In a 2018 interview with comedian Abish Mathew, late actor Irrfan Khan (as he was then; he later dropped the surname) recounted a story from the early days of his career.
While working on the 1994 Doordarshan show Chandrakanta, the Slumdog Millionaire and Piku actor was asked if “he thought he was Dharmendra” — all because he dared to ask about the future of his role of Badrinath, who often had only four or five lines in an episode.
But even in those few lines, Irrfan managed to make his role so popular that not only did the character get more screen time, but it was even resurrected after being killed off.
It was celebrated television actor Shahbaz Khan who had persuaded Irrfan to consider a role in the popular show. “We were shooting for The Great Maratha (a 1994 DD show directed by Sanjay Khan) in Jaipur, in which Irrfan played Najib ad-Dawlah and I played Mahadji Scindia and we became friends,” he tells ThePrint. “I convinced Irrfan to join Chandrakanta, which was extremely popular back then so that he’d gain more recognition.”
Chandrakanta, the show
The show is a supernatural fantasy period drama based on an eponymous novel written by Devki Nandan Khatri in 1888, which is considered the first modern Hindi novel. Producer and writer Nirja Guleri adapted the story into its massively successful weekly television show avatar.
The show focuses on the story of Prince Virendra Singh of Naugarh (Shahbaz Khan) and Princess Chandrakanta of Vijaygarh (Shikha Swaroop). A courtier named Kroor Singh (Akhilendra Mishra) in Vijaygarh dreams of marrying Chandrakanta and claiming the throne. Upon failing once, he befriends Shivdutt (Pankaj Dheer), the emperor of the neighbouring kingdom of Chunagarh, and plans a coup. Kroor Singh and Shivdutt eventually capture Chandrakanta who is saved by Prince Virendra Singh.
A complex story with innumerable characters, it is full of mystique, sorcerers, spies and grandiose battles.
“The story of Chandrakanta is extremely gripping, it’s one of those books you just can’t put down,” Khan says, adding that while many renditions of the book have been created, (Chandrakanta Ki Kahani in 2011, Prem Ya Paheli – Chandrakanta in 2017) none have been able to recreate the magic of the book like Nirja Guleri was able to.
“Playing the role of Virendra added a new dimension to my life as an actor,” says Shahbaz Khan, who gained popularity as a heartthrob thanks to his role as the prince on a white horse. “I think I have ridden a horse on the entire stretch of Film City while shooting the show,” he jokes.
The title song of the show was particularly popular and had become a clarion call for many families in the early ’90s to pause everything for a while and gather around their television set to watch Chandrakanta. “All these years later, I still remember the song word for word,” says Tuhinanshu Chaturvedi, a radio jockey in Bengaluru, who proceeds to sing the song.
The Chandrakanta controversies
The popular show was embroiled in various controversies, most famously, the way it was abruptly pulled off air by Doordarshan in 1996 and replaced with Shri Krishna for reasons that “do not stand scrutiny“, and was reinstated only in 1999 after a Supreme Court ruling.
The show’s comeback was a massive success, and it booked record television ads per episode at 25 minutes and 15 seconds. Even before this, Chandrakanta held the record of booking the most number of ads per episode, at 27 minutes and 25 seconds. The show was later run again on Sony TV and Star Plus.
In the early 2000s, a ‘Chandrakanta festival’ at the fort of Chunar in UP was planned in a bid to boost tourism, but it drew sharp criticism especially from Kamlapati Khatri, grandson of the Devki Nandan Khatri, because he felt that Guleri didn’t do justice to his grandfather’s novel.
Irrfan as Badrinath & Somnath
After Irrfan’s death on 29 April, many took to Twitter demanding a re-run of the show, which was, for many, their first introduction to the actor with the intense eyes and boundless talent.
Irrfan played the role of Badrinath, the chief aiyar of Chunagarh. Aiyars were the king’s spies and warriors. Great at impersonations, they could also shape-shift into animals, birds, snakes and insects. He later played Badrinath’s evil twin Somnath who defected from the kingdom to join hands with the enemy.
The biggest difference between the twin brothers lay in their hair (Badrinath had black hair while Somnath returned dawning reddish shoulder length hair). With loud eye make-up, lipstick and a jazzy costume, Irrfan could be seen leading battles, strategising what lay ahead, flaunting sorcery, conjuring fires.
Even though the roles stand in complete contrast to some of the everyday relatable characters that he portrayed and is remembered for, Irrfan managed to weave magic as always.