It’s been a year since we lost actor Irrfan. His wife, Sutapa Sikdar, and son, Babil Khan, talk about how they’ve coped with the grief of losing him, his last few days with them and why the loss felt so personal to the entire country.
Anupama Chopra (AC): Sutapa, Babil, it’s so nice to see the both of you. I want to start by talking about a clip that released just before the Angrezi Medium trailer dropped. Irrfan, with great warmth and wisdom, talked about the ‘unwanted mehman’ in his body and how when life gives you lemons, you have to make lemonade. Babil, you are very active on Instagram and Sutapa, you sometimes post the rare public outing like the Goa Film Festival or Filmfare awards. The two of you have managed to be positive in an impossibly difficult year. How do you do that?
Sutapa Sikdar (SS): I find it so strange that this is the first time it’s I, and not Irrfan, who is sitting with you for an interview. I can’t tell you what an overwhelming feeling this is. We are trying. It has almost been a year (since Irrfan’s death) and I am still not ready to talk to people. I am much better at writing than personal interactions. I am still trying to handle it.
Babil Khan (BK): I was living in the bubble of being Irrfan Khan’s son. And that bubble burst and I did not expect to burst so soon. Then you don’t have a choice, you have to take what life throws at you.
AC: Sutapa, there was one print interview in which you spoke about the fact that the pain doesn’t go away. You said that the pain is love and not a crutch. What did you mean by that?
SS: This pain that I am feeling is because there is so much love inside me. Love and pain are two sides of the same coin. If you are in love and you are together, then the pain is what is so beautiful about love.
AC: It was overwhelming to see the outpouring of grief when he passed away. Everyone from the Prime Minister to Virat Kohli was posting condolences on Twitter but for ordinary people, it felt like we lost somebody in our family. Did the two of you ever talk about why we miss him in the way that we miss him?
SS: Yes we did. Two months ago, Babil said, ‘Mumma I met an actor I don’t know and that guy was crying unconditionally and inconsolably. How did Baba achieve that? Where is this love coming from?’
BK: Everyone initially becomes an actor for fame, attention or popularity. But after he outgrew that, he wanted to cast a spell on that audience and he worked really hard at that. The people who watched his films evolved through them. So when he left, he left a void.
AC: The characters he played helped us learn how to live and be better people, but I think he also taught us how to die — the dignity and grace with which he handled what must have been such a tough situation. On the set of Angrezi Medium, he was joking about his illness. What were the last two-and-a-half years like? Did he ever lose faith or did he just soldier through it?
SS: He actually never lost faith. That was the only difficult part in this journey for me, to accept that he was not prepared. It’s so strange that despite having an advanced stage of neuroendocrine cancer, we were initially scared for the first six months and then we really thought that we were going to get out of it.
BK: Mumma never accepted it, but I honestly feel like he evolved so much in the last two years of his life. He had been teaching us so much about surrendering to uncertainty and to God and the last two years was when he completely achieved that. I was at the hospital during the last few days. He was losing consciousness and one of the last things he said, looking at me with a smile, was, ‘I am going to die.’ I said, ‘No, you are not.’ He smiled again and went back to sleep. But I really feel like he had surrendered completely to the creator.
SS: He was very curious about death from the moment we met. He comes from a Muslim background and I come from a Hindu background and what’s interesting is that, in my house, they never made my natal chart. It was Irrfan who got it done. He was into astrology but it wasn’t to find out how his career would go, he was more curious about what would happen to me and what was in the next life. He had an immense curiosity about death. He had said, ‘Do you think I am drawing death towards me with my curiosity?’ For him, death had become like a playmate. There was curiosity initially, then fear and then no fear. He was more curious about the afterlife.
He had completely surrendered to the uncertainty but how human beings are. He had an infection and so left for the hospital. The oral medicines were not working and so the doctor said that they would give him an intravenous drip. He was weak. The doctor said he would be at the hospital for 3-4 days and could then go back home. That was the first time I didn’t go with him to the hospital, because the doctor stopped me. It was very strange. He was like, ‘Mereko mat bol, gharpe hi reh. Mat aana.’ He didn’t make any noise, whereas otherwise he would have said something. He had become very attached to me during his illness, like a child.
BK: Completely like a child. Mumma would go somewhere for 10 minutes and he would be like, ‘Yaar, kaha hai?’
SS: He wanted me 24X7. We didn’t hire any nurses during his entire illness. And that hospital visit was the first time he said, ‘Nahi main theek hoon.’ He accepted it without any anger or tantrums. Of course he wasn’t happy but his face didn’t reveal any displeasure. He was sitting on the edge of the bed and he was very weak, so I helped him put on his trousers. I combed his hair, he held my hand and he got up. We hugged and he left. There was not even a second of finality to it. Maybe I will never agree with Babil on this, but he did not have any intuition that he might not come back home.
BK: He fought when the doctors said that he was dying. His breathing started dropping and his body started failing. The doctor said, ‘Call your mom, he is going to go.’ I don’t have a driver’s license but I still drove mumma to the hospital since it was nearby. We were all waiting — it’s very strange to wait for someone’s death, especially when he is your best friend. The doctors said he just kept fighting and fighting for three days. I agree when you say that he was not ready to go but I genuinely feel like there was a huge part of him that had surrendered.
SS: That’s a different thing. He had told God, ‘Whenever you take me, I will go.’ But I don’t think he thought that his time had come, not at all. I don’t think at all. He was reading books and planning films with Babil. He was planning things like, ‘This is where the bees and butterflies will come so let’s plant this tree here.’ He had tree lists, he was doing everything. Sometimes I feel guilty that I had so much faith, faith in him and also faith that nothing would happen to him. He believed in me so much.
BK: I don’t think any woman could do for another man what mumma did for baba in the last two-and-a-half years, from cleaning his shit to taking him anywhere he wanted to go, 24×7 without a break, without a second to herself. When he was on chemo, he was different because of the medicines. He would get angry with her and she would just take it and keep loving him. That is one lesson I have learnt from mumma.
AC: Sutapa, you have said: Ours was not a marriage, it was a union. Tell me more about that.
SS: What I meant was that marriage has certain expectations like: My husband will buy me diamonds and wish me on my birthday.
AC: Which he never remembered, right?
SS: He didn’t remember. The most precious quality about him was that he never pretended when he was angry with you or in love with you. When he said he was in love with me, he meant it. I don’t think I will have that with anybody that I ever know, especially in our industry. That’s why he avoided parties, because he couldn’t make small talk and say, ‘Oh wow! What a film!’ when he didn’t feel that. He had that integrity. It was not snobbishness, he just couldn’t do something that he didn’t feel. While sitting next to a big actress, he would tell the makeup artist that she was pretty. He didn’t remember that this was something he should say to the actress. That’s one quality that I will miss so much. Maybe Irrfan feels close to people because they can’t see any dishonesty. He never spoke on a false note and that naturally translated into his performance.