Parsis: The Zoroastrians of India Pakistan and The World

Well Done Boman Irani

image In limited edition crème de la crème parties, corporate cats and their Chanel No 5-perfumed wives fawn over him.

A German woman wants to jet across to Mumbai to meet him. Heads turn as the six feet, two inches tall actor arrives in jeans, an onion-coloured corduroy jacket and canvas shoes (“Just back from a television interview, yaar!”) at Mumbai’s ITC Grand Central hotel. Even the bored doorman snaps to life, saluting him with a spark in his eyes.

By Avijit Ghosh , TOI Crest

Almost anonymous till 37,Boman Irani is now premium Bollywood property at 50.Which is why interviewing him on the five-star hotel’s rooftop clubhouse makes perfect sense.For,literally as well as metaphorically,the boy who grew up in Nagpada,the backyard of Mumbai’s underworld,is now on top of the world.The magnitude of his popularity has surprised many.What exactly makes the Parsi actor the unlikely object of adoration of the chatterati and the twitterati alike? What connects him instantaneously to the iPod generation? After all,his looks,or the lack of it,ensure that his wife wouldn’t be too nervous even if he was dining out with a sex kitten.And his body isn’t what young men would aspire to acquire.But Bollywood trade expert Komal Nahta seems to have his finger on the people’s pulse."Give him any character,he makes it easily identifiable to the audience," he says.Indeed for millions across India,the maverick Dr J Asthana in Munnabhai MBBS,the real estate swindler Kishen Khurana in Khosla Ka Ghosla,the egoistic Viru Shahastrabudhhe or Virus in 3 Idiots are not just characters played by him but real people walking about in our neighbourhoods.They are part of our popular consciousness and new millennium urban folklore.

"He is extremely versatile.I am convinced he can carry a film on his shoulders," says Shyam Benegal.The director’s Well Done Abba,with Boman in the lead (and a double role at that),was released this Friday.

In the movie,the actor works hard to make Armaan Ali,a 48-year-old driver who speaks Dakhni,Hyderabadi style,come alive.Listening to old recorded dialogues,working with a language coach and getting Moin chacha,the driver who dropped him from the airport to the hotel in Hyderabad,to be present on the sets,was part of his preparation.Boman is like a blotting paper soaking in everything he sees."I observe people all the time tucking away their mannerisms into a corner of my mind," he says.

The actor’s early careers include working as a waiter at Hotel Taj and sitting behind the counter of his family’s popular wafer shop on Grant Road.For a couple of years in the late 1980s,photography was his calling.

Then in the 1990s,Boman,who grew up watching Dara Singh movies as well as English – he saw Funny Girl 23 times – and Konkani flicks in the neighbourhood’s Alexandra cinema,strayed into acting.It was choreographer Shiamak Davar who first told him,"You should be on stage." He was pushed into an audition for Alyque Padamsee’s Roshni."He (Alyque) was not impressed initially,but I got the small part of a pimp," Boman recalls.

In 1996,Boman got his big break with Rahul Da Cunha’s I’m Not Bajirao,an adaptation of Herb Gardner’s experimental play,I’m Not Rappaport,where two old men converse on a park bench."At the age of 37,I was required to play a 75-year-old Parsi," he says.His habit of observing the elderly Parsi gentlemen who came to his wafer shop came in handy.The play became a blockbuster,running for years.

But even those who praised his Bajirao performance felt the burly Parsi was becoming too big for his boots when he accepted the role of Gandhi in Feroz Khan’s play,Mahatma vs Gandhi.Eager to disprove the sceptics,Boman shed 22 kilos."A Durban newspaper called me a stork.Mahatma vs Gandhi ran to packed houses in South Africa.Playhouse,the theatre on White Street,where the play was performed had been on the verge of shutting down.But the play’s success revived the theatre.It was a very proud moment for us," he recalls.

Bollywood was the next logical step.But,despite acting in two English features – Rahul Bose’s Everybody Says I’m Fine (2001) and Ram Madhvani’s Let’s Talk (2002),Boman wasn’t too keen."I always felt my poor Hindi diction and my Parsi background would come in the way.I felt I wouldn’t be fluent enough to spread my wings," he says.

That’s why when producer Vidhu Vinod Chopra offered him a film role,he was unsure."But he kept asking me.Then he sent me to meet director Raju Hirani.It was the monsoon of 2002 and it turned out to be one of the most charming afternoons of my life," Boman recalls.

In a recent interview to Money Life magazine,Hirani spoke of the same meeting."Boman heard the script and,being a very emotional guy,he was laughing,crying… he sobs at the drop of a hat.He liked it and agreed to do it,but he said,’My biggdadasdasdasest problem is that I don’t know Hindi’.So we said,we will modify it – we will make it Hinglish and make him a little Western.Then he got involved."

But Boman wasn’t convinced about Dr Asthana – a role that Amrish Puri and Paresh Rawal had been considered for – laughing when he gets angry."I didn’t want to feel silly like the villain who laughs when he gets shot,as in Jeetendra’s Waaris (1969)," he says.To make the gesture credible,the actor laughed with an expression of pain.But the idea clicked with the audience in the same way Khurana’s wink and Virus’ lisp gelled with moviegoers.

Boman talks of his characters as groupies talk of rock stars they have slept with: familiar detachment.He understands their mind and motivation.To him,Virus is much more than his lisp.Says the actor,"He is dark but tragic,a dukhi atma with a giant ego,someone with a brilliant mind who has ended up being an administrator." To prepare for the part,Boman stayed with Hirani in a cottage near Khadakvasla.They met dozens of teachers closely studying their mannerisms.For the marriage scene,he bought the dress material from Babubhai Jagjeevandas and got it specially tailored."By the time,the shooting was getting over,I could actually see Virus standing next to me," he laughs.

Kishen Khurana,the wily land shark in Khosla ka Ghosla,troubled him."When I got the role,many wondered Yeh bawaji ko kyun liya hai Punjabi character ke liye? I was unsure too,because doing Khurana meant stepping out of my city and playing a character I had no idea of.So I went to Delhi,met the Khurana types,filmed them and observed their style.I got the wink and laughter into the role,which was Khurana’s way of being charming when he actually wants to slit your throat," he reflects.Director Dibakar Banerjee affirms,"He prepared for the role on his own.Hats off to him for pulling it off."

The incredible response to these characters,especially from kids,has surprised him.Boman reasons,"The other day I heard a friend’s son say while gaming,’Big reason to worry’,as Virus does in the film.I guess there’s a Virus in all of us." He ponders for a moment then adds,"I guess the young like me because I respond to them in a light-hearted way."

But success has brought its own share of mini downsides."Since my youth I have been going with friends to the foodie paradise Khau Gali on Mohd Ali Road.But the last time there was such a hungama that I was forced to eat in the kitchen.Which means I have to stop going there.My friends were really upset that we wouldn’t be able to visit the place together in future,something we had been doing all our life."

In 2000,he owned a Maruti 800,now the actor drives a silver-coloured Mercedes.But nobody said Boman Irani has a perfect life.

BOMAN’S BEST

WELL DONE ABBA,2010 |

As a driver who speaks Dakhni,Hyderabadi style,Boman is the glue that holds Shyam Benegal’s latest movie together

THREE IDIOTS,2009 |

Chatur had all the lines.But we remember Virus too.Boman plays the antagonist with élan making us feel sorry for him in the end

HONEYMOON TRAVELS PVT LIMITED,2007 |

One of his finest performances.The scene where he puts his hands inside his daughter’s pocket looking for cigarettes endures in memory

KHOSLA KA GHOSLA,2006 |

A Parsi playing a Punjabi wasn’t easy.But watching the movie you feel the actor was born to play the distasteful landshark Kishen Khurana

LAKSHYA,2004 |

Boman injected the right dose of insensitivity to the character of the unsympathetic father

MUNNABHAI MBBS,2003 |

A man who laughs when he is angry can look ridiculous.But Boman emerged unscathed from the experience.In Dr Asthana,millions of students saw versions of their own teachers

LET’S TALK,2002 |

As the husband who discovers that his wife is pregnant with someone else’s child,Boman was simply superb.Vidhu Vinod Chopra saw the film and offered him Asthana’s role