EXCLUSIVE: On Irrfan Khan’s 55th birth anniversary, wife Sutapa Sikdar shares RARE insights about late actor
They were starkly different. He expressed emotions. She worded them. He was inward-bound and reticent. She was feisty and forceful. Yet they were soulmates, kneaded from the same element. Viewing the prose of life through the prism of poetry. Theirs was a marriage of minds, a ‘union’ of sensibilities, which took the tide and ebb with subliminal strength. In fact, Sutapa Sikdar, after Irrfan Khan’s sad demise in 2020, is the emotional connect between the actor and his legion of admirers, enthralling them with rare insights about him. He lives in her and through her in the reminiscences of cineastes.
Excerpts from a heart-touching interview…
What brought Irrfan and you together while at the National School of Drama (NSD) in Delhi?
When you look back at things, they become clearer than when they actually happened. Irrfan always said, "You have a tendency to support the underdog and hence we are together." But now when the fog has cleared, and I can see everything without conditioning, I know it was destiny. We were meant to be together. It was a hot summer afternoon in Delhi when I saw him for the first time. A lanky bespeckled young man in a black terry-cotton bellbottom and a light green printed shirt, with a leather sling bag from Rajasthan, walking towards the NSD lobby. He was definitely not my type. I was born and brought up in Delhi with the best exposure to world cinema, music, and art. We were starkly different. But yet, there was something about him, in spite of him being extremely shy with negligible social skills, which made me turn and look at this lanky boy. It was the sincerity written all over his face and his focus. In spite of being from a small town, he was not enamored. I knew this man had not come to try acting as just an alternate profession or because of the full scholarship, he had come there for passion, which hung around him like a halo. I’m a sucker for sincerity. His smartness was of a different kind. That is to prove through skill and not only by words. He did not want to be the most popular guy in NSD. He wanted to be the most popular in the nation, I guess.
How different were you two as artists and people?
He was an introvert and hated arguments. I could win a debate for and against on the same topic. He was inwards and I was external. He explored. I vocalized even his thoughts. Now, when I look back, it was the same personality with different tools. We were alike in basic things. We believed in similar things like social equality. We were both rebels. He hated conditioning. He wanted to evolve. NSD was like a new birth to him. He was a gentle soul. So was I. But I could if needed, be aggressive. I could fight for my rights. He would not be able to do that at that point. He was an actor. I wasn’t. I was crystal clear I never wanted to be one. He was patient. I was impatient.
You mentioned in an interview, ‘ours was not a marriage, it was a union’. Why did you say that?
Mostly, one marries out of insecurity. We wouldn’t like to admit it but we sometimes don’t have the guts to stay in a relationship without marriage. Or sometimes, we want to be in someone’s life forever and we cite that as a reason for marriage. Some say we want to give birth to kids and give them a name and hence marry. All of these essentially adhere to a social structure. No marriage can ensure compatibility, understanding, and willingness to stay together. So, I call it a union. Marriage is a social norm while union is between two people, who are willing to risk their life, be themselves and stay together. Initially, our marriage had many loopholes. But our union won always.
What was that remarkable quality that kept Irrfan going through his struggle?
There were many, like him never giving up on his skills. He had dreams but there was no urgency. Yes, at times he felt he was better than many commanding successes at that point. But the beauty about him was he was never restless or irritable as if he was in a journey without a timebomb ticking to reach the destination.
It’s said he valued your analysis about a performance. How involved were you in his work?
I read his scripts and gave my two bits. But essentially, I did a post-mortem of his films. He would ask my opinion about his characters, his lines, or generally about the script while preparing. Our late-night conversations were mostly about what I thought about this and that in the script. It’s easy to analyze but to understand a point of view and do it in your own way was a great quality Irrfan had as an actor.
With success, Irrfan won the title of the ‘thinking woman’s sex-icon’. How did he view romance and love?
It was the ultimate for him. He thought love is the guiding factor. He could fall in love with a singer’s voice too. He was a lover. He tried to look at love from an angle of lightness of being, love which transcends a person.
You mentioned that Irrfan was ‘not husband material’. What were the ways in which he made you feel special?
He never made me feel special. I knew I was. He couldn’t imagine his life without me. It doesn’t sound humble but for many years, he was scared that I’d get bored and leave him.
You stated Irrfan ‘redefined fatherhood’. Why?
I’m sure there are many fathers who do it. But for me, it was a surprise that he never imposed his expectations on his kids (Babil and Ayaan Khan). They were never burdened with family legacy or considered bearers to take forward the family tree. He believed being good people was all that’s required. He never used the word ‘future’ for his kids. He wanted them to enjoy the present. They never heard any preachy lesson of family traditions and values, which they had to carry onward. He said that the human race is a burden on this universe, so let’s be as grateful as possible to the universe. He hated the word ‘proud’. He never used it. He didn’t believe in making the kids a prototype of a certain religion, caste, or creed. But unintentionally he filled them with wisdom and spirituality. I always felt that he would create a new spiritual order and that he would finally leave every stardom or trap, which enslaves the human soul.
You once quoted Irrfan’s favourite poet, Anaïs Nin’s lines, “people living deeply have no fear of death.” How did Irrfan take his cancer diagnosis?
It was shocking as it was sudden. But I didn’t see him overreact, not for the reason that men don’t cry but for a deeper reason. He was in tremendous pain when the treatment started. We shared some extremely painful personal moments. But he was simply worried about me, not about himself.
You called him a ‘warrior’. Why?
Because he fought so bravely without thinking of the consequences, as in a war.
The two and a half years of his treatment following his diagnosis in 2018… what did this interlude teach you?
That everything can wait, be it career or success. But not your family nor the time you owe them. So, just be there for them and with them.
You shared that Irrfan could laugh at his own disease. Can you share an anecdote?
I remember, we were lying down in Hyde Park, London after a chemo session and were planning our next trip to Europe with the boys. He suddenly laughed and said, "How can I take so many unwanted guests in my body (referring to the disease) for a family vacation?"
How did Irrfan’s perspective towards life change? What were things he wanted to tick on the bucket list?
Planting a jungle and immersing in astronomy was one of them. But he had a clarity that life is more than we seek, and we should seek more the inner world than the outer.
You bid him goodbye by singing his favourite songs. Which were those?
Jhoola kinne dala re, amraiya, jhoole mora saiyaan, loon main baliyaan… from Umrao Jaan, Lag jaa gale ke phir yeh haseen raat ho na ho (Woh Kaun Thi?), the ghazal Aaj jaane ki zid na karo… and some Rabindra sangeet. He was unconscious but he had tears rolling down.
You mentioned that his death was ‘not a loss’ but a gain. Please elaborate.
I realized how much I’ve gained from him emotionally and spiritually. I am grateful for having spent my life with him. It’s time to celebrate, reflect and to reconsider the way to look at life, which one perhaps wouldn’t have, if he were alive. Also, I gained so much from other people, who narrated such amazing stories regarding their experiences with him. He wouldn’t talk about those so much.
What gives you the strength to embrace life without him?
It’s him essentially– his vision and the ability to face hardships. And my great women friends, who’ve always been there.