350-odd screen appearances, he could do all shades of rural characters too.
He was not downcast over the change in his film status, observing in the ‘Shama’ article that “character artistes are the real pillars of films. The hero and heroine are too busy with romance and singing songs while we supporting artists end up solving the troubles, turmoil, and twists created by them on screen”. But, Iftekhar, despite playing the forces of law and order and other sympathetic roles, including the heroine’s father in films like “Sholay” (1975), “Saath Saath” (1982), “Kabhi Ajnabee The” (1985) – starring cricketer Sandeep Patil with Syed Kirmani as the villain, and of the hero too in “Kabhi Kabhie” (1976) and “Kaala Patthar” (1979), among others, was not always the good man onscreen. Films like “Jagte Raho” (1956), “Bandini” (1963), “Teesri Kasam” (1966), “Deewar” (1975), “Dharmatma” (1975) and “Khel Khel Mein” (1975) had him in various shades of gray and to the deepest black (as a criminal called ‘Black Cobra!). Iftekhar continued acting till the last – but was much affected by his daughter’s death in 1995. He passed away a few days after his 75th birthday.