April 29, 2021 8:09:51 am
The past year has been merciless in so many ways. A raging pandemic that brought the world to its knees and is showing no signs of receding. But when we talk of 2020, a loss that cinema lovers will remember is the death of Irrfan Khan. It felt personal, almost visceral as the man who brought magic to his everyday, humdrum characters said goodbye to his legions of fans. His diverse roles and deep thoughts, both made him a man India considered his own.
Irrfan died aged 53 from a colon infection following diagnosis of a neuroendocrine tumour. Despite his public battle with cancer, the end, when it came, left us all in shock. Irrfan’ frequent collaborator, Deepak Dobriyal, was no exception. “I was hopeful Irrfan bhai would recover because of the way he smiled, despite his disease,” says Deepak who played Irrfan’s brother in his last film, Angrezi Medium.
Even today, Deepak remembers Irrfan for his childish laughter, innocent and infectious. “As soon as I hear his name, I have a smile on my face. Such was our relationship – as a brother, a co-actor, a senior-junior. And because we’ve shared so many laughs, I knew if ever he texted me, he would be smiling while typing it,” Deepak said during a candid chat with indianexpress.com.
So, when he came across the tweet in which Irrfan revealed his ill health to the world, he found it hard to believe it. “When the news of his illness got revealed, my world turned upside down. I remember seeing his tweet, I prayed it to be some kind of a joke or a fake tweet. It was too scary. But when I met him, I realised it’s true news,” Deepak says.
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The actor remembers how determined Irrfan was towards his craft as he shot for Angrezi Medium despite the taxing treatment for cancer and the toll it took on him. Excerpts from the interview…
Did you notice any change in Irrfan professionally or personally on Angrezi Medium sets, since it was shot post his diagnosis?
He had the strength to keep his personal feelings and struggle under the lid and let the emotions of his Angrezi Medium character hold sway. It’s impossible for any actor to hold on this long at such a painful juncture. He projected it like a stretched viral disease so that people didn’t get tensed on set. Our director Homi Adajania and producer Dinesh Vijan had kept 2-3 hours post lunch, just for his rest. We didn’t shoot at that time. But Irrfan bhai used to have his meal and be back in 15 minutes to continue shooting. He was that enthusiastic.
Going back in time, what do you remember of your first meeting with Irrfan Khan?
I was doing a TV show called Bhanwar (1998) in Delhi. I still remember we met at our room. I greeted him as one of the talents, and we continued to sit there silently for a long time. There were a lot of mosquitoes in that room. We both were 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’ll handle the mosquitoes. So that was our funny first meeting.
And then you and Irrfan collaborated in several projects.
After I came to Mumbai, Vishal Bharadwaj offered me the role of Irrfan bhai’s right hand in Maqbool (Thapa). Since the film had several senior actors, I kept observing their style of working, including Irrfan Khan.
After 13 years, we again reunited for Hindi Medium. That’s where our friendship began. The ice broke from our very first day. Ultimately he was like — “Where were you all these years?” I told him I was here only, just that you never noticed me. Post that, he tried to get me in every film he worked on, like he spoke to Tanuja Chandra for Qarib Qarib Singlle and even for Blackmail. There was also a series being planned, then a film too which he wanted to produce with me in it. I never saw him having this kind of liking for any other actor. All my friends were astonished with the unreal love Irrfan bhai had for me. I always said I was just lucky.
How did the two of you crack that onscreen camaraderie?
I didn’t act with him. I only supported him in his ‘jugalbandi’ and enacted as per his mood. He never gave me creative inputs in particular. His surrounding was creative. If I shared 100 ideas, he liked 98 of them. I thought it’s his love towards me and this can’t be real. But he had so much trust.
Did anything change post the success of Hindi Medium?
He was very happy like a child with the success of Hindi Medium. It was a pleasure for me seeing his happiness. That movie silenced so many people in the industry who, out of jealousy said, “He’s a good actor but his films don’t earn at the box office.”
Did you ever see Irrfan at his weakest or some vulnerable moment?
Only once I saw him getting weak on Angrezi Medium set. For the remaining 70 days he was fine. We spoke about his main surgery, and I asked if we could get rid of the tumour by any other method which was non-surgical. He said he’s tired of going through the pain again and again. Like a child, he either wanted things to be this way or that way. He never knew how to take the middle path. You can say he was getting irritated with his treatment. He just wanted the tumour to be removed.
Did you ever notice that Irrfan realised his life was short lived?
I’m sure he realised that his health was deteriorating in the last few days. He got hundreds of messages everyday, and the formality of even replying to a message takes a lot of your energy. So, he tried to avoid formalities. He said he has thousands who love him. After a point I accepted that I’ll connect with him only when he feels like.
When did you meet him last?
Our last meeting was in London. With Irrfan bhai, there are things I can’t put in words, or maybe if I make a biopic someday, I’ll write. If there was no Covid, Andheri would’ve jammed the day Irrfan bhai passed away.
What did he teach you as a person and a friend?
He was a marvel, who just came and conquered. The humour with which he tweeted about his illness said a lot about him. He taught me the virtue of staying calm, the importance of silence, which I was missing. Our industry forces you to speak and react. But he told me if it’s not needed, then one shouldn’t say it. I’ll try to follow his footsteps.
And how will you see Bollywood in Irrfan’s absence?
All the films I did after Irrfan bhai, I tried to recreate the same vibe with all my co-actors, be it Kaamyaab or Laal Kaptaan. I realised the entire game is of tuning between two individuals. Like in Hindi Medium, I called him ‘aap’ and he suggested I say ‘tu’. I was hesitant of saying that as he was my senior. But he pushed me, and it turned out perfectly. That’s how he helped me shed my inhibitions. I try to do the same with the new actors I work with.
How’s your rapport with Irrfan’s family — his wife Sutapa Sikdar and sons Babil and Ayan?
The contribution of Sutapa ma’am in Irrfan bhai’s treatment and his life is unexplainable. She’s stood strongly by her sons and been the main pillar. Nobody can imagine how much she has suffered. When I met her in Udaipur during Angrezi Medium shoot, I fell down on her knees. I share great rapport with their family. Babil is like my ‘guru bhai’ and both he and Ayan have my support in everything.
If given a chance to send one message to Irrfan Khan today, what would it be?
I’ll tell him wherever you are, keep performing and keep smiling as that lights up the surrounding. I’ll always remember his childish laughter, and the fact that I managed to make him laugh, is my biggest award. This part of my life will always remain special with wonderful memories.
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