Before Irrfan became the beloved of cinema, shredding the boundaries between arthouse, commercial, Indian, and international, he was the darling of television.
Irrfan is no longer with us. But good art always outlives the good artist. While many will go back to his iconic performances, in The Namesake, Life of Pi, Haider, The Lunchbox, and more, I think it might be helpful to look at his time in television through the 80s and 90s, fresh out of the National School of Drama, playing a lover, a revolutionary poet, mythical characters, and whatnot. It’s a window into the evolving craft of an icon. With increased digitization, a lot of these shows are now accessible- either through streaming platforms, or kind YouTubers putting out all the episodes wholesale.
Here is a list of shows. It’s not exhaustive. A lot of his shows don’t seem to have digital footprints, barring the lone IMDB reference. But until the archives catch up, here’s what we have.
1. Shrikant (Doordarshan) 1985-86
An adaptation of Sharat Chandra Chattopadhyay’s novel Srikanta, the TV series telecast on Doordarshan, starring Farooque Sheikh, Mrinal Kulkarni, Sujata Mehta and Irrfan. He had a relatively small role as a cheating husband in then Burma, but who can forget his striking screen presence? Due to Irrfan’s increasing popularity in 2013 (this was his The Lunchbox, and Paan Singh Tomar phase), Praveen Nischole, who co-produced the show, decided to re-telecast the second part of the series. (It had 4 parts)
2. Bharat Ek Khoj, 1988
The 53 episode retelling of India’s history as Jawaharlal Nehru penned it in The Discovery of India, with Shyam Benegal at the helm, is another Doordarshan property of awe.
Irrfan plays various roles, as Badayuni in the Akbar episode, as Michael Madhusudan Dutt in the Indigo Revolt repisode, as Al Beruni in the first part of the Delhi Sultanate episode and as Malayakety in the Chanakya episode (He also played a small role in the 1990 Doordarshan classic Chanakya that is now being re-telecast). He also shows up in the epilogue and as Saleem in the episode on Separatism.
3. Kahkashan, 1991
One of the finest shows to come out of Doordarshan, Kahkashaan is a collection of biographical sketches of Urdu poets and their impact on the rapidly changing Indian cultural fabric.
Irrfan played the role of famous revolutionary Urdu poet and Marxist political activist of India Makhdoom Mohiuddin. He would continue to play characters from the Leftist pantheon. In a teleplay on Doordarshan named Laal Ghaas Par Neele Ghode, he even played Lenin.
4. Jazeere, 1991
Based on a play, Little Eyolf, written by Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen, this Govind Nihlani production also saw him share screen-space with Ratna Pathak Shah. Here, he plays Alfred, father to a boy with special needs.
5. Chandrakanta, 1994
On Abish Mathew’s show, Son Of Abish, Irrfan spoke about an amusing episode at the set of Chandrakanta. It was a small role, and he wondered if the role would evolve into something bigger. When he asked the director on set, he was publicly humiliated, “Tu Dharmendar hai kya?” Spats with the director made him walk out, in cusses, and his character was killed. But the role became popular and he was asked to play the twin character as well. You can watch it on YouTube.
6. The Great Maratha, 1994
This 47 episode Doordharshan historical drama has Irrfan playing Najib ad- Dawlah, a nemesis of the Maratha empire. The director Sanjay Khan reminisces the first shot Irrfan ever gave for this show. It was okayed in one-take, betraying his sincerity and love for the craft.
7. Banegi Apni Baat, 1994
A story of young people doing young things in a recently young economy, this drama aired for 4 years through 1997, clocking in 312 episodes. It is one of the most endearing popular shows on Zee TV.
His wife was a writer on this show. She has often spoken about how he would make her rewrite episodes and scenes.
8. Jai Hanuman (178 episodes), 1998
Irrfan played the role of Valmiki, a bandit who turned into the well known monk and poet who penned The Ramayana. It’s available on Disney+Hotstar.
9. Star Bestsellers (Star Plus), 1999
Star Bestsellers is an anthology. This series is famous for producing some of the most important film directors in Indian cinema today, including Anurag Kashyap, Tigmanshu Dhulia, Imtiaz Ali, Sriram Raghavan and Hansal Mehta.
Irrfan was in three of them. Ek Sham Ki Mulakat, Govind Aur Ganesh, and Fursat Mein. Ek Shaam Ki Mulakat was extremely popular, a tricky episode about adultery. These are also available on Disney+Hotstar.
He was also part of another anthology Saturday Suspense (Episode 25 and 26) that was running on Zee, introducing directors like Anurag Basu, Ashutosh Gowarikar, and Vikram Bhatt.
10. Ssshhh… Koi Hai, 2001
Horror isn’t a genre Irrfan is best known for. Of course there was Darr in 1995 where he played a psycho killer. For the audience my age, there was also Ssshhh…Koi Hai, the beloved weekly horror anthology. Irrfan acted in one of the episodes. You can catch it on Disney+Hotstar! Season 1. Episode 9.