Varun Gautam, Irrfan's friend from his Jaipur days, learned about Irrfan's illness when he received a phone call from Sutapa. This was sometime before Irrfan officially announced his illness.
He assured her, 'Even if the doctors are concerned, he will still stay alive.'
A gripping excerpt from Rediff.com Contributor Aseem Chhabra's new book, Irrfan Khan: The Man, The Dreamer, The Star.
On March 5, 2018, at midnight, a tweet was sent out from Irrfan Khan’s Twitter handle. The tweet announced the launch of a new song from Irrfan’s soon-to-be-released film, Blackmail.
The song Patola is sung by Punjabi singer Guru Randhawa.
The tweet included the YouTube link to the song and carried a colourful picture of the singer. Guru Randhawa's face was flanked by two other images -- that of Irrfan Khan and his co-star Kirti Kulhari, both dressed as bridegroom and bride respectively.
Four and a half hours later, at 4.36 am, another tweet was sent out from Irrfan's account. In the second tweet, very different in tone, the actor shared a devastating personal message with his fans. It read: 'Sometimes you wake up with a jolt with life shaking you up. The last 15 days, my life has been a suspense story. Little had I known that my search for rare stories would make me find a rare disease.'
Irrfan added that he was surrounded by family and friends and requested his fans not to speculate and he promised to come back within seven to ten days when he had conclusive results. And then there was silence.
This news came out of nowhere. Irrfan was known to write his own tweets. One could read the personal voice he would have in his tweets. This one read like an official statement, but still it had the Irrfan touch...
Eleven days later, as promised, Irrfan tweeted again. He started the tweet with a quote from Margaret Mitchell (author of the American epic, Gone With The Wind) -- 'Life is under no obligation to give us what we expect.'
That was the first time most of his fans heard about a type of cancer called neuroendocrine tumour. He joked about the rumours that he had brain tumour. 'As far as the rumours that were floated, 'neuro' is not always about the brain.'
And he added that it would help for everyone to Google the disease. That he still retained his sense of humour was clear from the tweet.
He added that he was leaving the country for treatment and he would keep in touch and report back 'with more stories to tell'.
It is hard to say when Irrfan fell ill.
Tigmanshu Dhulia told me he had suddenly begun to lose weight and that had caused concern. ‘He loves to eat a lot, but he is so careful with his weight and what he actually eats,' Tishu said a few months after Irrfan had made the devastating announcement.
"Especially now that he has become a star, he watches what he eats. He was growing his own organic vegetables. Pata nahi usko yeh saala cancer kaise ho gaya (I don’t how he got this damn cancer)."
Varun Gautam, Irrfan’s friend from his Jaipur days, told me that in the last few years the actor had gotten very busy with his work and it was hard to connect and spend time with him.
"My Irrfan was lost in a jungle for the past couple of years," he says, with tears welling up in his eyes. "Mera Irrfan badal gaya tha (My Irrfan had changed). He was not the Irrfan I knew. Irrfan's real happiness is in flying kites and thinking, spending time in his farmhouse (in Nashik), watching a good film, listening to a song."
"He was not just busy but he was losing himself," Varun says. "The work took more of his time, more travelling, less sleep and yet he was making more money. He recently told me that he had forgotten he hadn't come here to earn money."
Varun learned about Irrfan’s illness when one day he received a phone call from Sutapa. This was sometime before Irrfan officially announced his illness.
"She said doctors had found some spots inside him," he recalls. "Then she said, 'You have always seen good things in his future. I hope nothing fatal will happen'."
"So I assured her that he would be okay. 'Even if the doctors are concerned, he will still stay alive. H's not going to die. I have been very confident that he will be okay."
For a couple of months after Irrfan left for his treatment, there was near silence from his end. And then he spoke to a couple of journalists.
Much of the interviews were focused on this new phase in his life. He was reflecting on all the good he had experienced in his life and seemed to be accepting whatever the future had in store for him.
With The Times of India he also talked about the pain, the treatment and the surprise to realize that his hospital was right next to Lord's, the cricket ground in London owned by the Marylebone Cricket Club...
In perhaps the only interview he gave before the release of Puzzle in August 2018, he spoke to Associated Press about how he was angry initially, scared and very vulnerable. But now he had put all his faith in nature.
'It's not in my hand. That's nature that will do whatever it has to do. Whatever the outcome, it will be for good and it will be for the best.'
Friends of Irrfan I interviewed, people who had met him in London, all seemed to suggest how positive he was about life in general. Shailja Kejriwal told me that in between treatment, Irrfan and Sutapa would sometimes go to cafes in London and even occasionally go watch plays.
'We were completely by ourselves, not surrounded by movies or people from the industry,' Sutapa Sikdar told HuffPost India.
'We wouldn't even know which film is releasing on which Friday.' For the couple, this change in pace and place must have brought them closer. 'It was like discovering a new life together,' she added.
During a visit to London in the summer of 2018, Vipin Sharma spent nearly six hours with Irrfan in London, eating, talking and laughing. Irrfan narrated a story about a television show he had acted in where, during the shoot, a real tiger was brought on the set, and how the actors were afraid to stand close to the animal.
When Vipin was leaving, Irrfan said, 'Yaar, some days of mine go really bad,' suggesting he could not see Vipin every day. But then he added, 'Call me.'
Tigmanshu Dhulia told me that Irrfan had been responding well to the treatment and his weight loss was under control.
But perhaps the most encouraging news about Irrfan I heard was from Sudhir Mishra.
Late in August 2018, I met Sudhir in Delhi to talk about this book. He said he had heard that Irrfan had recently been given the narration of Hindi Medium 2 (now referred to as Angrezi Medium and directed by Homi Adajania).
That was the first clear indication that Irrfan was getting better and he was planning to be back to work in films. Angrezi Medium is set to be released in early 2020.
Irrfan and Sutapa were back in India in early 2019, much to the relief of his fans and just about everyone in the Hindi film industry.
When he returned from London, there were speculations that he would still take some time to recuperate.
But Irrfan's desire to get back to work and, of course, the film's schedule, took him to Udaipur to shoot Angrezi Medium, his first project after nearly a year.
His cancer treatment was done and reports indicated he had been given a clean chit by his doctors.
But extra care was taken while he was on the set -- from breaks he had to take to regain energy, to a quieter residential stay, away from five-star hotels that he found noisy and the special organic foods flown in for him from Mumbai.
After Angrezi Medium's London schedule, Irrfan spent some time in the city with his family. Reports indicated that he was on a private holiday.
Later in September, the paparazzi tracked Irrfan at Mumbai airport. He was being pushed in a wheelchair, while he had covered his face.
A spokesperson for Irrfan issued this statement, 'Irrfan had a successful surgery after wrapping up Angrezi Medium shoot in London. He was missing home and has come to Mumbai for a few days to recover. We request the media to not speculate, and thanking everyone again for the continued support.'
When Vipin Sharma had first visited Irrfan's hospital room in London, the actor and his wife were not there.
The receptionist informed him that Irrfan and Sutapa had stepped out to get coffee. "On the bed I saw a book by Rumi lying open, upside down. I will never forget that image. I wish I had taken a photograph of that. I felt very good. The Rumi book was upside down and I realized, this is Irrfan.
It is the 'Rumi' state of mind that has taken Irrfan through the toughest and the most uncertain period of his life, and perhaps these words, from the thirteenth century Persian poet's poem, Life and Death, are of special significance:
why talk about all
the known and the unknown
see how the unknown merges into the known
why think separately
of this life and the next
when one is born from the last.
Excerpted from Irrfan Khan: The Man, The Dreamer, The Star by Aseem Chhabra, with the kind permission of the publishers, Rupa Publications India.