Book Extract: Irrfan-Dialogues With the Wind

“You had sent me a painting by Van Gogh, you remember? Olive trees?...“I’ve been trying to be one of these olive trees,” Irrfan said.

Anup Singh; (right) The book cover
Anup Singh; (right) The book cover
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Anup Singh

My real work with Irrfan, the actor, began during our second rehearsal. As the film is a tale told by a ghost, who is neither a man nor a woman, and the tale is about a woman who is brought up as a man, the film’s terrain is the borderland between the real and the fable.

With the actors, then, I was, looking for a playing that would make this liminal character of the film palpable, sensuous, but I also wanted to see in the actors’ bodies the exhaustion and anguish of this threshold existence.

We began our second day of rehearsal by sharing stories of the Partition that members of our family had lived and how that might have affected later generations, including us. Tisca, Rasika and Tillotama had many such tales to share, but Irrfan seemed to have gained all his knowledge of the Partition from the stories of Saadat Hasan Manto.

While the three women, enraptured by their indomitable ancestors or unnerved by the horror in their family tales, started experimenting with simple gestures like sitting, standing, walking, reaching out to someone or something, Irrfan sat on the extended ledge at the large window in the living-room, his rolled cigarette in hand, and watched.

I ignored him and kept working with the three women. The next day, it was the same. He sat on the window ledge and watched us. But this day, I was watching him too and I noticed that he kept adjusting his way of sitting. He would cross one leg before him while leaning his elbow on the knee of the other. A little later, I would see that both his legs were up, his hand on his right knee and his torso inclined back. And still later, his torso was folded forward over his knees, his head hanging down but his gaze still on us.

When the rehearsal ended that evening, Irrfan stayed back as the others left. I made us tea with cardamom and we sat down together on the ledge.

“You had sent me a painting by Van Gogh, you remember? Olive trees?”

The Van Gogh painting
The Van Gogh painting

“I’ll get it.” I jumped off the ledge and fetched my laptop from the bedroom. I opened the email I had sent him a few months ago, clicked on the attachment and the painting in yellows and violets and oranges blazed open. It was Van Gogh’s Grove of Olive Trees, 1889.

“I’ve been trying to be one of these olive trees,” Irrfan said. With the image, I had sent Irrfan a small note: “Dear Irrfan, if you have a look at the Van Gogh painting that I have attached for you, you'll see some of the inner struggle and strength of the character Umber.”

There is an awesome rebellion against nature and destiny; the whole painting carries a thrum and a vibration of the fear of being pulled out of one's roots, but there is also the violent, wooden strength to hold on to one's earth. The struggle can twist and tear the soul, but it also makes it more fiery, more formidable.”

I turned to him.

“To stand, to walk is not easy for this character. Every gesture of his reminds him of what he has lost.”

Irrfan was nodding, smiling. “Thoda waqt lagega (It will take some time), he said. “I want to see how I can stay rooted even when I start walking.”

We were looking at each other and, then, suddenly relaxed and rested back against the glass window, smiling to ourselves.

At that moment I had no idea what we were so exuberant about. But, thinking about this exchange later that night, I realised we had found a language to speak with each other. This was the real beginning of our work together.

***

THE HOSPITAL:

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 accha hain, 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.

Book Extract: Irrfan-Dialogues With the Wind

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 bajaiye 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.

***

Book Extract: Irrfan-Dialogues With the Wind

WHEN HE TALKS ABOUT DYING:

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 at 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.

[Excerpted from ‘Irrfan: Dialogues with the Wind’ by Anup Singh, award-winning director of Qissa: The Tale of a Lonely Ghost and The Song of Scorpions, with permission from the publisher Copper Coin]

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