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Iftekhar, the ideal cop of the Hindi cinema fan

Sayyadana Iftekhar Ahmed Shareef, 'Top Cop' of Hindi cinema, was an artiste who imbued filmi policemen with a sense of dignity and panache. On his 97th birth anniversary, we look at the man who embodied all that was good about law and order in an increasingly anarchist cinema world.

Shriram Iyengar

Serendipity is a freakish phenomenon, even in Bollywood. Not all actors and great stars end up in the same direction as they started out. Ashok Kumar wanted to practise law and Amitabh Bachchan wanted to be a radio announcer. Yet, there are times when life brings you to a crossroads, forcing you to choose the one less travelled. And, as the poem goes, it sometimes makes all the difference. So it was with Sayyadana Iftekhar Ahmed Shareef.

Born in Jalandhar, Punjab, on 22 February 1920, Iftekhar was the son of a high-ranking official in a private company in Kanpur in the United Provinces. He was drawn to the arts from a young age. After his matriculation, he opted for a diploma course in painting from Lucknow University.

In his heart though, he nurtured the dream of being a singer. KL Saigal was the benchmark for any aspiring singer in the country in the 1940s. So Iftekhar set off to Calcutta in 1942, the erstwhile capital of the music industry. Walking into the HMV office, he bagged an audition with renowned composer Kamal Dasgupta. Film historian Shishir Krishna Sharma mentions in his blog that HMV even released a private album with 2 songs sung by Iftekhar. 

Though Iftekhar proved to be a fair singer, Dasgupta took one look at the tall, elegant young man from Lucknow and knew there was something else he could do better. Dasgupta recommended him for a role with MP Productions. So Iftekhar dropped singing for a career in front of the camera. A wise choice, in retrospect.

Although he made his debut in Taqrar (1944), Iftekhar found his 'calling' as a police officer in Raj Kapoor's Shree 420 (1955). The loyal officer who sticks to his duty at all costs was soon to become a role earmarked for Iftekhar. His world-weary face, handsome features, and dignified air made him the perfect image of the honest cop.

In Yash Chopra's hit Ittefaq (1969), Iftekhar elevated the usual film cop to the level of a Sherlockian sleuth. Pursuing a wrongly implicated Rajesh Khanna, Iftekhar's keen eyes and alert actions made him the embodiment of a great detective.

However, despite his serious attempt, Iftekhar continued to be the Indian Lestrade, honest, dedicated and smart, but always overtaken by the hero, sometimes the anti-hero, of the film. Even at the height of the anti-hero phenomenon in the 1970s, Hindi cinema trusted this good man to stand tall as the beacon of integrity. A man so honest and incorruptible, even Don feared him.

On the rare occasion that Iftekhar played a criminal, the smuggler Davar in Deewar (1975) for instance, he could be impeccable, dignified and equipped with the confidence that made him immensely likeable. He possessed the touch of a gentleman who could stoop to pick up a coin and hand it back to the proud shoeshine boy on the street.

The police officer was not the only role he flourished in. Iftekhar's early love of art and painting never quite left him. In the 1964 Kishore Kumar vehicle Door Gagan Ki Chhaon Mein, Iftekhar did more than just act. It was a rare occasion when his artwork featured in the title credits. The likeness of the actors captured by Iftekhar's brush was uncanny. It showed the hidden talent of an understated actor who never really got his due.

In fact, according to his wife Hannah, Iftekhar even taught Ashok Kumar the art of painting. In an old interview, she said, "We were, and still are, very close friends. Dada Moni learnt to paint and sketch from Ifti. Once, Dada Moni fell sick and he was very irritable since he was confined to bed for a long time. Dada Moni, being the busybody he is, felt very restricted. Ifti suggested that he pursue a hobby, and taught him how to paint. That’s how Dada Moni is such a good painter." 

Over the years, Iftekhar acted in a variety of roles, like the dignified Mr Cooper in Basu Chatterji's Khatta Meetha (1978) or the optimist coolie Hasari's father in Roland Joffe's The City Of Joy (1992). But for all his roles, Hindi cinema fans would happily remember him as the honest cop who warned the most menacing villains, in a calm tone: "Bhaagne ki koshish mat karna. Humne tumhe chaaron taraf se gher liya hai. Bhalaai isi mein hai ke tum apne aap ko kanoon ke hawaale kar do." Just a good man doing his job. Nothing more, nothing less.