The professional collaboration between Anup Singh and Irrfan resulted in the acclaimed films Qissa: The Tale of a Lonely Ghost (2013) and The Song of Scorpions (2017). The deep friendship that followed was meant to lead to further projects, and would have if Irrfan hadn’t died from cancer in on April 29, 2020.
Singh has channelled his aching sense of loss over the brilliant actor’s untimely demise into a book. “I wanted to remember him for all the gifts that he brought to my life and work,” Singh writes in his foreword to Irrfan: Dialogues with the Wind.
The book includes reminiscences of Singh’s initial encounters with Irrfan, their experiences during the making of Qissa and The Song of Scorpions, and Singh’s observations on Irrfan’s approach to performance and characterisation. Suffused with profound and lyrical feeling, Irrfan: Dialogues with the Wind is a tribute to the cherished actor as well as the much-adored man. The book has been published by Copper Coin and will be released on February 14.
In this excerpt, Singh recalls Irrfan’s final days in hospital, facing the inevitable with fortitude and poetry: “Don’t look away. This is you, still living. If this is not living, then what is?”
‘This posture is good, no?’
Irrfan was spread out like an unstrung marionette on his stomach. He lay diagonally across the hospital bed, his head close to the upper edge and his feet dangling over the floor on the opposite side. His eyes were open and he was staring at the floor. The floor as well as the rest of the room were painfully white and bright as the afternoon sun blazed in through the large windows. His eyes shifted to me. His voice had taken on a grainy texture I had not heard before.
“Anup Saab,” he said.
He watched me as I moved a chair closer to the bed. He was smiling.
“Out of all these films that we’re going to do together, there’s one or two where I die, nahin? Yeh posture achchha hai, nahin (This posture is good, isn’t it)?”
In recent times, I mentioned as often as possible to him that I had scripts for films we could do together till we were both in our nineties. Our next film was to be about a folk dancer who likes to dress up as Krishna’s Radha. We had spoken about doing a theatrical adaptation based on Dostoyevsky’s Underground Man.
I was also writing a script about a celebrated Bollywood film composer and his rivalry with a younger composer. There was a script based on the life of the Punjabi Sufi poet – Bulleh Shah. In that film, I’d told Irrfan, I wanted him to play the role of Bulleh Shah’s teacher, Shah Inayat. And there was a film on the last days of Mahabharata’s Duryodhana. Irrfan was to play Duryodhana.
“Where would you put the camera?” he asked.
I adjusted my chair so he wouldn’t have to stretch his neck to see me.
“Depends on your next movement,” I said.
“I don’t think I can move, Anup Saab. Woh bell bajayein zara (Press that bell, please).”
I leaned forward to the bell switch next to his pillow and pressed it long and hard. A nurse came hurrying in. She took one look at him and prepared an injection. She helped him turn and placed his head on the pillow. Irrfan was breathless, sweating. She raised his shirt sleeve and I looked away from his stick-thin arm.
He asked her to inject him in his foot. It was morphine for his pain.
He slowly turned his face towards me. “Jaiyega matt (Don’t go). I’ll sleep for a little while. But you stay here. Nurse, Anup Saab ke liye chai .… (tea for Anup Saab, please).”
His breath calmed. His eyes closed.
I sat looking at his face. I tried not to think of anything else, but what were the different lenses, angles, lighting I would use in the different films we were going to do together.
The light at the curtain of the hospital room was steadily darkening when Irrfan’s eyes opened again. He stirred and I helped him sit up, adjusting the pillow behind him.
“In a month or so, I’m going to London again. For some more tests.”
“I’ll come there. If you feel strong enough, maybe you’ll come back with me to Geneva. Stay with me for a while.”
“That’ll be good. Especially for Sutapa. She needs to rest.”
He lay gazing at the wide, white wall across the room.
“I do think, you know: where will I die? Here? In London? And, other than pain, who’ll be there? Will I pass while asleep? Pass? What a strange word. Pass to where?”
And then, a little later:
“Lying here, I try to look at my thoughts as they come and go. I do not feel I’m dying. The pain’s always there. There’s resentment. Anger. Doctor, nurse, medicine, trips to the toilet. But I do not feel I’m dying.”
The tight brown curls of his hair on his forehead waver in the slight air of the air conditioning. He glances at me, his hazel eyes suddenly bright.
“The many faces of death, Anup Saab. They keep me entertained and I breathe better and I even forget the pain. The many faces of death. So many faces. Sometimes it’s a light with some yellow and blue. Sometimes, blank. Many dreams. Many dreams.
“I look at myself. Sometimes I’m scared. Not always, but sometimes. Angry also. Bitter. Furious. Sad. Sadness is the worst. What could be. What could have been. Now, I say to myself, keep looking. Scared, sad, furious. Keep looking. Don’t look away. This is you, still living. If this is not living, then what is?”
He turns his head to look at me. I hope my gaze and the tiny smile I manage hold steady.
A few hours after Sutapa’s text, overruling all my demurrals about his death, an overwhelming stillness took possession of me. If I happened to stop somewhere – in the doorway between two rooms or on the steps to catch my breath or in the garden looking at a bush, my wife had to come find me, because an hour or so had slipped away, and shake me gently.
Looking back, I recollect thinking: he had said, had he not, that since we’re energy we never die. We are part of the eternal energy of this universe. That’s how he explained the Sufi, Mansur Al-Hallaj’s ‘Anhal haq’ to me. “I am the Truth.” We all are the Truth. We belong to the universe.
And, if that is so, Janaab, I found myself speaking to a tree, the sky, the night, if that is true, Janaab, can you not come to me here for a while? Come, in whatever form. Let the wind raise the grains of earth and loan you a shape. It does not even need to give you words. A breath with your timbre would gratify me. It’s strange that your death leaves me in a state of waiting.
I waited. I was convinced that any moment a breeze would brush past with a low-voiced, “Anup Saab.”
Excerpted with permission from Irrfan: Dialogues with the Wind, Anup Singh, Copper Coin.