Remembering Irrfan: Looking death in the eye
Find your own metaphors but let death be part of life so that you can live to the fullest, fearlessly.
- Total Shares
Every emotion is heightened when you are confined. The day Irrfan Khan passed away, I spent the whole day submerged in his presence and even caught myself ugly-crying a few times. It surprised me, because yes, he was a legend on the ascent, but he was not my friend, or someone I kept in touch with. At the onset of my career we acted together in a road movie set in Ladakh. The film was the worst experience of my life as an actor for many reasons (but that’s a story for another time) and Irrfan was one of the few things that made it palatable.
Having watched his film, The Warrior, I was awe-struck by him and his craft even before meeting him for rehearsals. If you haven’t seen the film, find it and watch it. If I remember correctly, he hardly speaks in the movie but those deep, silent eyes take you to distant lands and make you feel emotions you can’t name. Added to the awe, was a sense of pride, I was an Indian student in London, in a cinema full of white people, who were giving the film and, more precisely him (a brown actor who wasn’t trying to be white, or anglicised), a standing ovation. I had never heard of him, or seen him before that and when I got an offer to be in a film with him, I jumped at it.
On the first day of rehearsal, he said to the director – “because I look much older than her, I think my character should be irritated and dismissive of her, like she’s a kid, and not instantly feel any attraction”. This was the genius of Irrfan - he was hyper aware of his facets (good/ bad/ugly) and a master of the intricacies of interpersonal relationships, on and off screen. He was at once overtly present and lost in thought, traversing some other world. He never delved into the personal, yet he always conversed on such an intimate level. I depended on him and his selfless acting to carry me through that film. He strongly rejected anything that felt formulaic, and for me, fresh out of drama school, there could be no better learning curve.
Watching him rise to fame internationally without ever diluting his vernacular roots, on the contrary exploiting them, gave me immense joy and there wasn’t a film (no matter how abysmal) that he disappointed in. He had so much more of his unusual but entirely relatable take on the world as a performer to give, perhaps that’s why I and the whole nation feel a void with his passing. Or maybe it was his brave acceptance of death as an inevitability that made me cry. It was with this same courage that the irreplaceable Rishi Kapoor left us, and the statements released by his family and PR confirmed, that as hard as it was, he had made peace with his passing.
Death, as universally inescapable as it is, is not easy to look in the eye of and say, “I’m ready.” I don’t want to be the person who struggles to hold on, I want to be this person who is not scared to let go. How do I begin to do that? I’m not sure, but in these times where death is all around us, I want to start by normalising its existence, by talking openly and honestly about it. My husband, who belongs to a different culture, has always avoided answering my question of what he would like me to do with his remains should he go before me. He also refuses to listen to the details of what I’d like done with mine, or how aggressive I want him to be with treatment to save my life.
This is an important conversation to have, not one to be dwelled on but to be dealt with. Dr Asha Shahjahan, who is dealing with Covid-19 patients in Detroit, describes how a mother and father argued about the extent of treatment as their 30-year-old son lay dying on a ventilator. “If the patient himself had been able to speak, he might have expressed what his wishes were and saved his family a heart-breaking conflict... This tragic situation is all too common, a result of families failing to discuss emergencies and end-of-life wishes ahead of time.”
A lot of kids ask about death and our tendency as parents is to brush it aside and change the topic quickly because of our own discomfort. I stole something from Shah Rukh Khan that I tell my daughter – “When I die, I will become a star that you can speak to and you will hear my voice speaking back in your heart.” Find your own metaphors but let death be part of life so that you can live to the fullest, fearlessly.
(Courtesy of Mail Today)