Irrfan Khan: 7 January 1967 - 29 April 2020
Dad: 27 December 1965 - 11 January 2022
On Wednesday morning of 29 April 2020, news started coming in of Irrfan having passed away, after being admitted to the hospital for a colon infection the previous day. As we would go on to learn, that day, the next day, and the next couple of months would be tough for Bollywood. It lost three major mainstream actors in Irrfan, Rishi Kapoor, and Sushant Singh Rajput.
I had probably started writing this piece in my head at that very time, as a fan of Irrfan and his journey to fame. And it never got completed, because I felt there was nothing I could say that other people and professional film writers weren’t already saying better than me. Innocuous things would push me sometimes, maybe when I would come across a movie on one of the streaming platforms, when I watched Life in a Metro with my ex, when I saw Irrfan’s son post on Instagram. In fact, I have spent more time thinking about writing this piece than I actually spent writing it (true for any writer and any piece). But every time I opened the document and stared at the expanse of white in front of me, I would be overcome by emotions, close it, and go back to just thinking about writing it. Not to say these were low emotions, bad emotions, melancholic or sad emotions, but they were overwhelming. They were a lot. And it was inexplicable as to why the passing away of an actor, a public figure yes, but not one particularly of ‘superstardom’ status that would otherwise inspire their fans or dedicated followers who would cry themselves hoarse, would suddenly make me feel like I was floating in air for that brief moment when I heard of his passing, and then come crashing down to earth, which now existed without him. But there I was, grieving the passing away of Irrfan from his battle against cancer, and unable to understand why. Why so much?
Maybe, because my father had the same cancer. When in early 2018 Irrfan announced he had cancer, and a rare one at that (NeuroEndocrine Tumour, or NET. I had never heard the name before), a part of my heart sank, because cancer meant putting a stop to everything he had become in recent years - the rare character and indie actor to crossover to mainstream cinema with exceptional and effortless grace and great results. Cancer was always bad, that’s what I had heard. It’s the end. It’s just stretching out the inevitable. You know what they all said. But it was what it was. He wasn’t the first public figure to be ailed by a terminal disease. He wasn’t a larger-than-life figure. He was just another celebrity.
Yet Irrfan had become so endearing, so relatable, maybe by virtue of his slow and steady accumulated fame and name, that a lot of us took this as a personal affront. If not the disease, then later his death. We had seen him struggle in the early years - in bit roles in big films, in big roles in bad films, and in mammoth roles in path breaking films - that when he started getting international projects, each of immense critical acclaim and more than what was popularly called by critics back then, ‘blink-and-you-miss-it’ roles, we started rooting and cheering for him. We maybe didn’t even consciously realise it. His presence on screen meant the hustler could win if he hustled hard enough. Not everyone had to be a ‘nepo baby’ or insider, or have the backing of rich parents to be able to win over the masses and critics, to be able to become a bona fide film star. Irrfan was the regular guy, who had struggled in the public eye, who had been striving for years. And we were witness to it. So when he crossed over to mainstream Indian cinema, when he became a legitimate big-ticket attraction, we all felt gratified. Yes, this happens. It’s not just Shahrukh Khan (the posterboy of an ‘outsider’ making it big in Bollywood), but this man who did not do the regular drill of dancing around trees and romancing heroines, who got what we all felt he deserved. Maybe that’s why we felt insulted when, close on the heels of his big successes, he was diagnosed. And we maybe even felt snubbed by fate that he passed away. That wasn’t the fairytale story we imagined for him.
And that’s how my father felt about Irrfan as well.
Dad was diagnosed in December 2018, approximately ten months after the actor, and with the same tumour, the rare one I had never heard of before. Of everything that happened in the aftermath of my dad’s diagnosis, the one thing that stood out to me was the hinging of his optimism on Irrfan’s health. “He’s doing fine right? I will also be fine. These actors, they know what they are doing.”
When Irrfan’s health weakened, Dad would get tensed. When Irrfan appeared on TV for interviews, in new films, with his family, dad would lighten up. “There he is, he is looking all right!”
For many of the above-mentioned reasons and more, Dad was also a huge fan of his. The ‘nobody who became somebody’ was his favourite trope, because he himself was one. The man from a small hill station in North East India who moved out to pursue education and a better life, set himself up in the Capital, from having nothing to his name to getting a prestigious engineering degree, a well-paying job, another degree, a family, a house, two kids, a home. Dad was proud of sharing his struggle with the actor. He was also very proud that Irrfan’s wife, dialogue and screenplay writer Sutapa Sikdar, was Bengali. He took it as further assurance that Irrfan was just like us. And both their zodiac signs were Capricorn. Of course it all fit. He found himself, in a drastically different field, in Irrfan, and he had grown to love the actor’s performances in all his films. From The Killer and Footpath to Paan Singh Tomar and The Lunchbox. I once even showed him the slightly disturbing 2003 short film The Bypass, starring a brilliant and then-struggling Nawazuddin Siddiqui with Irrfan, who played a corrupt cop in the dry wilderness of Rajasthan deserts.
Dad had never been big on films, unless they were in-your-face action movies like Singham. He didn’t want to sit and dissect nuance in the more sombre Bengali films as my mother often did. My first, and for the longest time the only, memory of him voluntarily going to watch a movie in the theatres was when his boss gifted him tickets to Mission Kashmir, a movie I was too young for and which slightly traumatised me. It had always been me or my mother or some cousin who would insist we go watch something. So it was odd that he had felt the need to be a fan of an actor. That too, one who didn’t shoot up cars or people. Acting is unique in the sense that it’s one of those rare art forms that produce something intangible. There is no separation possible between the art and the artist when it comes to actors. A painting one can touch, a piece of writing can be published, music can be recorded and preserved but actors’ art pieces are the actors themselves. So to understand this art, understanding the artist is the only way. And somehow this worked for Dad with Irrfan. This cinema-averse man even took my mom specially to watch Life in a Metro because it had that ‘big-eyed actor, Irrfan’. When Irrfan had started becoming a mainstream hero, Dad took us to watch Angrezi Medium as well, and while my mother complained about how the plot borrowed heavily from a Bengali film (Ramdhanu, and there are quite a few similarities) my dad chose to ignore all the complaints. He wouldn’t hear anything against his favourite actor. Always shy of explicit or suggestive films, he even sat and watched 7 Khoon Maaf for the actor’s segment, one of the more visually disturbing ones in the film.
When Irrfan passed away two years ago, Dad retreated into a shell for the day. Not just as a fan but as a fellow sufferer. He had taken them both to be in this together. Like friends in a pact. Like the 2019 Sundance favourite Paddleton, where one of two best friends gets diagnosed with cancer and it is the other one who starts acting out. Irrfan was the guy who left, leaving my dad behind. NET is a supremely aggressive form of cancer, we later learnt. The fact that my dad managed to keep up thirty six rounds of chemotherapy and three years was apparently miraculous. It eats away at the patient and so Irrfan’s two years of treatment sounds quite normal. But dad was pissed. If Irrfan had gone, what chance did he have? And maybe out of anger and betrayal, he kept at it, and survived two more years of the disease. We eventually stopped mentioning Irrfan in the house because of how Dad reacted to it. Like a hurt ex who had been unceremoniously dumped. Because Irrfan’s death reminded my dad of his own fragility, something he was so eager not to come to terms with.
This piece lay in my drafts for the longest time. I had finalised most of it on Irrfan’s birthday on 7 January this year, when Dad had just come back from a chemo and a port surgery, and four days before he passed away. I wrote the rest of it right now, today, two years after Irrfan’s passing, and the hardest thing has been to go back and change all verbs to past tense for Dad.