Producers in Indian cinema wanting to add weight to their movies in the past 12 years have approached versatile actor Boman Irani.
His impressive ability to deliver a memorable performance and incredible versatility has seen him shine in everything from small independent productions to record-breaking blockbusters. By adding gravitas to movies, the gifted actor has enabled those around him to shine and in the process become a global star.
When Eastern Eye caught up with him to talk about all things cinema, he was in good spirits and spoke with genuine passion about a job he clearly loves.
You are very much in demand, but how are you selecting your projects?
There are a few determining factors. It is very important to work with people you will have a fine journey with. The process for me is very important because the end product is dependent on the viewer. No matter how well you believe you have done or how great you think your movie is, it can soar or crash on the whim of a viewer. We never really have control over that, so we have to make sure the journey is good. Then you have to put in hard work to make sure it works at least from your own contribution. So it’s important you work with people you get along with. Eventually if you work hard enough there will be a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, so to speak.
Secondly the script and story should excite you. And mainly who is telling the story – that is also important. If it’s an interesting film, then money is not a consideration.
Sometimes smaller films need to be made, like a Jolly LLB for example or a Well Done Abba. Those are lovely little gems. Money will never be a factor in saying, ‘I will never do this film because of money or lack of it.’ Sometimes you do a film for the sake of entertaining people. At the end of the day we consider ourselves actors, but also in India, Bollywood is huge in the public consciousness as a great escape mechanism. We don’t have a Disneyland or the West End. We have two things to fall back on – one is cinema and the other is cricket. Sometimes you have to entertain and I make no bones about the fact that I am an entertainer apart from being an actor.
My favourite films of yours are Well Done Abba and Khosla Ka Ghosla. Which ones would you choose?
I am so happy you said that, Asjad, you have made my day. These two films are actually closest to my heart. Khosla Ka Ghosla was an important turning point in my career. Until then, I had only played characters living in Mumbai; city slickers, so to speak! This guy was in Delhi, he was outside my city, someone I didn’t quite know. For me to discover a character like that was a great eye-opener. Up until then, people would have thought that most of my roles were anglicised, because I would break into English at some point. Even the doctor in Munnabhai MBBS. They perhaps thought I wouldn’t have been able to play a part with an ethnic colour. For me, that was huge.
What about Well Done Abba?
That is close to my heart because of director Shyam Benegal. I got to play a character who could spread his wings, and have a wonderful story arc. He goes from being a coward to finding the hero in himself. So that was very interesting. Working with Shyam Benegal was a great learning experience in my life. These two films also won National Awards, which was most gratifying. So thank you very much for identifying the two pictures I would have mentioned.
Do you feel like you have been kidnapped by the big blockbusters and taken away from these smaller gems?
Absolutely right, but I would not use a harsh word like kidnap, because you don’t get kidnapped if you go in with your eyes open. I am party to it. I need to balance five for the kitchen and one for the heart. And it’s time for me to do one for the heart.
You are one of the great actors in Indian cinema. What do you think is the secret of a good performance?
I think it’s very important that if you get a great character, it’s not about the role, but about the story being told, and what the audiences will take away from the story. Whether it is a Khosla Ka Ghosla or a 3 Idiots, you have to understand what the director is trying to say and then you design the character according to the theme of the film. You don’t design a character and say, ‘this is going to be a great interesting character’, but which is in dissonance with the rest of the film. For me it’s about understanding what the director is saying. You are just a cog in the wheel of the director’s storytelling and theme. Every layer you add to the character has to have something to do with what the theme of the film is. There’s no point in designing a character who might be interesting to watch, but has no resonance or connection to the rest of the film.
I also think rehearsal is an important aspect. I don’t think an actor should show off and say, ‘this is my chance to show you how good an actor I am.’ The day you do that, you have lost perspective of what you are doing.
You did a Telugu movie [Attharintiki Daaredhi] recently. Will you do more stuff away from Bollywood like perhaps a Hollywood film?
Well, I am open to doing something like that. One gets to learn. If I work in a Hollywood film, I am hoping to learn something and also come out of what is known as the comfort zone. Over here, we are little bit spoiled. Our fans are wonderfully supportive. To be pushed a little more, you have to get out of your comfort zone. I think that is very important, so yes, there will be something I will be hopefully working on in the near future.
Is it a good time in Indian cinema for actors like you, who have a great range?
I think it’s one of the most exciting times although sometimes it does become very patchy. You have a Piku that comes along and you say, ‘wow, this is something wonderful. There’s a new voice!’ But then, of course as I said, there will be five for the kitchen and one for the heart. The theory applies even in Indian cinema. There has been a wonderful peppering in the past 10 years, for sure, of films that are well told and stories that are differently told. Different themes, different approaches, different directors’ voices, different kinds of writing, so these are exciting times, no doubt about it.
Have you made a New Year’s resolution?
(Laughs) The same one I make every year. I always say from January 1, I am going to go on a diet. That resolution is very much and so strongly wired into my system that it will become my New Year’s resolution for 2017 also. It is something that I laugh about, but feel I am very weak about it. And it’s a shame that I make the same resolution each year.
Like I said, you are a wonderful actor, but who are your acting heroes?
Well, in India, it has always been Balraj Sahni. I have great love and respect for the man. I feel extremely inspired when I see his work. In fact, I just watched his movie Do Bigha Zameen again. To me he is the icon. Then I learned from every early actor. Everyone has their little technique, no matter how simple or complicated it is. We learn every day, but Balrajji would be my all-time favourite.
What are your biggest passions away from work?
Asjad, I like to write a little bit. I like to do a little bit of photography. I am a big movie buff. I watch almost a movie every day, sometimes back to back. Every time I see a classic again, there’s something new that I learn and see differently in every viewing. Some movies have stood the test of time. When I saw it as an 18-year-old, I took something away from it and when I see it now as a 56-year-old, I am taking something completely different from the same movie. Some movies are so layered and so timeless, you have to be part of that history by perpetuating it and keeping its greatness alive, by going to watch it and recommending it. That is also very important.
Is there one film that you have watched more than any other?
I’ve watched the Sidney Lumet film Network a lot. Also, The Godfather, Shawshank Redemption, Ben Hur, Dog Day Afternoon, and Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid. These are my favourites.
Today, what inspires you?
The work of others, people who have tripped, fallen and dusted themselves off and got up again. I find the triumph of the human spirit a great subject. So when I watch my contemporaries rediscovering themselves and doing stuff, whether it’s in the movies or friends (in everyday life), there is a great learning from people who fall and rise. That is one of the greatest inspiring factors. We are all surviving in whatever we do. We are all struggling, no matter how successful you are. I believe the more successful you get, the greater the struggle. As I said earlier, the comfort zone is the most dangerous thing.
Finally, why do you love cinema?
I like to lie legally. I hate a liar in real life. This is a legal way of vicariously living someone else’s life and being deliciously mean, which I am not in real life, thankfully. It allows you to delve into your dark side. I would rather be boring in real life, but exciting while discovering characters.