Boman Irani is an intelligent actor. He knows playing just a good or bad guy isn’t enough.
We have seen him as Khurana in Khosla Ka Ghosla, as Dr Asthana in Munnabhai MBBS, as Lucky Singh in Lage Raho Munnabhai, and most recently as Professor Sahasrabuddhe in 3 Idiots. And we have been enthralled, each and every time. It is time to ask whether Boman Irani is the most talented actor working in Hindi cinema today.
The man who started his career selling wafers at a small shop behind Grant Road Station in Mumbai, then moved on to do photography, and was the official photographer on Miss India pageants for five years, took up theatre at the suggestion of choreographer Shiamak Davar. Films was the next step. Irani is unique in the sense that among all the actors working in Hindi films today, he is both unclassifiable and also un-mimicable. More than acting, he creates a character and inhabits him, and never fails to surprise and delight you.
Who is the real Boman Irani? And how does he approach his craft, prepare for a role, and what challenges him? These are some of the questions that Irani tackles in his first ever truly in-depth interview. Excerpts:
QYou’re probably the first villain in the history of Hindi cinema whose presence makes audiences laugh…
A The attempt is not to be either a comedian or a villain. The attempt is to be the character that has to satisfy the telling and the interpretation of the script. So, if there is an odd situation where the audience gets a little nervous, the laughter emanates from that nervousness rather than from the comedy of it. I am perhaps an antagonist… villainy I am not certain. Maybe Khurana in Khosla Ka Ghosla, and maybe in Don, but the latter had nothing to do with comedy at all. Also, Khurana is just unscrupulous. He doesn’t think he’s doing any evil. It is his interpretation of doing good business… he doesn’t see anything wrong in what he’s doing.
Q Yet, the character invariably has negative shades which in stereotypical, formulaic films would be considered villainous.
A I think you may be referring to the character in 3 Idiots. I think Viru Sahasrabuddhe (or Virus) was more negative than villainous. He’s consumed by his own complexity, his own dark side, his own little back story and that has made him the man that he is—his ego, the pomposity, the history with which he walks and struts about. But again, he’s a dark character rather than a villainous one. You might feel that deep down he must really know what might have happened to his son, or if he doesn’t, then it must be always eating into him. But he brandishes that as an example. He always says that ‘you know my son—he fell off a train and I was there the next morning lecturing’… he thinks that’s a virtue.
QSpecifically about Raju Hirani’s cinema… the audience takes away two things from it—that honesty must prevail in the end and that your character always stands reformed. Right?
A The protagonist is always stronger. If the antagonist gets reformed, then the protagonist wins, right? So the lessons that the antagonist learns are the lessons that the audiences learn. Virus is not saying anything wrong. What’s wrong in saying that you must do well… what’s wrong in saying that you must get good marks… what’s wrong in being the No 1 college? But you see that makes the case stronger for our protagonist… Okay, so there is nothing wrong in what you’re saying but what’s wrong in what I am saying? And if you’ve played that, then there’s evolution…
QBut in the case of Lucky Singh (in Lage Raho Munnabhai) or Dr Asthana (in Munnabhai MBBS)…
A Dr Asthana was not saying anything wrong… he’s giving his own theories. Why does a doctor have to start defending every patient that he is treating? If you have a theory that works and the protagonist’s theory works better than your theory… then there’s reason for evolution, right? It’s not good versus bad.
QYou feel that? I think the audience takes home the good versus bad.
A No, Manjula. The audience does recognise the complexity, else these films wouldn’t work. I don’t think it’s good versus bad, it’s good versus better. These are just outdated ways of thinking… it’s not good conquers evil, it’s a little more complex than that, and the audience is recognising it. It’s like we like them both, but we like this one better… and that’s cause for social change.
QWhich character’s portrayal has given you the toughest time?
A Rana Jaywardhan in Eklavya was very tough for me because he’s a very complex character again, because we don’t know if he’s a bad guy. He doesn’t know if he’s a bad guy. And he swings between tenderness and aggression, steadfastness and confusion… sexually inconsistent, doesn’t know where he belongs. Even if he was gay once, he is a king now and therefore wouldn’t want to admit it. I enjoyed that character very much.
QHow do you prepare for your roles?
A That’s a very complex process. Sometimes one starts externally and then goes internal, or sometimes you start internally and then go external. But a lot of it comes from what the script is saying. So, if you’ve understood the script, well enough. Then you understand where the director is trying to take the story. Then we talk about lisps and walks and gait, body language, speech patterns and what have you. We cannot say it’ll be interesting to do him like this… interesting for what, for whom? Interesting to act or interesting for the story, because a character trait has to resonate with the story so that the story is told better. For example, Lucky Singh—why is he a Sardar? Because when you make an aggressive person, there has to be victory—so he is likely to be a bully. So his walk, gait and characterisation come from his intrepid nature and sense of business. Lucky always feels ‘I can never get stuck in a corner. I can swing anything. I can lie my way out of trouble’, till his daughter calls him a liar and a cheat. And he can’t pull himself out of trouble from that one, and that’s why he bowed down—because normally he’s managed to walk his way out of any situation. So his breakdown in the end has to reflect that when he curls up, almost shrinking back to the womb.
QAll these regional roles—one cannot say that one saw ‘Boman’. You remember only the character…
A I am actually quite touched. Affirmation is important, you know. Playing a hero can be very different from playing a character. As a character, an actor gets to play with the Everyman, and in many ways it’s a good place to be too, and an actor has to make sure that the Everyman is not mundane. You’ve got to make him interesting enough, because he’s not larger than life, he’s not heroic, so he has to get into a space of being regular—so the audience has to somewhere say, ‘I know this guy, I know Lucky, I know Khurana, Oscar Fernandes’. There’s a job involved there. One has to also understand that we have to entertain too.
QHow easy has it been for a Parsi to play all these characters?
A Not easy at all. It started with Khurana, when I stepped out to play a character in a city that was alien to me. That’s frightening enough. For me, it was like ‘Do these guys really exist? Do they really talk like this?’ So I went and met a slew of them. Some of them don’t know what I was there for in any case. So, Khurana was a big eye opener. Like Lucky Singh… I went to Grant Road to meet some of these people. I had a whale of a time. You just sit there, talk with them. I used to have, like, 30-40 cups of tea a day. And then I started manning their counter also, and it was fun. Everybody found it most amusing. Also, see he was not a Sardar from Delhi or Punjab, he was a Sardar who lives in Bombay. Like there is a line in Lage Raho where Lucky is speaking to the Municipal guy, and he says, “Woh property mala payeji, Gaitonde”… he says it in Marathi because he operates there and the moment you say that one line, you’ve naturalised him. But while we were shooting, we were scared, Ki, ‘Oh! God, I hope we’re not offending people.’ But I decided to do it to the best of my ability and with respect to the community. Like, I would be offended if a Parsi character is represented without any effort. I am not the Parsi characters I play. That’s not me. You’ve got to do research for that also—picking up nuances from family, from fathers of friends. The trick is to be a sponge without meaning to be a mercenary.
QMost satisfying role till date?
A I am happy with some of the roles I’ve played, but I always find some fault somewhere. Like I keep thinking when I see myself on screen, I shouldn’t have rolled my eyes so much, or… I am not taking the fun away, but I am not so fastidious also. Oscar Fernandes in Honeymoon Travels Pvt Ltd, he’s a simple guy who has his own issues to deal with. There was something very nice about him. He’s offended and helps resolve fights, and yet he doesn’t know how to handle his daughter’s smoking problems. He has his faults, but he’s cute too. Remember the scene when they’re out looking for dolphins and can’t see any? He says to the boatman, “What der, der (there, there) you ar doin! Bloody ek pomfret toh dikao!” (laughs) Sweet fella.
QVidhu Vinod Chopra said once that an actor reaches a point where he starts living the role, not just acting it. Have you ever felt that at any point?
A I am very careful. I start living the role only when the make-up starts. There’s no way I am going to be living it after the make-up comes off. You must know how to call it a day. You can’t walk about like that or talk like that in the middle of the night. But sometimes it happens. Like in (upcoming) Well Done Abba, I was living it, because we were shooting in Hyderabad in a straight stretch and talking to locals like that, and they responded to the way I was speaking in Dakhni, so I was talking to my driver like that. I kinda lived that character because maybe I lived on location with locals in the area and not in the studio.
Q Films weren’t your first choice of career… you’ve kind of drifted into it, moving from photography, then theatre, and now films.
A My family was into wafer manufacturing. I managed the family business of selling wafers from a small shop behind Grant Road Station in Bombay for close to 14 years. Photography was something I enjoyed but it was really reserved for Sundays. The first three years were really tough financially, but then things began improving. I did Miss India pageants for five years. Then once Shiamak (Davar) walked in for a portfolio and was very conscious about his nose. He was making such a fuss about it that I decided to calm him down with a small stand-up comic act. He suggested that I take up theatre, but I was reluctant because you just don’t up and leave to do something entirely new. But Shiamak pestered so much that I went and met Alyque Padamsee and got this three-minute cameo in Roshni. And when the curtains came down, people clapped. I realised it was actually fun.
QYou’re not a formally trained actor. Do you feel you’ve missed out on training?
A I asked Naseer (Naseeruddin Shah) that: whether I missed out on training, and he said “You’re silly. You’ve been sponging off people for over 15 years and that’s training enough.” I like to work my way out with my own technique, pick a little there, understand a little from how people work, and putting in my own two pennies’ worth. But you should know what the methods are. You may not have gone to school, but you should have read about it at least. I am inquisitive.
QWhat are the mistakes you want to avoid?
A The mistake would be to repeat myself. It’s a conscious effort not to do so. I like to surprise myself.
QYou’re one of the most talented working today, but you’ve not yet been seen in the role of a protagonist.
A I may have been cast many times and I may have also refused as many times, because I may not have found the subject to my liking. In fact, even before my first film came along, there were three-four films where I was offered the protagonist. Now, Shyam Benegal’s Well Done Abba is releasing on 26 March, and I play Abba, the title role, so.
QGiven that you’re an excellent singer, would you like to do a role which highlights this talent?
A If the role worked in its favour, yes. If there was a song that I was supposed to sing, I would rather sing that myself. I would love that. Because what happens with a song in an Indian film is that it’s a part of the storytelling, and the pain and joy cannot be better expressed than by the character himself. So I’d love to do it if the songs were part of the storytelling.
QHow come nobody’s thought of it yet?
A Give them time. Give me time, I am still a baby.