Let’s face it. No matter how unattached we think we are from celebrity culture, we all collectively embrace it, or else we’d not indulge ourselves by experiencing different forms of art. So, when a highly-decorated versatile actor (dare I say the most internationally acclaimed and known actor of our time), and one of the most underrated but wildly-celebrated actors pass away within a day of each other, and the common thread between both men is film and cancer, you can’t help but pair them as two legends and one loss.
For me, Rishi Kapoor was my childhood. He stood in stark contrast to Amitabh Bachchan, who had succeeded with his “angry young man” persona. Kapoor was the quintessential romantic comedy hero before we even knew that genre existed. His innocence, his smile, his personality, was so effortless, that we found ourselves mesmerised by his charm, but not necessarily honouring him for his talent. That would change in the 1990s, with Shah Rukh Khan, who took the mantle away from Kapoor. With that, we also began to recognise the acting chops required to be such a personality. Karz is the film forever entrenched in my memory of Kapoor’s. It was one of the first VHS tapes my family had, and I think I could recite every scene, every song by heart. As of late, Kapoor reinvented himself, moving away from being typecast as just the father of the next generation of romantic heroes, but as a no-holds-barred character actor, finally getting the chance to shine, and also achieve critical recognition for his work in films such as Kapoor & Sons and Mulk.
Irrfan Khan, on the other hand, was no stranger to critical success. After an arduous transition from television to film, the actor struggled to find his niche. Not the conventional “hero”, he let his work do the talking, and, with time, audiences began to take notice. It didn’t hurt that because his films were critically lauded internationally, his roles began to diversify, and the more Hollywood films he became a part of, the more success he seemed to achieve at home in India. Unlike other actors who have tried (and mostly failed) to succeed in their international work, it seemed Khan was the choice of many to offer that understated and suave feeling, but with a guaranteed magical performance. For me, The Namesake and The Lunchbox were key revelations, as we saw the performer excel at not just emoting with his words or his eyes, but with his entire body structure. He had an incredible future ahead, but, like Kapoor, was cut short with his cancer diagnosis.
Both men have been lauded, deservedly so, for their stellar library of cinematic performances. They both also have felt like particularly close-to-home losses amidst a global pandemic, where our grief can’t be as collective an experience, so a loss feels more personal. While their loss is enormous for the film industry, and the world at large, I was left a bit concerned with their untimely deaths. We knew both had been ill for some time, but neither of them really opened up to the public about their journeys. Khan was definitely more vocal and disclosed his exact diagnosis, a neuroendocrine tumor, a rare form of cancer, at the start of his treatment process. Kapoor, on the other hand, seemed to just disappear, and it was only through social media reports did we learn that he has cancer. Only with the reports of his death did we learn that Kapoor had been fighting leukemia. Let me start off by saying, every patient, no matter what their diagnosis and their expected prognosis, has the right to publicly share as much or as little as they wish to. It is a very tough journey and having been there myself, it is unfair to judge anyone for not disclosing their medical history. Having said that, I’d be remiss to say that for the millions of cancer patients and survivors out there, to have two back-to-back high-profile deaths, it’s only reasonable to understand why people equate cancer with death.
Both men journeyed out of India for their treatments. While Khan was a bit more vocal about his process, Kapoor was simply focusing on his therapies, with his family by his side. We assumed that with time, they would get better, and that there was no reason to believe they’d not make it through, as they were going to the “best hospitals” in the world. Having been a patient at the best hospitals in the world, I can tell you that just going there does not guarantee long-term success. The reality is, there is still no cure for cancer. As the world now collectively holds its breath about COVID-19, there’s been a killer disease for as long as we can track, that, on an average, kills nearly 10 million people a year. So, for the average patient in India, unable to afford or be able to leave their home, their work, their families behind, to hear that these two big stars went abroad and still didn’t get better, it’s a very hard and bitter pill to swallow.
Cancer feels even more challenging when those most privileged can’t recover. Of course, no two cancers are alike. There are hundreds of cancers, each one affecting our bodies in different ways. Staging, age and other pre-existing conditions give doctors a better idea of life expectancy, but beyond the medicine, it is the patient’s journey and how they combat the disease inside their bodies, and the one that often affects their minds with said diagnosis. One of the purposes behind my book, Holy Cancer, was to empower individuals about life beyond the disease. I did radical treatments, both in the allopathic world as well as in the alternative sphere, but for me, the one constant was that the disease, without defining me, was absolutely evolving me and turning me into a new person. I often use the term “second life” because for me, it wasn’t when I got cured that my new life began. It started the day I accepted that I can’t control what the future holds, but I’m at peace no matter what happens.
There is a stigma we attach to cancer, particularly in India. It’s talked about, but in more of hush-hush conditions. Some opt to leave the country simply to garner some peace of mind. Those fighting the disease often must reassure others that they are okay, by proving that they are still capable of doing what they did before they got sick. Being one of the most populated countries in the world, it’s amazing that we don’t really have support groups and care for patients (and definitely nothing for survivors). I’ve been dumbfounded by the lack of transparency between doctors and patients, patients and their loved ones, and most notably, patients and themselves. This has prompted me to write a book examining these three relationships — the core to understand not just any disease, but our journeys in health. It’s a hard fact that for all the work I’ve done and continue to do, nothing will ever get me to the level of fame or notoriety as either Khan or Kapoor. To have witnessed these two men fight their battles mostly privately and then to see their very public deaths, it has upset me because while I can never blame someone for the choices they make, it’s a big loss for cancer patients, survivors, and the community. Both men had the chance to inspire beyond the celluloid. They had platforms where they could talk about their cancer journeys and how they’ve changed and what they’ve learned. Khan briefly got the chance to explore this prior to the release of his last film, Angrezi Medium, and now, those words are being immortalised. But they both had the chance to explain an already deeply stigmatised disease, and make people feel less scared.
Tom Hanks and his wife, Rita Wilson, were affected early on by COVID-19. They shared the news with the world, and we watched the superstar and his wife heal. He shared his journey with openness, a journey that, at one point, he didn’t know could get better or not. There is influence in celebrity. Especially in India, where every product is pushed by a star. It is a big business. But how many stars talk about their health? How many endorse any medications? Deepika Padukone has shed light on depression, but that’s one artiste. Things must change for perceptions, confidence, and courage to increase across the board, for Indians. I spend a good amount of time taking calls from patients and their loved ones, looking for a miracle cure. I tell them there is no cure, but there are pathways to take, and have faith. If it works, then great. But if it doesn’t work, you’re still going to be okay. The media loves to sensationalise stories, but we have avenues, whereby we can share our truths, and not just become a headline that helps to sell a story. We must combat the stigma in very real ways, making it more comfortable for patients to want to disclose what they are experiencing.
A couple of years ago, I wrote a script for a film. It was my first attempt at a Hindi film. I had been hounded for years to turn my memoir into a movie, but I was hesitant, because of the radical treatments I did. The focus would straight go on the “sensational” part, instead of the story. When I shopped the script around, I was particularly surprised by so many execs having an issue with the lead character, who had cancer, alive. The goal of the film, for me, was to make a film in India where the patient survives. The film, titled Life Abhi Baaki Hai, felt like an important contribution for me to start a conversation about the survival of a hero, and that thriving beyond a disease is nothing less than a superpower. I still remember one executive asking “but people die from cancer Amit. Where’s the humour in that?”. I told her very politely that that’s what is so sad. From Anand to Kal Ho Na Ho, to even the upcoming The Fault In Our Stars remake Dil Bechara, every character with cancer, dies. For a newly diagnosed patient, what’s the hope, when every film they’ve watched romanticises this (Don’t get me started on the cheap use of the disease in films like Ae Dil Hai Mushkil and Kalank). And now, in real life, we see two screen giants also fall prey to this disease, further cementing fear rather than faith.
I don’t want to discount the contribution other stars have made. Sonali Bendre opted to share her journey. Both Lisa Ray and Manisha Koirala have released their own memoirs, respectively speaking about their journeys. All three women survived the big C. That’s not to say that Kapoor or Khan had better chances, but there is something specific that I’ve noticed. These women radically changed their lives and their purpose, post their diagnosis. They spoke up and by changing their life’s narratives, they also healed. I’ve personally experienced this myself. I know I got better when I was able to express my journey, and help others on their respective ones too. After all, what’s the point of getting a disease and it not change you? It’s an interesting time in the world right now. For many, COVID-19 is the first time restrictions and a different way of life are being mandated. For cancer patients and survivors, while at higher risk because of their “immunocompromised” status, many are better equipped to both cope and manage this seemingly new world.
Rishi Kapoor and Irrfan Khan both passed during the pandemic, not from COVID-19, but from cancer. They leave behind a legacy that is priceless for any cinephile. But they also leave behind an opportunity for us all to reflect on the disease. We have a chance now to change the narrative of the disease. We have a chance to make it easier for individuals to want to share their journeys. We have a chance to make the world a less judgmental and scary place, where cancer isn’t the invisible enemy, but a part of a meaningful life, no matter what.