The deaths of Irrfan Khan and Rishi Kapoor remind us of our own mortality

A big loss.
A big loss.
Image: Manish Swarup/AP and Manav Manglani/REUTERS
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The first time I thought about Irrfan Khan’s mortality was when his character, Ashoke Ganguli, died fairly early of a heart attack in The Namesake. Ganguli, a soft-spoken immigrant in America, expressed more with his eyes than he did with words—a trait he shared with the man who played the part.

I recall wondering about Rishi Kapoor’s mortality when I watched Kapoor & Sons. The veteran actor played the role of a grandfather in the 2016 Bollywood film, and was made to look much older than his actual years. With tufts of white hair growing from the back of his head and with the skin around his eyes and cheeks visibly sagging, he appeared that much closer to death.

Khan and Kapoor had both been battling cancer for years. They had also talked openly about their diagnoses. But when the two actors died this week—a day apart from each other—I was shaken. The loss of Khan, especially, hit hard.

I’ve never met the actor. From a distance I’ve admired his talent, simplicity, and ability to make his presence felt even when surrounded by a sea of characters. I haven’t followed his career that closely, but have consistently been moved by every soulful performance. When my screen lit up with the news of his passing, I was gutted.

Over the next few hours, my social media feeds were flooded with posts echoing the feeling I was finding hard to shake—that this particular loss felt deeply personal.

“When we resonate with a certain celebrity, we project parts of ourselves on them—the characters they’ve played and also the lives they’ve lived publicly. So when they die, it’s a loss of parts of ourselves,” explains noted psychologist Monisha Srichand.

“There are aspirations we’ve projected on them, on their lifestyles, personality traits or values. So when they die, we also grieve those parts of ourselves that we see go.”

Less than 24 hours after the news of Khan’s death, my timeline was once again filled with condolences for yet another veteran Bollywood actor—Rishi Kapoor had passed away hours after being admitted to a Mumbai hospital.

“A part of my boyhood is lost,” one colleague shared. “I’m humming the song “Jeena Yahan, Marna Yahan” and keep picturing him,” said another, but added: “I don’t think I’m processing these deaths, though. My emotions are already so exhausted with trying to come to terms with this pandemic.”

Collective grief

It’s been a tragic week for Bollywood, and these particular tragedies have come at a moment when we are collectively grieving other kinds of loss—our daily routines, our normality, and any kind of certainty about the future—and also at a time when we’re surrounded by the news of death.

We’re seeing statistics of Covid-19 fatalities in different parts of the world, reading essays on losing loved ones to this disease, and looking at pictures of funerals.

The Covid-19 death rate in India is much lower than many other countries, and Kapoor and Khan did not die from this virus. But their deaths have brought to the surface an idea that we so often try to deny: that we’re mere mortals.

“Due to the Covid-19 pandemic, many of us are already dealing with anxieties around our own mortality and of the people that we know, which is making the loss of these celebrated personalities a lot more difficult to process,” says Mahesh Natarajan, a Bengaluru-based psychologist.

For a lot of people, according to Natarajan, these events have “shaken them out of the little reverie of the lockdown where they could get lost in not knowing which day is what, and are just going around in their everyday life.”

“This has forced many to face some of their anxieties, so people have been talking about being shaken up, about a sense of unease, as if death is literally at their own doorstep or that anything can happen anytime,” he adds.

An absurd reality

For many in India—and around the world—who looked up to Khan and Kapoor, there is little opportunity to grieve in the normal way. They’ve been robbed of the “public closure that most of the time we are able to have, but because of the lockdown, we can’t,” says Srichand. “In situations like these, people can have a heightened sense of fear, panic, and isolation.”

“You’re sitting isolated in your house, you can’t go out, you’re reading about news of death all around you and celebrities are dying, so you begin to question reality.”

Coronavirus restrictions have robbed many people of the chance to attend the funeral of their loved one and say their goodbyes.

“Since you haven’t experienced that closure, you haven’t seen that person go, literally, it complicates the grief cycle within you,” explains Srichand. The five stages of grief—denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance—don’t necessarily happen in that order, she says. “You can move from denial to depression, and again back from depression to denial. This order isn’t consequential. You can experience different stages at different times.”

For some, not being able to experience closure can “increase the denial stage,” says Srichand. “It takes a lot of time for a person to move from denial to acceptance.”

It’s not all bad

Although there are many difficult feelings that people are contending with, there could be some positive impact on our collective mental health as well, Srichand says, with a growing acceptance of a crucial fact of life—death.

“We realize that nobody can escape death and uncertainty,” she says. And even the people you looked up to go through the very things you go through.

Allow yourself to feel grief, she stresses. “Give yourself permission to feel whatever you’re feeling. Don’t suppress the sadness and pain. The more you allow yourself to feel, cry, and vent, even feel angry—it’s OK to feel angry—only then can you move on.”