Boman Irani: Interview with the Actor

• My guest today is one of Mumbai’s Parsi Colony’s most famous residents, Boman Irani. And it’s really unfair to cast you as a Parsi, because you’re a Sikh one day, Delhi Punjabi the other, a Rajput king, a Catholic, all equally convincingly.

Sometimes, it’s most difficult to play the role most close to you. When you are around, you don’t notice most of things you should be noticing. Sometimes a foreign photographer comes to India and shoots it better than you. But the Parsi I played in Being Cyrus was thankfully not a lot like me. Not like that, I’m not a horrible guy . . . but he was a murderer.

• A philanderer, a wife-beater . . .

(Laughs) So you know. But I think it works very well when the character is not like you. You need that much more research to find out what you could be. Any human being is capable of being anything.

• But you have that special gift of slipping into the skin, into that ethnicity, that personality, but going beyond the stereotype.

Well, you know, the stereotype does bother me. I think after a while you stop worrying about just the ethnicity and the accent and the body language and breaking the stereotype. Maybe it’s the fact the character is of a particular profession. Once you have got all that worked out, you start concentrating on human nature. At the end of the day, you could be a Sardar builder and I could be a Sardar builder, and we could be completely two different human beings.

• It’s easy to change into a Sardar’s garb, but to get the subtleties right, such as, most Punjabis wouldn’t say “Is so and so there?”, they’ll say, “So and so is there?” You got that right.

If you do your homework right, you get a little more marks in an exam. Unfortunately, when you work on a character, there’s no syllabus, no three books you operate out of. The world is your oyster. So you are always going to be unprepared.

• How did you get that one right, that particular character?

I really don’t know. You observe, make mental notes, you make little notes on a television camera by turning it on people.

• How did you figure out how a Sikh businessman functions?

There’s this Sikh who runs a motor repair shop in Dadar, so I thought it was best to pitch a tent there and spend time with him. You have to have at least 30-40 cups of tea, because they don’t take ‘No’ for an answer, always telling you, ‘Chai piyogey.’

• There was one of your roles, in Everybody Says I’m Fine.

Oh, that was horrible.

• How do you get the link between the lingo, the diction, the accent right? A director can’t teach you that, you’ve got to pick it up.

The recordings, you listen to them over and over again and then you forget about them, because then, what you are doing is not concentrating on the character, and if you’re not doing that, nobody cares about your accent. Did you serve the story well playing this character? That’s the issue, not whether you served the story well with the right accent.

• Did you call it (the character you play in Lagey Raho Munnabhai) a hard-soft character?

It was a hard-soft character, more hard than soft.

• His business requires he looks like a dada, who does not fear anybody. In fact, everyone fears him. He pulled out a gun, but deep down, you know he’s a father, he runs a family.

Yes, and I think that Diya Mirza, when we first connected with each other, I asked her, ‘What were the things you did with your father?’ And she said, ‘I always give him a neck massage.’ I said, ‘That’s strange, because when I come home, I give my hand to one son and my leg to another and they give me a bit of a massage.’ She started massaging me the first time we met. . . it may have appeared for a fleeting moment in the film, but it serves the film because it creates wonderful proximity.

• And it establishes a bond . . .

I hope so. But when a man my age is touching a girl her age, it shouldn’t look odd. It should be fatherly. If there’s body language working between a young actress and an older actor, you have to establish it by breaking the ice. I do that will all the girls, the young heroines I work with. The first thing I do, the moment I get there, I give them a tight hug.

• Always a good idea.

Always a good idea. There’s no agenda.

• And this very tough man, the Sardar, then breaks down.

He breaks down, but all that’s Raju’s (director Rajkumar Hirani) genius. This guy works in another orbit completely, in designing a Sikh character who’s big and bold . . . but he snapped.

• He could be a Parsi character . . . in Bombay that would have worked.

It wouldn’t have worked because a Parsi dad would have been a softer dad. But a Sikh guy pulls out a gun while dealing with people, when he’s told by his daughter that he’s a cheat, it shatters him. It was very beautiful, because the big Sikh character became small, even physically. When he cried in bed, he became small, a little curled up.

• And that was by design?

Of course, but you don’t spell it out too much, or it looks calculated. So, this character curls up and goes into almost a foetal position and finds innocence again through his tears. He went back into the womb, so to speak. I don’t know if people catch that kind of metaphor.

• Well, they caught something. . .

It connects; your subconscious connects with it. We try to come up with as many ideas as we can.

• You specialize in roles with great contradictions, the Sardar property dealer Lucky Singh, the tough guy who cries like a baby, then the feudal patriarch in Eklavya who is so vain and so proud and so arrogant and yet so vulnerable and so miserable and so wallowing in self-pity.

I think that character’s arrogance and vanity emanated from the fact he was actually weak, it was a façade, he was hollow.

• Like his wig.

Like his wig, and that’s a great touch, because he was impotent, possibly gay, you know, possibly. Anybody could say anything they liked to him. His wife was stronger than him, his children didn’t love him, and the final straw, even this façade of a big mane, like a lion, was false. When he removed it, you can actually see the scattered hair, the barren head of is, and he tried to cover it up, which was the final insult of all.

• Which was more difficult to play, Lucky Singh or your role in Eklavya?

I think the role in Eklavya. I really don’t know. This one is more difficult because he’s complex. Lucky Singh . . . there’s lot of fun preparing for it because you are smiling while you are doing it. Even in the serious parts, you are smiling, because you know the joke is on Lucky Singh. Here, the joke is not on this guy . . . the whole tragedy is on this guy. He’s really like a Greek tragedy.

• You don’t want the audiences to start loving him.

(Shakes his head)

• You want them to feel sorry for him, yet they must hate him.

No, I think it’s nice for the audience to be equally confused. Why should the audience be allowed to be one-dimensional? They should think and discuss afterwards. He was wrong, in a way, but his actions are pretty acceptable to a point. I don’t think an audience should be given a clear-cut stance. We should not be taking sides as filmmakers.

• But that’s usually the norm in Hindi cinema . . . there’s a good guy, and there are bad guys. There are few complexities.

But I think today audiences like to make their own judgments. In case of Lucky Singh, some people would have thought he didn’t do the wrong thing. You know, I don’t like the idea of making the whole thing black and white. I like every character. We search for a funny man who can be serious, a serious man who can be funny. And that makes it far more acceptable, I feel.

• And the property dealer in Khosla Ka Ghosala?

He’s my favourite. He’s like a rattlesnake. He is gregarious, but you can never take chances with him. He will never allow his mother to win a game of carrom with him. He’s mean (and yet I found) there was something tragic about him.

• What I found fascinating was that he has total power over Anupam Kher and his family, and yet he’s envious of the fact that Kher’s two sons stand by him.

He tells Kher, ‘Aapka ladka acha hai, kam sey kam aap key saath baitha toh hai.’ For him it’s a big thing. His own son does not. The point is the son is probably ashamed to be around his old man. A tragic moment, when he’s so envious of the man he has so much power over.

• It’s easy for us Dilliwalas to identify with that character. But you are a Bombay Parsi, what did it take you to figure him out right?

When I first read the character, I said, ‘Are you sure you want me to do it?’ They said, ‘Yeah.’ I said, ‘I’m petrified.’ This was a long role, for me. They started off with audiocassettes of real estate agents. I picked up the laughter from real characters. I went to Delhi and met those characters, those who auditioned for the role, and then everything started falling into place. And I think the best way to understand a character is for other people to research the character for you and ask what’s their take on it. Because they will give the right answers. And I went and spoke to all the guys in Delhi who auditioned for the role from theatre. And you’ve got to be really pragmatic and very humble about it. You can’t say, ‘Oh, I know, I’ll crack this character.’

• So what excites Boman Irani?

I think it’s looking forward to . . . or coming up with another challenging role. I’m a lazy guy. I’m very lazy. Someone offers me a role I’m not excited. Then someone comes and plants one little challenge and that’s the trick to get me excited. I played Gandhi in Mahatma versus Gandhi.

• I believe you lost a lot of weight for it.

Yes, I went on to losing 22 kilos, but 18 kilos I lost really fast. It was really bad, but I liked the challenge. We all are . . . I think I’m driven by ego. I’ll make no secret of it. I’m driven by ego.

• There’s an interface between ego and creativity, isn’t it?

There has to be. There is no humility, in that sense, between ego and creativity. It is a larger-than-life business and let us accept it.

• And you, sort of, stumbled into the creative business?

I did, but I’d always like to believe that I was always a part of the business in some strange sort of a way. Even if I was not acting.

• Even when you were selling potato chips?

Even when I was selling potato chips. It’s important to be a good observer. When I used to sit and collect cash for packets of potato chips, people used to remove their wallets. You know you can (understand) a person by the way he removes his wallet, the way he puts his hand to remove money, with how much humility or suspicion he gives it to you, where his eyes are going. You study the eyes. When you are weighing, the guys who look at the needle are suspicious. Everyday they come, buy 100 gms of wafers, but they are looking at the needle. Did he get it right today? So it’s great character study.

• But you have this incredible ability to mimic, to get your accents right, to sound like somebody else.

Yes, yes. I shouldn’t let ego get into the way here. That’s a gift, and till I was 42, I never used that gift and it’s a crime.

• You’ve made up for a lot of lost time.

I hope so, and that’s why, sometimes, I get too excited, too driven.

• But for someone whose talent was discovered by cinema, by the creative business, only at the age of 42.

Maybe even later than that, 44 actually.

• So what are your favorite mimic acts or what are your favorite lines?

I’d like to believe (that I’m a great mimic), but honestly I’m not a great mimic. I don’t get the voice perfectly, the body perfectly, what I probably would like to attempt is to get the accents perfectly, and that’s far more exciting.

• You made an honest confession about having an ego, and the ego being the fountain of creativity, in front of an agyari. Maybe, we’ll leave the ego issue out at the agyari and carry on. You say you’re able to get into these different skins mainly because of training and observation, understanding.

No, I didn’t quite say that. What I said was we have to work towards getting into the skin of a character. I feel there are so many who do it so well and so fast.

• You’re not a natural.

No, no, I just plod on it.

• There are other naturals you see in your business?

Of course, of course! Johnny Lever, he gets anything, and he gets it like that (snaps his fingers). Johnny bhai is an amazing person, one of my favourites. He’s not only funny, he’s very, very endearing. That face and that persona are so endearing, so beautiful.

• Before that tell us a little about Boman Irani. What are you like at home?

I must be very difficult.

• You know, somebody who became an actor at 42 . . .

In that sense, nothing much has changed at home.

• At 42 most established actors are having facelifts and botox injections.

(Laughs) At home, I tell you, I must be difficult. I am not so sure, but nothing much has changed in that sense. I’m still ill-treated (laughs).

• Your dog loves you.

(Laughs) My dog loves me.

• So what are you difficult about?

Attention.

• We had Shah Rukh Khan tell all of us that you can’t bathe by yourself.

That Shah Rukh Khan, I tell you, is a very naughty boy. He found out from somewhere and he asked me on KBC, in front of God knows how many millions of people who were watching worldwide, “So, I believe you can’t bathe alone?” (Laughs)He’s a mean chap.

• But it can be the dog with you.

The dog has to be with me or somebody has to be with me. I like company. I don’t like solitude.

• Is this a phobia of some sort?

It may be, but I don’t like solitude.

• So are you afraid of being alone.

I am afraid of being alone.

• Say in a car?

Yeah, if I’m driving alone and if my friend is driving in the same direction, I say, ‘Why are you sitting in the other car? Come and sit with me.’ I don’t like being alone.

• And while he is sits with you and talks, you are studying him?

Yeah, like I was telling you.

• Well, you can be sure no one will leave you alone.

Nobody leaves me alone, but I like attention. I make no secret of it. I like attention, I want company.

• My favourite character is the second Munnabhai’s Lucky Singh.

It’s so nice you’re saying this. Everyone, I think, likes the first one (from Munnabhai MBBS). I like the second one.

• I like Eklavya, the Khosla character because you got it so right.

Khurana?

• Khurana.

I like Oscar Fernandes also.

• From Honeymoon Travels.

I like Oscar Fernandes also. But there was a moment in Lagey Raho Munnabhai, when I’m telling Sanju (Sanjay Dutt), ‘Go from here! Why don’t you go to Goa? It’s a fantastic place, jao tum Goa chaley jao, sab buddhon ko bhi lekey jao sath mein. Arrey! apni ash kehti hai ki acchhi jageh hai. Samunder di lehren, lehron pe hitckole khati motorboat, motorboat pe tu aur teri kudi, all alone. . .door sunset tak lekey ja aur usko bol de, “Marry me or leave the boat, it’s my boat! Pani mein thodi jump marne wali hai!”‘ (Laughs) It’s not as funny as much as getting the essence of the character, the thinking of the guy.

• And your favorite Khurana moment from Khosla ka Ghosala?

Khurana moment from Khosla is when he goes to see a plot of land and sees this girl, and forgets the name . . . Katori.

• And Honeymoon Travels? Oscar Fernandes?

The boat ride in the middle of the ocean, and the guy promising to show us dolphins but there are no dolphins. After a while, Oscar Fernandes lost it, and says, ‘Where there there, you are going on man! Arrey kam sey kam pomfret to dikhao!’ (Laughs)

• And a not very funny moment from Eklavya?

My spine chills the moment I see the scene where the wig comes off, and the strange thing is that I don’t see myself doing that, I see someone else doing that. I don’t see myself as that person.

• The scene at the funeral?

That’s a scene of great silences. What happens is that Eklavya is standing behind him (points to the right) , and Jackie, his brother, is standing this side (points to the left) because in the royal family, left side is closer to the heart, and the right side is the staff. And he just could not stand it that this man who knew everything about him was standing right behind him. So he talks to him and tells him to go and stand across, and through the funeral fire he can finally see the man, and his son who is actually that man’s son, and he is burning and the whole. . . I think it’s a beautiful moment, when he looks at him with a lot of grace, a lot of shame, and I think it’s the ultimate tragedy for a man to watch is wife, who he has killed, die, who he had loved. That is the fire, those are the flames, and behind the flames is his servant who has sired his son, who he thought was his son, there they are. And I think it’s really sad. It’s a very well-designed sequence by our director Vidhu Vinod Chopra.

• You know Boman, even as you say it, your face reflects the sadness . . . it’s almost as if you are pitying the character.

If you don’t feel for the character yourself, how do you expect others to feel for him?

• And that’s why you are successful, that’s why you get into the skin of any character, you know, you may blame ego, but it is not that. I think it is talent. It’s so good to meet an actor who is so talented and I’m sure the next time we meet there will not be not three such acts but five such acts or ten such acts for us to repeat.

Thank you so much.

• Wonderful to be with you Boman.

Thank you so much.

• A new day is just starting.

And the new year.

• Oh yes, the Irani new year as well.

Original article here