Fond flashback: One year on, Anupama Chopra remembers Irrfan
His life taught us to navigate death. In the honest note that he brought to each character, we found our better selves.
In a career spanning more than 25 years, I’ve never cried during an interview. That changed last week, when I chatted with Sutapa Sikdar and Babil, Irrfan’s wife and elder son.
April 29 marked the first anniversary of the actor’s death. This was the first time Sutapa and Babil were speaking at length about their loss, the two-and-a-half years that the family endured as Irrfan fought a rare neuroendocrine cancer, about learning to live with his absence and yet feeling his presence everywhere, of forging ahead with renewed hope and, always, positivity.
We discussed how Irrfan’s films had offered lessons in how to live better. His characters — Saajan Fernandes in The Lunchbox or Ashoke Ganguli in The Namesake or Maqbool in Maqbool — instilled in us a heightened sense of empathy and decency, a deeper understanding of human connection.
His real life offered lessons in how to navigate the end of life. He was a tenacious fighter against the “unwanted mehman” in his body, as he described the cancer. Babil, now 23, spoke of how, towards the end, the doctors called the family to the hospital saying he had only a few hours, but he held on for four days.
There was a profound wisdom and dignity in his approach to death too. Sutapa says Irrfan had an insatiable curiosity about what lay on the other side. When they were in London for treatment, he even called director Anup Singh (Qissa: The Tale of a Lonely Ghost) and asked if perhaps he was attracting death because he had thought about it so much. Homi Adajania, who directed Irrfan in his last film, Angrezi Medium, told me that during shoots they would make jokes about his disease. “Death,” Sutapa says, “had become his playmate.”
Sutapa and Irrfan met when they were students at the National School of Drama. They married in 1995 but she prefers to think of their relationship as a union based not on promises of security or romance, but on a companionship so deep that it didn’t matter that he didn’t remember her birthday because she knew he couldn’t remember his own.
When Irrfan first became ill, Sutapa soldiered on by his side, accompanying him everywhere. And yet, she says, fate arranged it so that the last time he went to hospital was the first time she wasn’t with him. It was meant to be a routine procedure and amid the risks of the pandemic they had decided that she should stay home.
Sutapa is a writer (she wrote the dialogue for Shabd and Kahaani) and a producer (Madaari, Qarib Qarib Singlle). Sometimes, she says, friends would admonish her for putting his career before her own. It was a choice she made with no external pressure.
When I asked her what insight she had into his acting process, into the way he created those magical moments of “non-acting” onscreen, she replied: “It was so much easier for him to crack an honest note in his performances because he was honest in life.”
That note of honesty is his legacy. In one of the most memorable scenes in The Namesake, Ashoke takes his young son Gogol out onto a rocky outcrop extending into the sea. He wants to take a photo; he’s forgotten his camera in the car. “We just have to remember it then,” he tells Gogol. “Remember it always. Remember that you and I made this journey and went together to a place where there was nowhere left to go.”
And that is where Irrfan took us.