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Back after battling cancer: A day with Irrfan on set

May,01: Irrfan is back to work after a year of battling cancer. We bring you a day in his life from his film set.

In the quiet, oppressive heat of the Rajasthan summer, frequently interrupted by birds of assorted species competing to be heard, one man quietly makes his way from his room to the film’s set. “Irrfan sir on floor”, a walkie-talkie crackles, and a soft silence descends as the chatter subsides.

I was travelling on a speedy train ride, had dreams, plans, aspirations, goals, was fully engaged in them. And suddenly someone taps on my shoulder and I turn to see. It’s the TC: “Your destination is about to come. Please get down.” I am confused: “No, no. My destination hasn’t come.” “No, this is it. This is how it is sometimes.”

Irrfan wrote that in June last year. As all Indian train passengers are prone to do, he and wife Sutapa have been haggling and negotiating with the TC for many months now. He’s still on the train. While there is no sign-off on having been “cured” when it is cancer that you are battling, they are as of now defiantly continuing going about the journey, having paid a fine, hoping that will settle the issue, and keeping a wary eye just in case the TC were to head back towards them again.

Irrfan is back to work. He seems to be quite some distance from medical backup, though, at his desolate shooting venue at Ravla Khempur, a two-hour drive from Udaipur. Doctors call from Mumbai and keep in touch on a daily basis, sometimes more often. Sutapa has recently taken Irrfan across to Udaipur for an injection advised by the doctor. She is happy at the concern and personal engagement doctors in India have offered. “The doctors in London were very good, of course – but it’s a professional atmosphere. Can you imagine them personally calling asking about his well-being?” Is it advisable for him to be out here, this far from Mumbai? “The doctors themselves said he should get back to work rather than just rest idly. He is a workaholic. His mind is in a better place when he is doing what he does best. He is happy, see?

His eyes light up when he gets on to the floor, but the battery drops from full charge to fifty percent fairly quickly and when work is done, Irrfan looks to retreat into a quiet room. The food and water are carefully curated. He holds an ice pack to his face ever so often. More ice packs find their way to a basin along with ice blocks and towels. He places his feet in it and closes his eyes, disengaged, momentarily, from all that is going on around him.

Talking tires him, and one does not, therefore, add to his fatigue, observing his day quietly from a distance, not wanting to bring in the inanity of a “ aapko kaisa lag raha hai?”.

He handles the scorching afternoon sun with a passive acceptance. A scene has to be reshot with a junior actor. It doesn’t go as desired the first time around. He repeats it once, then twice, not a hint of irritation at having to put more energy into something he had done competently in the first go. The junior is apologetic, but Irrfan sir isn’t throwing any tantrums. The scene finally done, digging his teeth into a (medically suggested) ganna and clearly relishing it, he seems at peace and in place in the oppressive heat. It is his home state, after all. Even if the flesh is weak, the spirit is peppy.

Sutapa asks him if he saw the peacocks in the courtyard earlier in the morning. He makes observations about the birds, the trees, the architecture – he is certainly not lost in himself. The engagement with cancer has made him even more curious about the smallest of things. He absorbs and relishes them. He speaks of how the wind has changed, how the people around him are so gentle and supportive, can he have a little of that tempting lookingpoha, please? Just a little, with thenamkeen and the pyaazhaan?

Oh, and of course, what’s happening in the elections? Views come aplenty. He listens for a short while, then the battery dips, and he disengages.
The day draws to a close. He heads to his car. Kids from the area run to ask for an autograph. The guards shoo them away. The tired, recovering star again throws no tantrum, calls them to the car’s window, scribbles a few lines, makes their day. Then settles back in his seat and closes his eyes.


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