At the age of 53, actor Irfan Khan breathed his last after featuring in his last film Angrezi Medium. It was a loss during the cruel year of 2020 which no one was ready to grasp. When International Business Times conducted a candid conversation with director Anup Singh, he talked about the days when the actor would teach him how to fly a kite, visit his home in the UK, and play carrom together.
Unlike many people in the film industry, Irrfan Khan never lived with a false identity, a brand image. The ordinariness which he portrayed on screen was him all along, it wasn't an act. Perhaps that is the reason he managed to sublimate from the screen and come home with us.
What was your first reaction when you heard about Irrfan Khan's death?
(Laughs) Oh, it's a difficult question, obviously. I was still asleep, I had a phone call... actually not phone call many messages you know and it was my wife who shook me and said you know you are having all these messages. I woke up checked and I saw the first message, and I got out of the bed and went to the other room because Irrfan and I had spoken a week ago, we had so many plans in fact he was very much considering coming to stay with me, he and his wife. I thought there was a mistake. I have read, I have seen in some other cases...
Did you feel that it was a fake news?
Not fake news exactly but maybe they've heard it wrongly, or jumped the gun a little, so I went out and sat down under the tree, and I messaged Sutapa, Irrfan's wife. After a while I got a message from her and that is when.... my wife found me a little later and I was in a complete breakdown. We sat under the tree for a long time, didn't' know how to react. I wanted to write back to Sutapa and I didn't know what to say, and the tree was full of birds and I remembered one of my interactions with Irrfan.
This happened at a film festival in Abu Dhabi, they had brought a falcon, a trained falcon and they had put the falcon pinned on his knee and I think for about half an hour he just had the falcon on his knee and they would just keep looking at each other. Much later I asked Irrfan what did the falcon say to you. Then Irrfan said that the falcon said I'm thinking of you that I'm not thinking of you. In my ears, in my mind, I heard a lot of other birds.
So here I was sitting under the tree with all these birds around me I just waited and thought these birds would give me a message and then I would write to Sutapa. That is why that whole day went, waiting for a message from him, that something would speak to me. My wife and I, we had prepared a guest room, for Irrfan and his wife. Later during the day, I went upstairs just to look, the room was empty, there were these curtains, the window, and suddenly I felt I could imagine seeing Irrfan there.
A few years ago he and his wife had come and stayed with us earlier. I had many memories of that time, the way he sat, smoked a cigarette at the window. I was able to see him again, here at this time at the window on the bed, I was playing carrom together, his whole concentration on getting the right move. I was having tea and the whole went like that. Every few hours I would go there stand at that room and imagine, in between, I was breaking down. I think it took a week or ten days for some kind of return so that really was how the first news of him passing away was for me.
The death happened all of a sudden. Were you planning more films together?
This is very strange. In fact, Irrfan and I were working towards our next film together.
Which one, Song of Scorpions?
No that is complete, it's supposed to release in India very soon. No the film after that. We had many discussions and I had all those things in mind, he was very amused about the film he had said to me that you know Anup, you cast me in all these films you are doing but your films are all about women. Then I said, no no Irrfan don't worry about it, the next film I'm writing is about a man, the only thing is that he likes to dress up as a woman. We laughed a lot about it and over time we had many discussions.
So this was a script I was working on it was a story about a folk dancer. Within a certain tradition who dresses up as a woman, I started rewriting the script after his passing away, I think that helped a lot in coming to terms with his not being there, because for a very long time in the writing that we were still working together. I would write a gesture and then remember something he had said, or how would Irrfan have done it, but this is how Irrfan would do it. So I could hear his voice, I could see his gesture, I could see a certain posture he could have taken.
'HE REALLY HATED DANCING'
If there's one thing he hated, he really hated dancing. So when I told him about this particular script, he laughed too much and said you are always making me do what I don't want to do and yet I know I have to do it. So the dance part I amuse myself a lot, by putting in quite a bit of dance in the script and watching him dance. He did dance a little bit for me for the film Qissa, and that was very strange, getting him to do that. So I had all those memories in mind, and suddenly my whole being was so full of his presence that I didn't miss him, I really didn't miss him. Once in a while, it would hit me of course, and suddenly I would realise all this was in my imagination, that I won't be able to touch him or feel his hands on my shoulder. And those were moments which come even now, even while talking to you I can feel, the sense of just him not there, and he had a way of looking at you, the kind of attention that he brought to you, even if he just said, hmm, you felt in that hmm that there was already some thought taking place in that mind. There is something that your friends give you, the thing about Irrfan is that he brought a great generosity of spirit, he allowed himself to be vulnerable, he would say things which were private, he would trust you completely, that simple talk, the simple chatter with each, and sometimes just silence, the kind of contentment that you know that you are there for each other and you are going to work together and give each other the push, that is one of the joys of working with Irrfan, he always pushed you harder.
Can you recall the first time you met Irrfan Khan?
It was very far away, I'm from FTII, and he was in NSD, we had mutual friends but we never met. I saw his films I don't think I saw any of his TV series.
Irrfan started his career with TV series in DD. Are you talking about those?
No, I never saw him on TV, but I have seen his early films, I heard a lot about him because of mutual friends. I was supposed to do a TV series, the producer, who was his classmate, Mita Vashist, she said we should speak to Irrfan about the role. That's the first time I met him, to do this TV series with me. We did it, we enjoyed each other immensely. One thing that kept us very close as we used to listen to Nushrat Ali Fateh Khan, a lot. So, we talked a lot about Nushrat Saab and we listened together to a lot of his music. Many times we played a track and said, would you keep this rhythm in mind when you say your dialogues for example. There was a lot of exchanges like that, and we liked each other, simply because of our interaction through Nushrat Saab. That was my first meeting with him.
Song of Scorpions will be releasing in India soon, right?
I'm hoping in January. My distributor says early 2021. I don't know what is early 2021. The film has released in France, so that is wonderful. I just want to give you a little idea about working with Irrfan.
Do you have any fond memories about Irrfan from the sets of his films?
One of the things [was that] he was obsessed with kite flying, he loved to fly kites. During Qissa we were shooting in Punjab, somehow he got hold of kites. Whenever there were breaks, he would disappear. And whenever we had to find him we just had to look up at the sky and spot the kite and that's where Irrfan would be. So when he came to shoot in Rajasthan in the desert, for Song of Scorpions, he bought 20 kites with him and the string on the spiral. So quite a few of them.
By the time we had completed 15-20 days of the shoot, everybody in the film was flying a kite, including the assistant director, even me. He taught me how to fly the kite. In the dessert, the breeze was so beautiful he would disappear and go fly a kite. I think it was on the 10th or 15th day of our shoot... there was a lot of screeching, very early in the morning. The sun was just rising, and we wanted to shoot for the light. Suddenly when the sunlight was falling on us we saw shadows in the sand, and they were moving and Irrfan then pointed towards the sun and we looked around and noticed that there were birds, all of them started circling us. These were Siberian cranes, they come to Rajasthan every year and they travel hundreds of miles for the winter break. These birds, I don't know why, were very curious about what was happening on the sets and they kept on circling us and we couldn't take the shot and after a while, we gave up trying to scare the birds away but that only made them curious.
Some people started clapping. Then I saw Irrfan with his kite, he started flying his kites. These kites went into the air and towards the birds and they became curious about the kite. They stayed away from it but kept circling it. Slowly Irrfan started giving out the string, so the kite went further away and the birds went further away. At one point he simply broke the string and the kite drifted away. As the kite drifted away the birds also drifted away and we were ready to shoot again. It is these kinds of things that he would do. Very much a part of the dessert. Never wanting to harm anything, at the same time very dedicated.