Being Boman Irani

From playing the eccentric Dr Asthana in Munnabhai MBBS to the boisterous Lucky Singh in Lago Raho Munnabhai, Boman Irani has played characters everyone can relate to. In a chat with CNN-IBN’s Anuradha SenGupta, the actor says he feels it’s important to pick roles that are not meant to be successful but become successful because of a certain belief in a project.

Anuradha SenGupta: My sense of who you are as an actor is that you are every man, that you tend to bring in people who we may ourselves be.

Boman Irani: You have met that guy somewhere.

Anuradha SenGupta: Where are these people in your head coming from?

Boman Irani: The manager, Ramesh the tailor, I used to chew his brains up, telling him, ‘I want my bellbottoms only this long.’ If you’ve seen Khosla Ka Ghosla, everybody said, ‘I know this guy.’ It’s very important to know these people because then you have a reference point to deal with. Then half the battle is won.

Anuradha SenGupta: You are one of the old Bombay Parsis, maybe the second or third generation Bombayiite now. There have been several distinguished notables from this community. Would I be right in saying that you are the most well-known/ popular mainstream Parsi?

Boman Irani: Yes, probably a janta well-known. In his time, Sohrab Modi was a great man. Not that I’m comparing. So illustrious, I’m probably not, popular, maybe. There is such a long list of great Parsis. They make up for a great proportion of the community. When you are talking about 70, 000 Parsis world-wide, in each field, we have a luminary.

Anuradha SenGupta: Frequently, you have news about the community, how it’s dying out, how the Parsi panchayat is encouraging families to have more children. Are you a traditional Parsi? Would you worry if your sons were to marry outside the community?

Boman Irani: Don’t ask me all these questions. I would definitely be very unhappy if I feel that the community is dwindling at an alarming rate. History will take care of itself but for the next few generations, let’s hang in there and hang on to something we are proud of, of a certain tradition, a set of values and principles. That’s why we have survived, not by numbers. We have survived because we think in a particular way and we are proud to be Parsis and this is what we have to do to keep going. Survival to me is not if our numbers go up or down by thousands, it’s about making enough noise. My grandmother used to say, and a lot of grandmothers have said this, ‘Be a cobbler, but be the best in the lane.’ As long as the youth of our community is out there, doing their best, to me that’s what’s important. I side-stepped what you wanted me to say.

Anuradha SenGupta: You are picking your roles carefully. You are working in an industry that celebrates success and it tends to repeat the assumed formula for success.

Boman Irani: I think it’s important to pick roles that are not meant to be successful but become successful because of a certain belief in a project. I will repeat myself someday, I know that.

Anuradha SenGupta: Are you scared of that?

Boman Irani: Yes.

Anuradha SenGupta: Does that keep you awake at night?

Boman Irani: No, but it keeps me alive. I never have sleepless nights over anything. Sleepless nights are for people who cheat people. There is this much that a mind and a body can do. This is my world.

Anuradha SenGupta: If you are a character-actor in our movies, how wide a spectrum can you get?

Boman Irani: I think if your eyes and ears are open and you say, ‘I am incapable of doing a sardar’s role because I don’t know many sardars’, then the spectrum is number seven and it’s over. But the moment you say, ‘let me go and figure out if I can play it’, the decision shouldn’t be sure, it should just mean that you are struggling to get it right. That’s the time I’m happiest.

Anuradha SenGupta: But like in Khosla Ka Ghosla and Lage Raho Munnabhai , while you had the role of the conventional leading man, the movie became about everybody else. Do you wish you could be the leading man in a movie?

Boman Irani: Yes but not the leading man in the traditional sense.

Anuradha SenGupta: Wouldn’t you like to do a little bit of romance, some drama, if you could?

Boman Irani: When you are talking about the leading man, I am talking about the lead role, where I play the protagonist. If you see the kind of roles that say Jack Nicholson or Al Pacino are doing, the roles are written so that they carry the film on their shoulders. I would love to do a biography because it’s so interesting to understand about the life and times of great people or losers who made it big. What you are saying, a leading man, romancing and dancing around, no, I would not like to play that.

Anuradha SenGupta: You are being loved as a formidable talent by the janta, recognised as a formidable talent by the critics, you are being seen on posters, which means the trade guys see you as somebody who sells, which is critical in this business. Is this as good as it gets for Boman Irani in this business?

Boman Irani: It is as good as it has got. You keep asking me, ‘Don’t I want to be a leading man, don’t I want to be an actor?’ Well, now that I am, I am relishing it. I feel that if you set out to do something, this is where you should be at least. My mother keeps saying that when we are on stage and we do the curtain call and hold each other’s hands, the audience gives you a standing ovation, it’s not about you, it’s about them.

Anuradha SenGupta: A lot of people, because you are Parsi, because you started out as a commercial photographer and because you had an English theatre career, really think that you are an outsider in the Hindi film industry. That is not true, isn’t it?

Boman Irani: Not at all. It works to my advantage actually, because they expect me not to know some references that they make. They ask me, ‘Have you seen this movie in 1960? Have you seen Aaya Sawan Jhoom Ke?’ I say, ‘Of course, Dharmendra.’ They ask, ‘How come you know?’ They pre-judge. It is a failing in most human beings. We just assume sometimes through prejudice and ignorance and from the way you look.

Anuradha SenGupta: But it’s worked to your advantage since you have surprised people by showing them how filmy you are.

Boman Irani: I am very filmy.

Anuradha SenGupta: So it’s in Alexandra cinema that it all began. When did it become your haunt?

Boman Irani: Ever since I was a kid. Ever since I was allowed to cross a road by myself.

Anuradha SenGupta: Your mother actually was very encouraging about your movie-going habit, isn’t it?

Boman Irani: We had a 7:45 pm show, which is not an evening or a night show. So you could finish you homework and catch that show. If it was a movie we had seen already, then my mother would say, ‘What are you doing?’ I would say, ‘Nothing, I’m done with homework.’ Then she would day, ‘What are you wasting your time for, go watch a movie. What’s running at Alexandra?’ I would say ‘Ten Commandments or Ben Hur or King of Kings. Then she would say, ‘Go watch it again, you might see something.’

Anuradha SenGupta: So you have seen almost everything that the Bollywood and Hollywood has churned out.

Boman Irani: Everything.

Anuradha SenGupta: Everything? That is quite a statement to make. The well-known ones like Mela, Kati Patang you must have seen. But what about the lesser-known onces, like Raja aur Rank ?

Boman Irani: Of course, Raja aur Rank, the Prince and the Pauper.

Anuradha SenGupta: Did you want to be like anybody at that time? Who are the heroes who really excited you?

Boman Irani: Dharm paji (Dharmedra), Mr Bachchan (Amitabh Bachchan), also Shashi Kapoor was very loved in our family. People felt he had a wonderful personality.

Anuradha SenGupta: He was dashing. What about the women?

Boman Irani: I was very fond of Neetu Singh. That’s why even though I liked Rishi Kapoor a lot, I was not very fond of him. Then there was Rekha, of course.

Anuradha SenGupta: I know you could sing well even as a kid. You were a bit of a performer. Did it never cross your mind that you could grow up to be an actor/ movie star?

Boman Irani: I was always a huge fan. When you are too busy being a fan, you don’t think about these things. My job was to admire what you are doing. I was too busy absorbing what actors and movies were doing for me. To say that I want to step out of the fantasy world, it would have ruined everything.

Anuradha SenGupta: That is a philosophy, but did it never occur to you that you could be an actor or was it that Hindi, the language that your movies spoke, was something that never made it even a practical dream?

Boman Irani: Maybe, it was not practical because the language does come in the way.

Anuradha SenGupta: So today, when you are a movie star…

Boman Irani: I don’t think I am.

Anuradha SenGupta: Please, don’t be modest.

Boman Irani: I’m not being modest. Ask my family, they will tell you what a gasbag I can be. The ‘star’ attacks frighten the hell out of me.

Anuradha SenGupta: All right. Now that you are an actor in the movies, since I can’t call you a movie star, do you think it’s good fortune, fate, serendipity, how do you explain where you are today given where you started life from?

Boman Irani: A little bit of all. I was always meant to belong

Anuradha SenGupta: If you were to pick a theme song for yourself, what would it be?

Boman Irani: Singing in the rain. Also because there is a magic about the song. It may not mean anything to one person, and may mean everything to someone else. Especially when you hear the wonderful stories about Gene Kelly singing that song in the rain with 104 degree temperature. He was hot with fever and sick as hell but it lifted his spirits to do that scene in one night on the set in the rain. It means a lot to me.

Though popular in movies and commercials, most agree that theatre was where Boman really made his mark. People who have seen him on stage agree that I’m not Baji Rao, adapted and directed by Rahul Da Cunha, remains his best work yet. His mother, Jeroo Irani, a seminal influence in his life, definitely agrees.

Anuradha SenGupta: All the work you have seen Boman do so far, what has been your favourite?

Jeroo Irani: Baji Rao. I must have seen it 45 times. I must have been the only person to see the first, the 100th and the last show. Then him as Dr Asthana in Munnabhai and of course as Lucky Singh.

Anuradha SenGupta: Is there anything that you wish for him more than what he has got?

Jeroo Irani: I first wish him good health because he is not very careful with his health.

Anuradha SenGupta: What about more success in movies?

Jeroo Irani: Of course. But I’m sure with the way he works and the nice person that he is, every director and producer must be liking him.

Boman reminiscences how en route to his career in films, he has been a professional photographer, an ad filmmaker and a business man. For 12 years he managed his family business, a potato wafer shop, he says, today, was actually more than duty. It was time preparing for the role of a lifetime.

Boman Irani: I have a fascination for watching people argue. I get a mean pleasure out of it. Everybody argues in their own style. Sometimes people argue about nothing at all. Or when two guys are holding each other’s shirts and don’t know whether they should punch. It’s like when people would come and screech their cars or motorcycles in front of my shop. There could be a babaji, who looks around checking if his motorcycle is parked properly, or there could be this hero, who is just looking around to see, ‘Did they get my shot?’ Literally, it’s like that. You watch people come to buy 100 gram of wafers, each one comes with a different body language, agenda and attitude.

Anuradha SenGupta: Would you have enjoyed going to acting school? Maybe just to be able to academically talk about it?

Boman Irani: Yes, sometimes I think it would have been a good idea. I have spoken to Naseeruddin Shah about it and he said, ‘You are a fool. All those years you were sitting at the shop was training as an actor and you didn’t even know about it.’ So I guess, all’s well that ends well.

Anuradha SenGupta: One thing that you keep stressing on is that you need to have a good time in whatever you are doing. I can have a bad time, but the outcome may be superb.

Boman Irani: I cannot do that. I cannot have a bad time. I don’t care about the output. If I am making a movie and I have a miserable time making it but it turns out to be the biggest grosser of the year, I couldn’t care less. The journey is more important than the destination. A movie will come and go, but what about my time?