The past year has been unforgiving in many ways. A raging pandemic that has brought the world to its knees and shows no sign of retreating. But when it comes to 2020, one loss moviegoers will remember is the death of Irrfan Khan. It felt personal, almost visceral when the man who brought magic to his everyday, mundane characters said goodbye to his legions of fans. His diverse roles and deep thoughts made him a man India considered her own.
Irrfan died at the age of 53 from a colon infection following the diagnosis of a neuroendocrine tumor. Despite her public battle with cancer, the end, when it came, left us all in shock. Irrfan’s frequent collaborator, Deepak Dobriyal, was no exception. “I was hoping Irrfan bhai would recover from the way he smiled, despite his illness,” says Deepak, who played Irrfan’s brother in his latest film, Angrezi Medium.
Even today, Deepak remembers Irrfan for his childish, innocent and contagious laughter. “As soon as I hear his name, I have a smile on my face. That was our relationship – as a brother, co-actor, senior-junior. And because we shared so many laughs, I knew if he ever texted me he would smile as he typed it, ”Deepak said in a candid conversation with indianexpress.com.
So when he came across the tweet in which Irrfan was revealing his poor health to the world, he found it hard to believe it. “When news of her illness broke, my world changed. I remember seeing his tweet, praying it was some kind of joke or a fake tweet. It was too scary. But when I met him, I realized it was real news, ”Deepak says.
The actor remembers how determined Irrfan was about his craft while filming for Angrezi Medium despite the taxing treatment for cancer and the consequences it took. Excerpts from the interview …
Have you noticed any change in Irrfan professionally or personally on Angrezi Medium sets, since he was shot after his diagnosis?
He had the strength to keep his feelings personal and to struggle under the cover and let the emotions of his character Angrezi Medium prevail. It is impossible for an actor to last so long at such a painful moment. He projected it as a stretched viral disease so people weren’t strained on set. Our director Homi Adajania and producer Dinesh Vijan had kept 2-3 hours after lunch, just to rest. We did not shoot at that time. But Irrfan bhai used to have his meal and come back in 15 minutes to continue filming. He was so enthusiastic.
Going back in time, what do you remember from your first meeting with Irrfan Khan?
I was doing a TV show called Bhanwar (1998) in Delhi. I still remember we met in our room. I praised him as one of the talents, and we continued to sit in silence for a long time. There were a lot of mosquitoes in this room. We were killing them both, and soon we started laughing. I told him about the spread of dengue fever and I think he got scared. But, I asked him to sit down easily and I will handle the mosquitoes. So it was our funny first meeting.
And then you and Irrfan collaborated on several projects.
After my arrival in Mumbai, Vishal Bharadwaj offered me the role of the right arm of Irrfan bhai in Maqbool (Thapa). Since the film had several lead actors, I continued to observe their working style, including Irrfan Khan.
After 13 years, we got together again for Hindi Medium. This is where our friendship began. The ice broke on our very first day. In the end, he was like – “Where have you been all those years?” I told him I was only here, just that you never noticed me. After that he tried to get me to participate in every movie he was working on, like he was talking to Tanuja Chandra for Qarib Qarib Singlle and even for Blackmail. There was also a series in the works, then a film also that he wanted to produce with me in it. I’ve never seen him have that kind of taste for any other actor. All my friends were amazed at the unreal love Irrfan bhai had for me. I always said I was lucky.
How did you break 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 any particular creative inputs. His environment was creative. If I shared 100 ideas, he liked 98. I thought it was his love for me and it can’t be real. But he had so much confidence.
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. This movie silenced so many people in the industry who out of jealousy said, “He’s a good actor but his movies don’t win at the box office.”
Have you ever seen Irrfan at his weakest or most vulnerable moment?
Only once did I see him weaken on the set of Angrezi Medium. For the remaining 70 days, he was fine. We talked about his main surgery and asked if we could get rid of the tumor by some other non-surgical method. He said he was tired of going through the pain over and over again. As a child, he wanted things to be like this or that. He never knew how to take the middle lane. You can tell he was irritated by his treatment. He just wanted the tumor removed.
Have you ever noticed that Irrfan realized that his life was short?
I’m sure he has realized that his health has been deteriorating over the past few days. He received hundreds of messages every day, and even the formality of replying to a message takes a lot of your energy. So he tried to avoid the formalities. He said he had thousands who love him. After a while, I accepted that I would only connect with him when he wanted to.
When was the last time you met him?
Our last meeting was in London. With Irrfan bhai there are things that I cannot put into words, or maybe if I do a biopic someday I will write. If there was no Covid, Andheri would have blocked the day Irrfan bhai died.
What did he teach you as a person and as a friend?
It was a wonder, which had just conquered. The humor he tweeted about his illness said a lot about him. He taught me the virtue of remaining calm, the importance of silence, which I lacked. Our industry forces you to speak up and react. But he told me that if it wasn’t necessary, then it shouldn’t be said. I’ll try to follow in his footsteps.
And how will you see Bollywood without Irrfan?
All the films I made after Irrfan bhai, I tried to recreate the same atmosphere with all my co-actors, whether Kaamyaab or Laal Kaptaan. I realized that the whole game is to agree between two individuals. Like in Hindi Medium, I called him “aap” and he suggested that I say “you”. I hesitated to say that because he was my oldest. But he pushed me, and it went perfectly. This is how he helped me to get rid of my inhibitions. I try to do the same with the new actors I work with.
How do you relate to Irrfan’s family – his wife Sutapa Sikdar and his sons Babil and Ayan?
Sutapa madam’s contribution to Irrfan Bhai’s treatment and life is inexplicable. She firmly supported her sons and was the main pillar. No one can imagine how much she suffered. When I met her in Udaipur while filming Angrezi Medium, I fell to my knees. I share a great relationship with their family. Babil is like my “bhai guru” and he and Ayan have my support in everything.
If given a chance to send a message to Irrfan Khan today, what would it be?
I will tell him wherever you are, keep playing and keep smiling because it brightens up the surroundings. I will always remember his childish laughter, and the fact that I managed to make him laugh is my greatest reward. This part of my life will always be special with wonderful memories.
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