D-Days for two legends


We lost two fine actors Sahabzade Irrfan Khan(53) and Rishi Kapoor(67) to cancer in April 2020. G. Venkatesh pays a tribute to them while hoping that the medical fraternity finds a cure for cancer that has been taking away so many lives, year after year.

Perhaps man has a hundred senses, and when he dies only the five senses that we know perish with him, and the other ninety-five remain alive,” wrote Anton Chekhov. Very true. It is only that we are not really equipped to comprehend the other 95 so easily. One needs to evolve higher into the spiritual plane, and transcend the materialistic distractions to qualify.

Cancer is a nasty scourge. It took away Varshita, this writer’s wife in January 2020, and then a month later, a close friend and colleague of yours sincerely, Hans-Petter, from the Norwegian University of Science and Technology in Trondheim, who succumbed to prostate cancer.

While I was grieving and trying to cope as a bereaved widower wondering what lay in store for me, with the help of music, literature, writing (for this magazine, inter alia) and art – not religion or prayers, I must specify – an artiste par excellence succumbed to colon infection brought about by complications due to neuroendocrine cancer treatment. Irrfan Khan. Just 53 years old. A man who would have added many more feathers to his cap, if God’s ‘injustice’ had not intervened. Before one could digest this travesty of all that is believed to be ordained by God, his D-Day co-starrer Rishi Kapoor met his D-Day the very next day, succumbing to leukaemia. God takes the good first, they say, and expect you to believe that, while also acknowledging that you are not good as you are still surviving. Well, this outpouring may provoke some hyper-religious readers who perhaps have not yet been at the receiving end of sheer injustice in their blessed lives, or tempt those who are very spiritual to dub me as a frustrated 48-year-old, and lecture me on life and death and the afterlife.

Irrfan Khan (1967 -2020)

“They say if life throws lemons at you, make lemonade out of it, as if it is always very easy to do so,” Irrfan had said recently, while alluding to his condition. There is this thing with actors like Irrfan. They make you laugh when they are alive, through the roles they enact in their movies. Sample ‘Andar se bhi gareeb lagna chahiye’ as Raj Batra in Hindi Medium, or ‘Mera faalt nahin hai’ as Thomas the chaiwala in Mumbai Meri Jaan. The lines uttered with a poker face, absolutely expressionless, would make viewers laugh heartily, and forget their worries for a while. And to think that the person who did this for millions of viewers, had to digest the fact, in 2018, that he had to ‘get off at an earlier railway station than he had envisaged’ from the train of life.

Sharing screen space with Tom Hanks in Inferno, and rising to international renown through a clutch of unforgettable roles – a policeman in Slumdog Millionaire and A Mighty Heart, the older Pi in the Life of Pi, an Indian-American in The Namesake, and a widower in Lunchbox, Irrfan strode like a colossus, and did what none would have expected him to do. He worked hard and fought his way up, to bag his first lead role in a movie at the age of 38. The pensive mountain-goat, a man of few words, and largely silent expressions which at once said a 1000 words, just like a picture is worth that many. He blended Nana Patekar’s naturalness and fast-speaking (minus the vitriol), with Rajesh Khanna’s ‘talking with the eyes’ to great effect. Paan Singh Tomar was an offbeat role which he played with effortless ease. My schoolmate Amber neatly summed it up on WhatsApp – aadhi zindagi mein poora picture dikha gaya! His 53-year-old journey from Jaipur to Mumbai, took him all around the world, and ensured that he made a home in the hearts of millions of film-lovers.

Rishi Kapoor (1952-2020)

In an episode of Aap ki Adalat on television, Rishi Kapoor was extremely down-to-earth in confessing that all that he did as an actor was to try to convince viewers that he could do different things – play the guitar, dafli etc., like a pro. Having made his first appearance in a movie as a two-year old boy (in 1955) in the movie Shree 420, Rishi Kapoor went on to play the role of a 90-year-old man in the movie Kapoor and Sons a few years ago. It took some time for movie-makers to utilise his versatility, by his own admission, as he was looked upon as a guitar-playing romantic, who would traipse with over two dozen heroines, till he himself would realise that, that department of entertainment had to be handed over to the likes of the three Khans who had emerged on the scene in the late-80s. If I have to select one memorable movie, it would be 102 not out. He and his co-star Amitabh Bachchan both shared screen space equally, and brought back the wonderful chemistry they shared in their earlier films like Amar Akbar Anthony and Naseeb. Amitabh, in his shraddhanjali (tribute), observed that he never visited him in the hospital because he never wanted to see distress on his smiling cherubic face.

Win, Insha’llah…quit, Deo Volente

Irrfan Khan’s life teaches us many things, most importantly, that the cliché winners never quit, and quitters never win, is undeniably true. One quits from the earthly plane, when it is Insha’llah, so to say…and must try to do so, as a winner, having never ever given up on his/her goals! Rishi Kapoor was more flamboyant than Irrfan, a man who grew up amidst actors and had it in his genes, if one may say so. But without hard work and dedication, even one who gets to make his debut courtesy his father at the age of 20-21, could not have risen to the heights which he managed to.

“Cancer ka koi ilaaj nahi, lagi sharth?’ Johnny Walker says in the movie Anand released in 1971.. And then appeals to Allah, Jesus, and Lord Ganesh for miracles to cure Rajesh Khanna, the protagonist who plays the terminally ill patient Anand. Yours sincerely was appealing to Lord Hanuman and Sai Baba everyday over the last seven years ever since Varshita was first diagnosed with cancer, to extricate it from her body, magically. Nothing of that sort happened. We take recourse in God’s will, and learn to accept the fact that we are mere puppets on the stage of ‘life’ being made to dance around as per His whims and fancies, which are beyond our comprehension.

A cure for cancer?

If mankind has been able to counter a host of ailments, will a day come when a cure for cancer will emerge from some laboratory somewhere in the world? The ultimate conquest! Much greater than landing on the Moon or mapping the surface of the exoplanets in the solar system.

Well, now we are tackling the corona virus, thanks to the indefensible taste of the palate for the meat of ‘exotic wildlife’, and all attention has been diverted to finding a vaccine. Even automobile companies are having to produce ventilators and masks! A momentary roadblock en route to major discoveries in the field of medicine? When I was in Trondheim, there were rumours of a ‘vaccine for cancer’, which would guard against genetic mutations. Science fiction or something really far-fetched, I do not know, but I did think that a lot of money has surely been poured into cancer research…but oftentimes, the ‘sunk funds’ component of the cumulative investment is quite high. You pat a thousand scientists on the back, for one of them to come up with something stupendous someday.

God cannot cure cancer. God cannot drive away the corona virus. Human will and ingenuity and the desire to cooperate and collaborate is what God (depending on how one wants to picture ad visualise Him) wishes. Then, serendipitously, things happen. That is how the world has moved on.

Of course, we would all say ‘Rest in Peace’, but must strive to learn from the life-lessons that have been left behind by departed souls. Nothing ends; it is a stream of ever-flowing consciousness…of the 95 senses which Chekhov referred to.


G. Venkatesh is Associate Professor, Department of Engineering and Chemical Sciences, Faculty of Health, Science and Technology, Karlstad University, Sweden. He is also a freelance writer for several magazines around the world.