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'I can feel Irrfan's presence'

April 29, 2024 10:29 IST
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''My respect for Irrfan has grown 100 times now when he is no longer with us.'

IMAGE: Sutapa Sikdar with Irrfan. Photograph: Kind courtesy Babil Khan/Instagram

On April 29, 2020, Irrfan Khan moved on.

But he didn't go too far.

You can still see him in the movies he left behind, hear him in his songs, feel his presence in the jungles, the sea and the sunsets that he loved.

More than any of us, it is Sutapa Sikdar, who was his wife for 25 years and knew him even longer, who can still talk to him at the end of the day, tell him about his fans for whom there can never be another Irrfan.

Speaking to Senior Contributor, Roshmila Bhattacharya, Sutapa remembers, "He once admitted that I was his worst critic, and in a way, true because I was always questioning him. Why was he doing the role this way? Did he think this was the only way to approach the character? It didn't matter if he was working with Ang Lee or Tom Hanks, I always questioned him and while answering me, he got his own answers too."


Let's look back at your first meeting with Irrfan.

It was at the National School of Drama during the preliminary screening.

I lived in Delhi while he had come from Jaipur.

A tall, lanky, boy who looked even taller because he was so lanky, I noticed him as I passed the pin-up boards near the entrance.

He was staring intently at the working stills of the students and some seniors like Uttara Baokarji who were a part of the NSD Repertory.

I strolled inside and down the corridor, checking when our interview was starting.

I even befriended a few seniors.

When I returned with them, I found the tall, lanky, boy still studying the photographs.

In the 20 minutes that I was away, he hadn't even moved to the second board.

Lost to the world around him, he was like a connoisseur at an art exhibition who studied every line, every shade, every nuance of every painting.

I didn't know who he was, not even his name since we hadn't spoken, but looking back, I think the first seeds of attraction grew out of that single-minded concentration I saw on Irrfan's face.

IMAGE: An early picture of Irrfan with Sutapa. Photograph: Kind courtesy Babil Khan/Instagram

Did you eventually speak that day?

Yes, after a few minutes, Irrfan looked up from his perusal and strolled over to where we were standing.

Even though we were in the same batch, given my easy camaraderie with the seniors, he took me to be one of them and said, 'Oh, so you will be our seniors.'

I have no idea why I said what I did, but I retorted, 'You have just been selected for the interview, what makes you so sure you will get into NSD?'

I could see my question had made him nervous, put the seeds of doubt in his mind, and it was this questioning streak I carried into our relationship.

He once admitted that I was his worst critic, a much-quoted statement.

In a way, it was true because I was always questioning him.

Why was he doing the role this way?

Did he think this was the only way to approach the character?

(Laughs) It didn't matter if he was working with Ang Lee or Tom Hanks, I always questioned him and while answering me, he got his own answers too.


IMAGE: Irrfan 'Maqbool' Khan with son Babil. Photograph: Kind courtesy Babil Khan/Instagram

I remember speaking to Irrfan at the Oscar after-party after Slumdog Millionaire'S eight wins, and while in the midst of the world's biggest celebration, he told me that he was missing his family and wanted to hug his boys, Babil and Ayaan.

Irrfan was never fond of parties nor was he comfortable at award functions.

He was happy when he won, but he didn't over-value or glamouriSe an award.

His journey as an actor never stopped no matter how many awards he got.

His world was far removed from the glamour and fame, and this helped him understand in the course of his journey that everything else was secondary to him evolving as a human being and a soul because this was imperative to becoming a better actor.

There were times when he could be arrogant while putting across his point of view.

But Irrfan was never arrogant as an actor.

What, according to you, set him apart as an actor?

What set him apart was that despite being so close to us, he could, on occasions, be selfish and detach himself from the family.

While prepping for a role, if he needed solitude, he would just go away without thinking that I would be alone with young kids.

As husband and wife, we had plenty of tiffs over this, with me grousing that 'mujhe sab karna padta hai (I have to do everything.'

IMAGE: Irrfan and Supata. Photograph: Kind courtesy Babil Khan/Instagram

Well, it must have been difficult for you?

It was very difficult but now, I cherish his love for and his dedication to his craft.

I read a post of my son Babil's that we know a person is an artist only when he leaves the world.

That's so true.

My respect for Irrfan has grown 100 times now when he is no longer with us, having understood that if a person is mature enough to evaluate this while he is living, only then can he become a legend.

Yes, even after four years, Irrfan's fan following hasn't diminished. His films are still watched, his performances as appreciated and the man himself is so loved.

This Eid, I went to the Kanha National Park with two of my girlfriends.

The closest airport is three-and-a-half-hours away and Nagpur over five hours away.

Yet, our safari driver confessed that he would travel 26 km to watch his films.

Irrfan has left such a huge impact on him that he insisted if 'Sir' had been alive, many of the actors who copied him in Web series would not have been around.

When I reasoned that they were good actors and perhaps he loved Irrfan too much, he pointed to specific scenes, telling me how they had done them and how Irrfan would have done them.

His keen knowledge of cinema had come from simply watching his favourite actor.

Usko Irrfan se ishq tha, ishq (He was in love with Irrfan).

It made me so emotional just listening to him speak.

It was a short conversation as he had to go off on another safari.

Jaate jaate, I tried telling him that some of the kids were doing very good work and that 10 years from now, 'aapko kissi aur se pyar ho jayega (he would start loving another actor).'

He refuted me, saying there would never be another Irrfan in India, koi nahin, kabhi nahin hoga (no one, never).

I was overwhelmed.

An actor's job is to connect with the aam aadmi (common man).

It doesn't matter if he isn't a so-called celebrity, if he can educate even when he was not around, he has done his job, and done it well.

When I returned home, I told Irrfan about this man, saying, 'Arrey bhai tum to bahut superhit nikle (Hey, you turned to be quite a superhit)!'

IMAGE: Irrfan with Babil. Photograph: Kind courtesy Babil Khan/Instagram

So you still feel him around?

Yes, even when I was at Kanha, I could feel his presence when I was in the jungles which he had loved.

The last time I had gone there with Irrfan and the kids.

My younger son Ayan was just six months old then.

This time I wasn't with any of them, but Irrfan's presence was so strong that I started crying.

They were tears of joy.

And then there was the tiger...

IMAGE: Sutapa with Babil. Photograph: Kind courtesy Babil Khan/Instagram

What about the tiger?

It's strange, there were 15 families staying at the same place as us at the Kanha National Park at the time and they were off on safaris through the day and night.

But it was only one family and the three of us who saw the tiger during a night safari.

I believe it must have been Irrfan's doing and that he's still around.

In these last four years, the world has changed drastically, particularly for Babil.

Irrfan reminds us through signs of what is important and how we should prioritise our lives.

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