In the corridor that students of the National School of Drama (NSD) take to reach the main auditorium, Abhimanch, a row of photographs used to hang, until a year or so ago, of past graduates. Whether these were meant to celebrate achievements of pass-outs or goad the current crop towards future excellence was never clear but the displays did offer a glimpse of a number of stalwart performers in their early days. In this gallery of greats, is a rare black-and-white shot of Irrfan Khan on stage. The actor, who passed away on Wednesday, had cut his teeth in acting in the halls of this famous Delhi institute.
A lanky boy with a head of curly hair, Irrfan was one of the quietest students in the class of 1987. His classmates, such as Bharti Sharma, founder of Kshitij Theater Society in Delhi, used to wonder, “Pata nahin yeh itna chup kyun rahta hai?’ “He never missed any class but he also did not participate in discussions. It was only when he performed that we understood that Irrfan was a person who believed in listening rather than speaking. He had absorbed everything we were taught and was implementing it in his performance,” she adds.
Irrfan was in his second year when theatre veteran Prasanna directed him in The Ascent of Fujiyama and, then again, in the tele play Laal Ghaas Par Neele Ghode as the Russian revolutionary leader Vladimir Lenin. “Prasanna is my guru, who taught me what acting should be like,” the actor has said in an interview.
They were a potpourri of students in their early twenties who had come to NSD from different backgrounds and with individual temperaments. It was the era before television had become common and the group was dedicated to theatre. Dinesh Khanna, who was a year senior to Irrfan and his close friend, says the actor, who was shy in person, was always trying to push the envelop on stage. “He was never satisfied with his acting and constantly trying to improve,” says Khanna. Sincere and committed are how his former classmates describe him. His best friend was a studious girl from his batch, Sutapa Sikdar, who would become his wife.
Occasionally, Irrfan could also be an imp. “He had this shy mischief about him and used to relentlessly pull my leg and, since I had long hair, give my plaits a tug or two. There was a seriousness about him that’s well known but he also had a sense of mischief which we see in his roles,” says actor Mita Vashisht. Fighting back tears, she adds, “We were classmates for three years, living together 24×7, travelling on an educational trip to Manipur, eating, brushing our teeth and fighting with each other, and it was almost like a blood relationship. A part of us has died.”