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Verve Man
December 20, 2010

The Complete Entertainer

Text by Rukhmini Punoose. Illustrations by Kunal Kundu

He can make you laugh and cry with equal ease, having morphed from a humble actor into a self-assured performer who knows he excels at his craft and doesn’t need further validation. And Boman Irani has shed his inhibitions to find his place in the sun. Verve spends time with the actor, who walks the delicate tightrope between reel and real life, while balancing several hundred balls in the air

Boman Irani is standing in the centre of his living room, intently absorbed in what he’s doing. He is enacting character after character for my express amusement and it’s like watching a fast-paced Broadway musical where all the lead parts are played by one actor. Virus, the eccentric college principal in last year’s biggest grosser, 3 Idiots, is the first to make an appearance; Lucky, the glib, fast-talking, florid Sardar from Lage Raho Munna Bhai, is next, followed by Farrokh, the lecherous Parsi from Being Cyrus.

Irani acts gassy, exuberantly bursts into song (We are the world), shakes his posterior a la Elvis Presley with an imaginary mike in his hand, and even decides to do a spot-on imitation of Salman Khan, Shah Rukh Khan and Paresh Rawal. And then, just as surprisingly, he looks depressed, deflated and mournful and retreats into moody silence. All this in the span of a riveting 20 minutes while I alternate between twitches of helpless laughter and spellbound silence at the man’s enormous ability to entertain.

We are in Irani’s home, which is tucked away in the middle of the lovely, tree-lined, Dadar Parsi Colony. It is so peaceful here that you can actually hear a cacophony of bird calls outside his sun-drenched apartment. The last time I was here, his sons, Danesh and Kayoze, were milling around him, arguing about PlayStations or interrupting him with protests and teasing when they disagreed with anything he said. His sweet, media-shy wife, Zenobia, walked around tidying up, instructed the cook to give us steaming cups of Irani-style mint tea, ensured Irani’s mother was well taken care of and generally restoring order in her quiet way. Irani was taking all this in and was strangely quiet.

After the last half hour, when he was in his element, the dichotomy in his personality – the vaudevillian entertainer collapses into the reserved, introspective family man – was unsettling to say the least. It’s clear he has a powerful urge to perform, an inner demon that craves the limelight and wrestles its way out of him if he isn’t appeased. But once fed and nourished by applause, is content to meekly return and be peacefully contained at home.

While little has changed about Irani’s home in the last four years, success and fame have transformed Irani’s personality. According to him, his earliest stumbling block in his own mind was his discomfort with Hindi. Essentially raised speaking English, Irani’s comfort zone was English theatre. Indeed, he shot to fame with I’m Not Bajirao and Mahatma vs Gandhi. Consequently, when I met him last, Zenobia had said, “He kept turning down offers because he wasn’t confident speaking the language. But playing Lucky was a turning point. It has made him much more comfortable.”

Gone is the self-effacing actor who was just finding his feet in the frighteningly alien world of Hindi cinema. In his place, is a self-assured, much-anointed performer who knows he excels at his craft and doesn’t need further validation. Irani has shed his inhibitions and found his place in the sun.

Whether it’s 3 Idiots, Munna Bhai MBBS or Khosla Ka Ghosla (where he played a land shark), Irani turned down all three career-defining films at first when he read the scripts. “All the excellent roles of my career I refused because those are the ones that frighten you. Those are also the ones that turn out best. But you have to be willing to commit time. I couldn’t believe there were people as disrespectful and obnoxious as my character in Khosla but once I researched it, I got excited about the role,” he says.

Irani was also extremely reluctant to take on 3 Idiots because he felt it would be like a reprise of his performance in Munna Bhai MBBS. “I told Raju (Hirani) not to cast me for 3 Idiots because I thought the roles were too similar. In both I play a college principal. Both characters have a daughter that is in love with an eccentric protagonist. And both are made by the same director,” he adds.

Director and friend Raj Kumar Hirani was not willing to take a no for an answer and apparently told him, ‘Tu pagal hai.’” But when Irani was adamant about not repeating himself, Hirani was able to convince him to think the role through before he turned it down with some good old- fashioned bribery. He coaxed Irani to go with him for a four-day holiday to a bungalow they would rent outside Lonavala. Hirani took a fabulous cook along who could dish up the most inspiring biryanis and over endless cups of tea they would explore the character of Virus before trying to make a decision. It was agreed that if Irani still felt the role lacked meat, he didn’t have to do it.

“We used to wake up, sit on a hammock, have breakfast, talk about life and discuss every professor I ever knew. We examined every facet and quirk Virus had. Then I discovered that he’s not a very happy-go-lucky fellow, he’s actually quite a dark character. That was a big clincher. So we read out all his serious scenes in the film. The character dresses and behaves in an unintentionally comic manner but he’s not inherently funny. In fact, he’s quite disturbing. We stumbled on the idea of his lisp (something I myself had when I was young). I was clear that Virus’ lisp should seem natural. So we rehearsed the scenes which had a lot of crying and anger and worked it till the point that the lisp was as much a part of his being, as his nose or his eye. Then, I was hooked,” he says chuckling at the memory of those four days.  “The idea of Virus being ambidextrous was mine. I hit on it about a year before we started shooting and that only happens when a crew starts work well in advance. What has Virus done in his life? He’s a genius but what does he do with that? He doesn’t use his ambidextrousness to come up with scientific theories. He uses it to write letters to parents. There’s an irony and sadness to it. The wasted genius of the man was important to me.”

Effortless as his performances always seem, Irani goes to great lengths to prepare for his parts. Six months before they started shooting for his role in Lage Raho…, he scoured the auto spare parts market looking for ‘authentic’ Sardars he could study. “I would befriend them, watch them for hours and only when they began to get comfortable, I started photographing and taping them so I could pick up their expressions, mannerisms and accent,” he says. Those jovial Sardars, eager to help their new friend prepare for his role, would take him to the gurdwara in the middle of the night, invite him to their homes for a meal and some would even tell him, “If you want to see the real me, we should go out for a drink.” So off they would go to a beer bar “to gain insights on gaaliyan.”

Hirani, who saw Irani go through the same level of ground work for 3 Idiots and Munna Bhai MBBS, says, “I’ve never seen an actor prepare so much for a Hindi film.” Hirani adds that Irani gets very insecure as an actor if he hasn’t done his homework. “I really like that about him because it makes the director more confident,” he says.

For 3 Idiots, Irani even got completely involved in getting Virus’ costumes right. “Those high-waist pants and Velcro shirts and ties. And shoes a size-and-a-half bigger to give the character an awkward slither.”

Irani explains that, to him, that’s the difference between mimicry and acting. “I had to figure out what the character would do in every situation. What would make him boil over? How would he react when he’s in a hole?” He says his subconscious mind is constantly recording the mannerisms of people. “And then when I’m supposed to act out a character, I guess my mind just draws from that bank. The acting instinct is actually memory that converts into action quickly. There is no one method. You just have to really believe in the moment,” he explains patiently.

He seems indefatigable, is occasionally irreverent and when he isn’t diving moodily back into his private sanctum, is a spell-binding talker. What’s really surprisingly is how funny he is in person. He’s hilarious on screen (as also seen in Hum Tum Aur Ghost), so that should come as no surprise, but it does, because most comedians tend to be angst-ridden squares off screen. It makes you wonder if he finds it easy to step out of character when he comes home. “Not at all,” he says. “You’re supposed to reflect upon the character every minute, but only hit the stroke when you wear the pad.”

In fact, Irani makes it clear that he hates bringing work home. “My home is too precious to me,” he says. “My strength and sanity come from it. I draw my craft from it. Zenobia and I have been married for 25 years and we’re best friends. Her entire day is spent looking after my family. I need to go to my mother’s room every day and fill her in on my day. This is what keeps me balanced.”

Irani’s not particularly religious or ritualistic but draws a lot of his life philosophy from the tenets of Zoroastrianism. “I believe wearing the sadra-kasti everyday keeps me grounded. I think it also prevents me from straying too far away from who I really am. It is important to me that I never lose that humility. I don’t care if my sons never get rich but I want them to be rooted. They are good kids and even paid their way through college. Neither is the least bit spoilt. In fact, Kayoze has just started assisting one of the new directors at Dharma Productions and he proudly came and told me that he got the job without anyone knowing he’s Boman Irani’s son. I don’t think Karan Johar even knows my son is working for him and that makes me happy.”

He is loving this stage of his career and has Don 2, Ferrari Ki Sawari and Stand By Me coming up later this year. But that hasn’t stopped him from trying a variety of new things. He is currently hosting a business show, Pitch, on UTV Bloomberg, as well as toying with the idea of scripting and directing a film. The only thing that’s holding him back from wielding the director’s baton is an occasional attack of cold feet. He wants to get back on stage, where according to him, “the focus is entirely on the performance and not on the popcorn”.

And when he’s not hosting award shows where he brings the house down with his mimicry, singing and deadpan humour, or regaling a party with his stand-up act, he’s strumming away on the guitar with a driving need to bask in the limelight. After all, for this complete performer, it’s easy to walk the delicate tightrope between films and home while balancing several hundred balls in the air.

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