From a Sardar to a Gujarati, a strict college Principal, a stern doctor or the father with a strange sense of humor, Boman Irani has enchanted us with his distinct performances. Despite being a late bloomer; the actor entered the world of Hindi films at 44, he has already made a mark in Bollywood with his memorable roles and impeccable comic timing. A fine actor, he dabbles between mainstream and non-commercial cinema giving his fans the best of both worlds. Having successfully essayed roles in different genres, he has an amazing ability of getting under the skin of his character. He has also won accolades for his performances in Munna Bhai M.B.B.S, 3 Idiots and Well Done Abba.

In a chat with Pandolin, Boman talks about the role that he was afraid of essaying, preparation for his characters, upcoming film and openness to be a part of the digital medium and more.

Boman Irani

Boman Irani

One of your popular performances in Bollywood was a comedy role in Munna Bhai M.B.B.S. Did you ever think that it could typecast you to the genre, especially with the role and the film becoming so popular? 

While doing Munna Bhai M.B.B.S, I really didn’t know whether I would do another film after that. However, it turned out great and I got a lot of offers. After it released, I realized that there was a possibility that I could have gotten typecast. I got at least 20 film offers with similar characters and I turned each one of them down. Although I could have made a lot of money, I wanted to do a variety of roles to satisfy the actor in me. The next film I chose was Khosla Ka Ghosla!, which released three years later. It gave me the passport to get out of a character that lived in Mumbai as it confined me to a particular milieu (he plays a mean Delhi-based property dealer). I just grabbed on to the idea though I was afraid and unsure of pulling it off. But that character helped me step out of my comfort zone as an actor and a person who is a Mumbaikar. The journey continued with Lage Raho Munna Bhai, 3 Idiots and so on. My character in Lage Raho Munna Bhai was also specific, he wasn’t just another Sardar; he was a Sardar from Mumbai who occasionally spoke in Marathi too. So, I avoided getting typecast for my own happiness.

If you lock yourself up in a room and say I am going to learn how to act, you have missed out on the biggest ingredient of all

Would you say that being typecast is a bad thing or is it more about harnessing an actor’s strong points?

Getting typecast is a personal choice. If you allow the industry to typecast you and later complain about it, that’s a problem. But if you like being a person who is known for essaying a certain kind of character, I think that’s wonderful! So, it differs from actor to actor. I would have been bored playing similar characters. Then, Don, Eklavya and Jolly LLB came my way. I have been lucky to work with directors who were confident that I could not be bracketed. That’s the fun part.

Also Read: I have been typecast as a director of comedy films: Milap Zaveri

But having acted in films across genres, is there a space you are now more comfortable in?

I don’t look at a character and think here’s a comic role, so I am going to play funny. Virus from 3 Idiots is not a comedic character at all; he is dark, a man with a lot of baggage, so I don’t know what to get comfortable with. I do not put characters into boxes saying this is villainous or emotionally dramatic or comedic, for me they all are characters. I feel one should never be comfortable playing a character because you are playing someone you don’t know, you have discovered him inside your own head. You need to realize that you are a part of the storytelling process; you are a cog in the wheel to tell the story of the director.

boman irani

As Virus in 3 Idiots

So does the director brief you to be funny for a particular character?

I don’t think a director has ever told me that a character has to be funny. You have to see the situation and go with the truth of the moment. For example, if you are playing Virus in 3 Idiots, the director is never going to say this guy is funny. The character has got another agenda completely; he is also the antagonist in the film. There are moments when there will be funniness but we don’t play for that. Maybe in the Housefull series you know there is never going to be a single emotional scene, so I would like to believe that the character is played in a completely sincere way, the funniness comes on its own.

Also Read: I am petrified of performing comedy – Maanvi Gagroo

Although we don’t see you in central characters in movies, your roles are etched in the minds of the audiences. How do you make your characters so distinct and memorable?

It’s the audience that needs to believe in a character, they need to find it interesting and my job is to make the character interesting yet believable. When the audience sees a man in a funny hairstyle walking in a corridor tormenting students they should respond by saying, Oh yeah, my professor is just like that. The trick is to do a strange type of walk making him unusual enough to be interesting and pull him back to make him normal enough to be believable. Khurana from Khosla Ka Ghosla! is not a guy you will meet on a bus or at a party but you will still believe that such a guy exists. If you make him interesting and unbelievable then you have lost the plot. Dr. Asthana’s public persona is so straight and normal that you have seen him around you. You have seen him walk in the hall, sit in the principal’s office but in his private moments he is another man. Nobody behaves in the same way at their professional space as they would in their house. That’s why I make his public persona extremely strict and his private persona quirky, the quirkiness comes out mostly in private, never in public. Dr. Asthana flips out very less in public; he is always flipping out in private. When he walks in front of the students he looks extremely sharp like a believable doctor but he is losing it in his private space most of the times.

Khosla Ka Ghosla! gave me the passport to get out of a character that lived in Mumbai

How do you build these characters and make them your own?

There is a process but you don’t lock yourself into a room and say it’s time for me to do the process. I think one has to be reflective about the person you are planning to essay. In trying to be reflective, you are always looking out and observing human condition. Over the years, I find it extremely interesting to observe people’s reactions, responses, tones of anger, lack of humor or how people think they are funny or not. I think Virus from 3 Idiots was very bad at telling something funny although he was the only one who thought he was extremely humorous, so I put in a lot of that through only human observation.

I always encourage people to do workshops and read a lot as actors. But when you are essaying a role, the greatest thing that you could do is, over the years, collect a whole treasure chest of observations of the human condition. I think that to me is the be all and end all of acting, and you got to interact with people for that. If you lock yourself up in a room and say I am going to learn how to act, you have missed out on the biggest ingredient of all. It’s like going to a gymnasium to learn how to cook and you can’t do that.

Boman Irani

In Khosla Ka Ghosla

You’re playing the role of the 2014 Nobel Peace Prize winner, Kailash Satyarthi in your next film Jhalki. How different is it, playing a real person?

It is different for sure, but the moment you try to make yourself identical to the character you are playing, there is a fear of losing out on the spirit of the character. If you are playing a real life person, unless you are his twin, you can never look like him. Try and understand the person, how he is as a human being and stick to that because eventually it is that character in a fictional or dramatized situation. Even if Kailash Satyarthi rescued a lot of children, he never rescued this little girl called Jhalki, maybe it is not in the same location as we were shooting. So try and get the essence of the man and let people understand that this person is a man to know, reckon, love and respect. If somebody tells you that you have got his walk and speech spot on, that’s not a compliment. The compliment could be if someone said we should have known more about this guy; he is quiet an idol, a character. I don’t think Ben Kingsley looked much like Gandhi but he made the world believe that that’s what Gandhi looked like; the spirit of the man came out so strong.

Also Read: Impressive biopics that should be made in Bollywood

Having been around for more than a decade in the industry, is your choice of roles more  instinctive or calculative?

There are three to four important deciding factors for me. First, is the story being said in a proper flow of events and  will the audience understand at least the basic narrative. If the basic narrative is not in place, the film is not worth doing because obviously, you will disconnect otherwise. You will be very lucky to have a few films that have a basic narrative for starters. If the story is too cluttered, losing track of what it is supposed to be, sensational for the sake of being so, then that doesn’t work for me. There has to be a good enough reason for making the movie.

Then I think it is the person who is going to tell the story, the director, is very important to me. Is he capable of converting the basic narrative into a couple of hours and holding one’s interest?

Hardly has it ever been about the money because you will get paid eventually, so the decision should not primarily revolve around money.

The most important of all is that I should be happy in the surroundings. I feel if someone has a great story but a bad attitude then it doesn’t work, that’s the instinct that comes to the fore. You need to be on a set where you can forge friendship, respect and trust.

One should never be comfortable playing a character because you are playing someone you don’t know

Talking about friendship, director Rajkumar Hirani seems to have a role for you in all his films. Was your friendship one of the key reasons why you are part of his next film that is a biopic on Sanjay Dutt?

That is the only reason why I am a part of the film! We both go back a long way. Sometimes there is a connect because the director feels that the actor will deliver something for you, it’s purely an artistic association. With Raju and me, it is more than an artistic association, our friendship comes with a great amount of respect. The timelines of our journey have been more or less the same so if he wants me on an emotional level in a film, in whatever capacity, that’s as big as doing a full-fledged role. It is important to me because it will bring back memories of the first day we worked together. It will remind us of the day when I did my first scene and he shot, his which was the same day! So, to me, this emotional need to be associated is as important as the artistic need.

Boman Irani

With Rajkumar Hirani

You’re one of the few actors whose filmography balances the graph with mainstream films and these story-oriented, smaller scale films. Is it tough to maintain a balance, is that something you do consciously? 

You don’t do it consciously, it is part of your mental makeup. Every once in a while, if a good story comes along that needs to be told, I will do it without question. Money is never going to be the criteria, all the other things I have spoken about earlier will be. There is no specific time when I decide to do a film which is a little more cinema rather than entertainment. If the next entertaining film comes along, then I will just do it because I think it is as important to entertain, as it is to grow as an actor. Mainstream films give cinema the money to make smaller films. Having said that, I do balance it but that’s in a default mind space. Everybody should believe that you are accessible to do any kind of cinema for which you have the acting capability and the mindset to say that I will do a small-scale film as long as I am happy and something is being said. When Jhalki came along my way, I just felt correct. There are so many non-commercial films that come my way and I don’t feel right about them so I won’t take them up. Just because a film is non-commercial, doesn’t necessarily, by default, make it good for me. They have to be good narratives.

Although I could have made a lot of money, I wanted to do a variety of roles to satisfy the actor in me

Several actors are exploring the web as a new medium. Would that be something that interests you as well?

Yes, acting is acting, it doesn’t have to be only on the big screen. Acting is a wonderful joyous job. You should do something that excites you to explore other characters, to explore other directors and other narratives. Of course, I am open to it.