Parsis: The Zoroastrians of India Pakistan and The World

Boman Irani: In Conversation

There is something very, very real about Boman Irani. It can be felt in the way he gets into the skin of the character — being innocent enough to endear like Oscar Fernandes in Honeymoon Travels Pvt Ltd. or vile enough to disgust as Farokh Sethna in Being Cyrus—and this is a feeling that stays even when you meet him in person — the man touted to be one Bollywood star sans the conventional looks, the I-am-to-die-for air or the star-child luck.

By Jethu Abraham / Khaleej Times

The 50-year-old character actor who was a virtual unknown before he played Nikhil in Let’s Talk shot to fame with his role as Dr Asthana in Munnabhai MBBS, becoming a rage almost overnight and hitting the right chord with the youth, as the all-too-familiar college dean with his strong diktats and weird habits. “Dr Asthana had the luxury of being a debut character. When you are doing a debut role, people tend to think that he is a new guy doing well, so let’s just give him 50 marks for that. If it was an old guy doing that sort of thing, they would probably dismiss him, saying that they have seen it all,” says the actor.

“Though Asthana is more of an antagonist, I don’t find him saying anything that is wrong. He says: ‘Do not operate on your best friend’ and he says so because when you do so, your hands might shiver. I came up with that line and director Raju Hirani said that it was a brilliant line but added almost immediately that we would have to take it off. I asked him why and he told me that if everyone believed in me, then nobody would believe the hero, Munnabhai,” he laughs, breaking into his famous comical side squint straight from the hit movie.

From being a comedian, doing bit roles in commercials (like the Krack Jack ad) to the feared Viru Sahasthra Budhhe in his latest release 3 Idiots, it doesn’t take long to figure out Irani’s role tastes or how he carves out his career graph.

With 3 Idiots, it almost looked like he took a break from his penchant for doing unique roles — because there appeared to be a similarity between Munnabhai MBBS’s Dr Asthana and 3 Idiots’ Viru Sahasthra. Irani (who foresaw the likelihood at the time the role of Sahasthra was conceived) is quick to deny any ‘behind-the-scenes’ similarity.

“I refused the role initially. I said I loved the script; it is outstanding and very Raju Hirani type. But I can’t do this role simply because I don’t want people to feel that this is a repeat and we are cashing in on the Asthana character which is so very popular — another principal and he is a dean.

Irani finally agreed to it after Raju promised him that Viru would be very different from Asthana — so much so that people would even forget Asthana. “Raju is my best friend and the reason why he is my best friend is because he is a dear man and one of the most honest people when it comes to his work.”

The conception of the role took place in a small cottage in the hills, away form the glare of the city, according to Irani, where the actor and the director slipped away to work on the role, bringing out traits of every single teacher they knew or met, references in their dressing, the way they spoke, mannerisms and so on till four days later, one fine morning , Irani started speaking like Viru Sahastra Budhhe, director of Imperial College of Engineering, complete with the lisp et al — a combination of Einstein and all the bitter, cussed and unhappy people they had ever met.

To Irani’s surprise, the role was a hit. “I did not think people would take to the ‘ViruS’ character as he is not a lovable, joyous character. This character was built on nuances and doesn’t have any big scene or confrontation, right till the end. I just got into it because I thought it would be a nice character to play. I didn’t think people would like it,” he says.

But then there was a problem. “Raju wondered as to how we would incorporate the lisp in an emotional scene where I would be crying and that’s when I decided that we wouldn’t play the lisp to induce laughter ?but that it would be second nature to the role,” remembers Irani.

Yet induce laughter it did, right from the ‘serious’ lines to a gag scene such as when he is on the couch doing his ‘seven and a half minutes therapy’, something he found to be “very tiring — lying in an awkward position with your neck in a weird angle and just waiting for the camera to pick up the scene.”

His role as Dr Asthana also has a vein of weirdness to it, with the nervous peals of laughter the doctor breaks into now and then. “I have always given Raju (director) lots of trouble. Six months into Asthana’s role, I told him that I couldn’t stand the laughter therapy and laughing away like a mad guy when the character was not actually insane,” says Irani.

He was persuaded to get on with the role and the trait — an unforgettable one.

Despite the homework and the hard work involved, the actor got rave reviews for his role during the first few days of its release catapulting ‘ViruS’ in 3 Idiots (a name given by the students) as a character that had a fan following of its own. “In the book, the principal’s name was Cherian but I got the name Sahastra Budhhe as I found the name to be more complicated, and he is, in fact, a very complicated character — somebody who completely took me out of my space.”

Yet another role the actor remembers very fondly is Khishen Khurana from Khosla ka Ghosla. “I was playing this character who lived outside his city and I have always had this problem with Hindi, as I can only think in English. It is important that, as actors, we think in the language we speak. So, here I was trying to manage a line in Hindi and the director throws Punjabi into my face,” says a very amused Irani.

In his quest to discover the character, Irani then went on to Delhi, where he met “all sorts of Khuranas” and found them “crude but charming”. He adopted the laughter with the wink as well, which became an iconic part of his character in the movie.

This style of laughter, Irani soon discovered, was actually a business ploy to distract the people involved and one he thoroughly enjoyed playing.

The discussion goes back to 3 Idiots as the talk veers to the actors in the movie. “Raju does this amazing job of getting the right people for the job. The character of Chatur Ramalingam (a nerdy student) was very crucial and he spent months trying to get the guy for the role. He finally met this Maharashtrian guy, Omi Vaidya, who was born and brought up in LA and who speaks exactly like he does in the movie — Mere ko kyaa huii!,” he laughs.

Ramalingam’s role was yet another character that stood out with its debut performance. Omi’s ‘speech scene’, according to Irani, took place before a live audience of IIM students and he became an “instant hero” among the students for his acting prowess. On the sets, the director warned anybody from teaching Omi the Hindi language or even speaking to him in Hindi as he feared that Ramalingam would lose his natural accent.

“I still get goose bumps when I think of his acting skills. He is not just a comedian; he is a great actor as well,” Irani adds.

The lovable Oscar Fernandes from Honeymoon Travels Pvt Ltd is yet another character that Irani holds close to his heart. “Oscar smokes on the sly, loves his woman but can’t handle his daughter. I told the director I wanted an awkward scene between father and daughter — and that’s when we had the scene where Oscar puts his hand into the grown-up daughter’s pockets to see if she’s doing drugs. That was really good ?and showed how innocent and regular a guy he was,” says Irani.

Again, this attention to detail has always been spoken of by critics as one of Irani’s laudable traits, an inherent part of his theatre experience and a phase of his career which brought about memorable performances like I am not Bajirao.

He maintains that one day he will move back to theatre. “I know I will. I believe it has a lot to do with my emotions — right from the time I feel emotional about something I want to jump into to the moment I talk about people like Shyam Benegal, I need my emotions to give me the right words and in theatre, I know that I will find the truth on the stage. Ultimately, that’s what matters.”

His tastes and hobbies, he says, are regular. “I love reading — used to read fiction before but now I have acquired an interest in reading autobiographies,” he says, adding that Akira Kurosawa’s has been his favourite so far; Anthony Hopkins’ autobiography, on the other hand, was “very disappointing and written by someone who thought he was great, even when he was not”.

We discuss Zoroastrianism next and his talk at the World Zoroastrian Congress, which took place in Dubai last month. “I talked about two simultaneous journeys that we as Parsis (what Zoroastrians are referred to in India) took — one where we travelled to Dubai and one that went back thousands of years ago, when our ancestors landed in a place called Sanjan in India. Our ancestors didn’t have a reputation — but we have that because of them; our ancestors didn’t have material comforts — but we do, not just the spoils but the luxury of time which brings about complacency. Our villain is the comfort zone.”

Irani’s thoughts are interrupted as a group excitedly calls out to him, and he waves back at them. He thinks for a minute and then proceeds: “We are at a time when we are making different cinema — maybe not great cinema but different cinema. I feel happy when people can walk in and watch A Wednesday and watch a pot-boiler as well. A pot-boiler is what your cabbie enjoys so when he walks in and sees A Wednesday, he will be able to appreciate that as well. Good traffic is a good sign.”

Moving on to a different track, he talks about how everyone asks him why he entered the world of cinema late. “But I think I came at the right time — not a day sooner, not a day late,” he smiles and gives one of his classic winks, punctuating his statement in style.