The last year has been merciless in so many ways. A raging epidemic that brought the world to its knees and is showing no signs of retreating. But when we talk of 2020, one loss that cinema lovers will remember is the death of Irrfan Khan. It felt personal, almost as visceral as the man who brought magic to his everyday, humble characters saying goodbye to the giants of his fans. His varied roles and deep thoughts both made him a man whom India considered his own.
Irfan died at the age of 53 from a colon infection after being diagnosed with a neuroendocrine tumor. Despite his public battle with cancer, the end, when it came, left all of us in shock. Irfan’s frequent collaborator, Deepak Dobriyal, was no exception. “I expected the Irrfan brother to recover from smiling despite his illness,” says Deepak, who played Irrfan’s brother in his last film, Angry Medium.
Even today, Deepak remembers Irfan as his childish laughter, innocent and contagious. I hear a smile on my face as soon as I hear his name. Such was our relationship – as a brother, a co-actor, a senior-junior. And because we shared a lot of laughter, I knew that if he would ever text me, he would smile while typing it.
So, when he became ill all over the world with Irfan’s tweet, he found it hard to believe. “When I got news of his illness, my world turned upside down.” I remember seeing his tweet and praying that it was some kind of joke or fake tweet. it was very scary. But when I met him, I realized that this was true news.
The actor remembers how determined Irrfan was to his craft as he shot for Angry Medium and took a toll on it despite the tax treatment for cancer. Excerpts from the interview…
Did you see any change in Irrfan professionally or personally on the English Medium set, as it was shot after his diagnosis?
He was empowered to keep his personal feelings and struggles under the lid and suppress the feelings of his English medium character. It is impossible for any actor to hold on to such a painful turn for a long time. He introduced it as a stretched viral disease so that people are not stressed on the set. Our director Homi Adajania and producer Dinesh Vijan, for their rest, had a 2-3 hour meal after lunch. We did not shoot at that time. But Irfan Bhai dined and came back in 15 minutes to continue shooting. He was that enthusiastic.
Going back in time, what do you remember about your first meeting with Irrfan Khan?
I was in Delhi doing a TV show called Bhanwar (1998). I still remember that we met in our room. I congratulated him as one of the talents, and we sat quietly for a long time. There were a lot of mosquitoes in that room. We were both killing them, and soon we started laughing. I told him about the spread of dengue and I think he got scared. But, I asked him to sit easily and I would handle the mosquitoes. So this was our first meeting.
And then you and Irrfan collaborated on many projects.
After coming to Mumbai, Vishal Bhardwaj offered me the role of Irfan Bhai’s right hand in Maqbool (Thapa). Since there were many senior actors in the film, I kept watching his style, including Irrfan Khan.
After 13 years, we reunited for Hindi Medium again. This is where our friendship started. Snow has broken since our first day. Ultimately he was like – “Where have you been all these years?” I told him that I was only here, just that you never saw me. After that post, he tried to make me work in every film he worked on, like he talked to Tanuja Chandra for close to Singhal and even for blackmail. A series was also being planned, then also a film he wanted to make with me. I have never seen him liking this for any other actor. All my friends were surprised for me with the surreal Irrfan bhai. I always said that I was just lucky.
How did the two of you crack that onscreen camaraderie?
I did not act with him. I only supported him in his ‘Jugalbandi’ and acted according to his mood. He never gave me particularly creative information. Was creative around them. If I shared 100 views, he liked 98 of them. I felt this was his love for me and it could not be real. But he was so confident.
Has anything changed after the success of Hindi Medium?
He was very happy as a child with the success of Hindi Medium. It was a pleasure for me to see his happiness. The film silenced many in the industry, who came out of jealousy, stating, “He is a good actor but his films do not earn at the box office.”
Did you ever see Irrfan at his weakest or some of his weakest moments?
Only once did I see him weakening on the set of Angrezi Medium. He was fine for the remaining 70 days. We talked about his main surgery, and I asked if we could get rid of the tumor by any other method that was non-surgical. He said that he is going through the pain again and again. Like a child, he wanted things either this way or that way. He never knew how to find a middle ground. You can say that he was irritated by his treatment. He wanted the tumor removed.
Have you ever noticed that Irrfan felt that his life was short lived?
I am sure he felt that his health was deteriorating in the last few days. He used to get hundreds of messages everyday, and the formality of replying to one message also takes a lot of your energy. Therefore, he tried to avoid formalities. He said that he has thousands of people who love him. After a point I accepted that I would join him only when he felt like it.
When was the last time you met him?
Our last meeting was in London. With Irrfan Bhai, there are some things that I cannot put into words, or maybe if I make a biopic someday, I will write. If there was no Kovid, Andherpan would have jammed the day the brother died.
What did they teach you as a person and a friend?
He was a miracle who just came and conquered. He spoke a lot about the humor with which he tweeted about his illness. He taught me the quality of calm, the importance of silence, which I was missing. Our industry forces you to speak and react. But he told me that if it is not needed, no one should say it. I will try to follow in his footsteps.
And how will you see Bollywood in the absence of Irrfan?
In all the films that I did after Irrfan Bhai, I tried to recreate the same vibe with all my co-actors, whether it was Kamayab or Lala Kapatana. I realized that the whole game is about tuning between two people. Like in Hindi medium I called him ‘Aap’ and he suggested me to say ‘Tu’. I was hesitant to say that like he was my senior. But he pushed me, and it completely changed. In this way he helped me overcome my blockages. I try to do the same with the new actors I work with.
What is your relationship with Irfan’s family – his wife Sutapa Sikdar and sons Babil and Ayan?
Sutapa Mame’s contribution to Irrfan Bhai’s treatment and his life is unclear. She stood firmly by her sons and remained the main pillar. No one can imagine how much he suffers. When I met him in Udaipur while shooting for English Medium, I fell on his knees. I share a lot of rapport with his family. Babylon is like my ‘Guru Bhai’ and she and Ayaan have my support in everything.
If Irfan Khan was given a chance to send a message today, what would it be?
I will tell her that wherever you are, keep on performing and keep smiling, because she is surrounded by light. I will always remember his childish laughter, and the fact that I managed to make him laugh is my biggest prize. This part of my life will always be special with wonderful memories.