When actor Ishteyak Arif Khan was 18, he took part in a 45-day workshop, conducted by the late thespian BV Karanth, in Madhya Pradesh’s Sagar district. By then, Khan, who hails from Panna, had flunked Class VIII three times. He had lost interest in studies but had found a new love — theatre — after joining the local wing of Indian People’s Theatre Association (IPTA). Karanth saw a spark in the teenager, who apart from being trained in classical music was good at folk songs and dance, and asked him to try for National School of Drama (NSD).
That brought about a change in Khan. To be eligible for NSD, he needed to be a graduate. That year, he cleared the Class VIII examinations with a second division. “I had thought I was never going to get a job. So why waste time studying? However, BV Karanth showed me the way,” Khan recalls. Eventually, he joined the NSD in 2001, which exposed him to the dramatic traditions of India as well as that of other parts of the world. Ever since, theatre has been a constant in his life.
With his comic flair and natural acting, the actor, who moved to Mumbai in 2006, has made his mark in television shows and movies, including Agyaat (2009), Jolly LLB (2013), Tamasha (2015) and, most recently, Anaarkali of Aarah. Still, the 41-year-old is actively involved with theatre and regularly works on theatrical productions with his NSD alumni. A recent round of rehearsals has culminated in the production Shreeman Chor, an adaptation of Italian playwright Dario Fo’s The Virtuous Burglar, directed by Khan. It will be staged at Mumbai’s Prithvi Theatre today.
“I’m excited and nervous, as this is the first time my play is being presented at Prithvi Theatre,” says Khan, who has also participated in the TV show Comedy Ka Maha Muqabala.
Though he is getting recognition as a talented supporting actor, the process of finding work and recognition has been a lengthy one. “After graduating from the NSD, I returned to Panna. There, I worked on some plays with the Anweshan theatre group. After I married a Hindu girl, the situation became unpleasant as I am Muslim,” says Khan, adding that his wife helped him with his studies. Shifting to Mumbai seemed like an obvious option and help came from actor-turned-producer Nikhil Dwivedi. “After I landed in Mumbai, Dwivedi helped me find accommodation and assignments, including my first film Agyaat,” recalls Khan.
Even though he counts the role of a spotboy in Agyaat as one of his best, very few watched the film. It was his next, Phas Gaye Re Obama (2010), that caught public attention. “I had only one scene as an English teacher of a coaching centre in a small town. That was a funny scene and became a popular Whatsapp forward,” says the actor. Soon, director Imtiaz Ali cast him in Tamasha as the auto-rickshaw driver who dreams of becoming an orchestra singer.
After Anaarkali of Aarah, he hopes that movies such as Aap Ke Kamre Mein Koi Rahta Hai and Rambhajan Zindabad would help him further to make his mark in the industry. As the actor aims to dabble with theatre alongside, he hopes that eventually the typecasting of diminutive actors as comic characters would end in Hindi movies.