Till a few years ago, Golden Bakery was among those popular old shops in Grant Road, located at a spot close to two single screen cinema halls — Novelty and Apsara — that are literally history today. Located inside a garage, it shut a few years ago, when ‘redevelopment’ became the order of the day. Today, Boman Irani’s wafer shop has given way to a multiplex.
Bring it up and with a smile, a wink and a shrug, he says, “Yeah, that’s true. My bakery has given way to a multiplex. My mother ran it all by herself till she could. I sat on the ‘galla’ too. And eventually, we had a manager look after it. It’s not there anymore.”
The inside of his shop had a bhatti, the entire shop measured 10’ X 4.5’ feet only. Though Irani admits that he had never wanted to work at the shop, he misses it today.
That’s just one of the many honest statements that Boman Irani made while he sat with team HT Café over a cup of coffee on a weekday evening. Read on for the actor’s sincere story, straight from his heart:
Yours is one of the most phenomenal stories of Bollywood. You rose from selling chips to waiting tables at the Taj, and driving a scooter to driving a Mercedes. You were also an insurance agent once.
Nah! The last one’s not true. Wikipedia has got a lot wrong about me. I sold chips but not the brand mentioned on the websites. I never worked at Josh either, because then I would have started my career only 10 years ago. But yes, I have waited tables at the Taj and sold wafers.
What was the journey like?
I was born posthumously in 1959. My dad passed away in May 1959 and I was born in December. (Smiles) I’m legally allowed to be late then. The early years were frightening because I would be scared to hear the booming voice of a man. I only had women around me. My mum, her five sisters, my own four sisters, their friends and an aunt who lived with us, who also had lady friends dropping by all the time. Even my neighbours were all ladies. Naturally, I would be scared at the sight of a man.
Didn’t you lisp also?
I used to, like Virus (his character in 3 Idiots). I couldn’t get admission straight off in school because I had to answer a question. They would show me the photograph of an animal and I’d have to identify whether it was a cat, a dog or a porcupine. But when they’d show me a horse, I couldn’t say it because I was afraid. With time, I overcame those fears but then I was branded ‘reticent’.
I didn’t understand the meaning of the word till the day I got the guts to ask someone. ‘Reticent’ would often be written in my report card as a remark. Once, when I was old enough to look up a dictionary on my own, I discovered the meaning of the word.
Which school was this?
St Mary’s. I wasn’t exceptional, but it bothered me. Maybe because I had seen plenty of Chaturs (character in 3 Idiots) in life.
How did you get rid of your lisp?
My mum sent me to a therapist who put marbles in my mouth. I swallowed too many of them and my lisp was gone forever!
Okay. And then?
I grew up. We had a family business. The shop measured 10 by four-and-a-half feet. It had a little room with a big furnace. We fried potato chips in it and sold them there. I completed my film education while working at that shop. It was located between the Novelty and the Apsara Cinema. Across my home was the Alexandra Cinema. I spent a lot of time watching movies there. Eventually, I was expected to take over the galla which I didn’t want to. I decided I’d do something else and stand on my two feet. But I didn’t know how I would do that.
Is that when you took up a job at the Taj Mahal Hotel to wait tables?
I think becoming a waiter was a great experience. I did a Polytechnique Diploma Course for six months before taking on the job. I went to the Taj looking for a job. I went to the resident manager’s office. He asked me what I want to do and I said F&B. He said, “The whole bloody hotel is F&B. What do you want to do?” I said I want to work at the Rendezvous, which was the French restaurant at the top of the hotel. He said, “Oh, you want to work at the top, huh? Smart guy! You start with room service!” I started my career as room service guy, going from room to room with a tray. I can still do it with the same flair. I realised I could stand on my own two feet.
But you did take over the ‘galla’ at your wafer shop after that, didn’t you?
My mum had met with an accident. There was no one to take over the work. I was this Young Turk who wanted to make a difference. I sat at that shop and later, got married. I was 25 then. By 32, I had two boys. I was doing my bit at the shop every day. Recently, Naseeruddin Shah told me that I did my acting training at the shop itself. Now, when I think of it, I can imagine why. It was a stage in front of me. All the customers were the actors whom I was observing. I was the chatty one at the store. I would go back home and recount the funny anecdotes. I was always the performer.
How did acting happen?
I was doing great at the shop. Photography had taken off. Shiamak (Davar) walked into my studio and said, “Darling, you’re going to be famous because you’re such an actor. I can see a performer.” In Well Done Abba, there’s a scene in which I go to a local photo studio to get my picture shot and I don’t know what to do there. Shiamak is like that. He took me to Alyque Padamsee for an audition. Anyway, Alyque made me sing songs and then, rejected me as an actor. Shiamak threatened to not choreograph his show, and he ended up succumbing and giving me my first acting job in a play called Roshni. It didn’t do well. Rahul D’Cunha offered me the part of Bajirao in I’m Not Bajirao. He took three dates for the opening. Eventually, the show ran for 10 years till Sudhir Joshi passed away. I was very proud to be part of that success story. Lot of offers came my way in the interim.
Did you turn down offers for Hindi films?
I would say I can’t act in Hindi films because my Hindi is atrocious. That’s when Let’s Talk happened. We shot it on two cameras, two actors and inside a house in seven days. We premiered it at the director’s house. We walked a little red carpet and popped champagne. Ram (Madhvani, director) then showed the film to Vidhu (Vinod Chopra). He wanted to meet me. He asked me what I was doing the next year, I said nothing. He handed over a cheque and said we’ll do something in December.
He reasoned that I won’t have dates for him. He called me for Munnabhai MBBS subsequently. The title sounded ridiculous. I turned down the role of the doctor who keeps laughing. The role was offered to other actors and they eventually returned to me. I finally met Raju Hirani. I spent six hours with him when I wanted to end the chat in 15 minutes. I loved the script and the man.
At the outset, you were a shy person but you got rid of that when you became an actor. Is that how it works generally?
There is something about it. Vicarious maybe is where I’m getting at. There is some great pleasure in holding an audience. When you’re doing theatre, there is a sense of strength in knowing that your next line is going to bring the house down. Acting is a most unusual profession. You may say you could never be Khurana (Khosla ka Ghosla). But you could never play Khurana, if there wasn’t a dark side to your personality.
I would never be able to play Virus (3 Idiots), if I didn’t have a dark side. There is also a lighter side. It gives me pleasure to put a smile on people’s faces. That’s the way my mother looks at it. There is great joy in playing someone you’re not, as truthfully as possible. That’s what makes it special because the more you search for the moment of truth, the better the lie is.
Aren’t actors attention-seekers too?
Oh yeah! I’ve got to do my best as a performer. So, attention seeking is just a by-product. I have to communicate myself in many ways. When Shyam Benegal gives you a role, you have to justify the empowerment. The content has to be important. I have cracked jokes in Well Done Abba, but they have to be meaningful. If the story has no spine or backbone, no one cares.
Is there a child hidden in every actor?
Yes, to an extent. You have to get into the character, understand it. All cops don’t pop bullets. All teachers don’t lisp. All Armaan Alis (Well Done Abba) don’t speak in Takhni. So, if I get these nuances right, and that is all that people remember, then something is wrong. The character holds only if it makes sense to you without the lisp or the Takhni dialect. The character should be able to think for itself.
Is it important for you to meet someone who is like the character you’re playing?
Not always. All cops aren’t the same. Ditto drivers, builders and fathers. If that worked, Asthana (the Munnabhai Dean) would have been in 3 Idiots too. You didn’t need Virus (Veeru Sahastrabuddhe).
Are there movies where you feel there is not the same amount of effort needed?
I wouldn’t say that. Excess effort makes no sense because then, you are trying to intellectualise something unnecessarily. You go out there and believe. That is the effort. I’m sure you’ve seen many of those films of mine. I stand by each one of them.
Like Mr Prime Minister.
Sure. I’m proud of it and I stand by it too. What’s wrong? I have a bat in my hand. I will wield it every time the ball comes. But I can’t hit a six each time. I will try. And there are reasons why you do certain films. And I’m not defending them. It was a great learning experience doing Mr Prime Minister. Everything is not done for money. Like Little Zizou. I am very proud of that film.
Does it put a lot of pressure on you to not be Boman Irani when playing a character?
It does. Even leading men like Shah Rukh Khan and Sanjay Dutt have their share of pressures and insecurities. Nothing can be a walk in the park.
While working on a film, can you figure whether it will work or not?
Yeah. There is an aura about it. I knew Munnabhai would work. I went to Empire Cinema to catch the reactions. People were laughing and crying. The reactions said it all. A movie has a life, even if it’s not a blockbuster. With instinct, you know whether the script works or not. If you’re faking it and struggling to get an emotion going, you know it’s not working. You fluff your lines when you don’t understand what you’re saying. You need to connect with the dialogue.
I’m sure there were scenes in movies that you felt were not working?
Many. I had returned the cheque after the first day of shooting for Munnabhai. I thought it wasn’t working. There was a nariyal paani (coconut water) scene which I didn’t like. Raju was scowling because I was struggling. I was being harsh on myself. We sobbed in his office. I, at least, admitted that it wasn’t working. I could see the right and the wrong from each other. But then somehow, everything worked. And then we came back in Lage Raho Munnabhai, and I was speaking Punjabi. And the rest is history!
On facing Sunil Dutt
When you are in the thick of things, it doesn’t come to your mind. Working with Sunil Dutt was a wonderful experience. His acting style was different from mine. It takes a little time to adjust. I was nervous, Dutt saab said even he was nervous facing the camera after 15 years. I told him that the director was also nervous. He said, Tab to picture flop hai (The film is a flop then).