It has been 20 years since Boman Irani got his first lead role in a movie, Let’s Talk, which was screened at the Locarno Film Festival in 2002. By then, he had worked as a waiter in a Mumbai hotel and run his father’s wafer shop before getting his first photography assignment, his dream job, at age 33. Today Irani is best known for playing Dr Asthana in Munna Bhai M.B.B.S. (2003), Kishan Khurana in Khosla Ka Ghosla (2006) and Dean “Virus” Sahastrabuddhe in 3 Idiots (2009). He played an airline owner in the recent Runway 34. And in his latest, Jayeshbhai Jordaar, he plays Ranveer Singh’s father. The 62-year-old photographer, theatre actor, ad film and film actor, and soon-to-be writer and director, speaks about “the roller-coaster ride” of life. Edited excerpts from an interview:
How do you look back on 20 years as a film actor?
Let’s Talk was a very intense, immersive and emotionally challenging shoot. After the shoot, I went back to photography. Then Munna Bhai and Khosla Ka Ghosla happened. After every shoot, I went back to my photography studio. Never did I think that one day I would stop going to the studio. I asked my team to run it but I stopped going back because I was flying from one film project to another. I was already acting on the stage and in ad films, and I was very happy to be an actor. Films opened a new world of being in the public eye. These 20 years have flown by. I did not have the time to stop and wonder how it all happened.
What was the reason for the slowdown in the last few years?
Life is meant to be a little bit of a roller-coaster ride and it has been pretty crazy, hurtling from challenge to challenge. The world might see my absence as stagnation but in truth I was busy preparing to write a script, which I plan to direct and act in. I also took time off to be with my grandchildren. I spent a lot of time between Mumbai and New York City to learn screenwriting. Just being in the business for 20 years is not automatic graduation to becoming a film-maker. You are just an actor with experience. You have to learn to write and direct. I am waiting to finish my ongoing acting projects so I can start my own film. I have some exciting work coming up, including Uunchai, directed by Sooraj Barjatya, with Anupam Kher, Amitabh Bachchan and myself, my first web series, and Rajkumar Hirani’s Dunki. So there’s no slowing down now.
But first there is ‘Jayeshbhai Jordaar’. Tell us about it.
We shot Jayeshbhai Jordaar before the pandemic. It’s dealing with the important subject of female infanticide and patriarchy of the kind we may not see in urban India. It deals with the subject in a powerful way via humour, but the comedy does not diminish its importance; in fact it comes from the way people treat these issues so casually. My character (Jayesh’s father) is a hard man. He tells his son to get rid of the child, like it’s no big deal. It’s a great role for me. Ranveer Singh is fabulous. Ratna Pathak Shah is wonderful, Shalini Pandey is good and the little girl, Jia Vaidya, is outstanding.
What drew you to other projects?
83 came to me but if it had not I would have been upset. I wanted to be a part of that film because the cricket World Cup was an important part of my youth. And who were they going to get to play Farokh Engineer if not me? When Ajay (Devgn) called and offered me Runway 34, it was just when things were opening up in the pandemic and I was itching to get back to the studio.
Sooraj Barjatya came to me with Uunchai at a time when we were being bludgeoned with a lot of uncertainty, ailments and personal loss. I was not sure. Then one day Anupam Kher called and said it’s a marvellous story and he was upset that I was not committing. I could feel the phone flare up in my hand. So I immediately said yes to it. Maybe that was the tonic I needed, including shooting in Nepal, which was such a spiritual experience. And there’s Dunki. I have been in all Rajkumar Hirani’s films, including Sanju, which had me show up as a clip on TV.
How did ‘Spiral Bound’, the screenwriting series, come about?
When I decided to write a script, I began by reading a lot of books. They do help, but applying what you have read on to a page is difficult. I wrote a draft and went to New York to do some workshops. I met a playwright who had written a film that went on to win him an Oscar. I told him my story. He said it was a beautiful story with beautiful scenes but it was just a bunch of pearls that needed a string to hold them together. Gradually, Alexander Dinelaris (Birdman) got co-opted as my guru and friend. When I launched my production house, Irani Movietone, I invited him to Mumbai to conduct a screenwriting workshop. That’s the day we founded Spiral Bound. Through the pandemic, we took the interactions with writers and other creative people on to a video chat and our attendance grew from four to 500. We have completed 500 sessions and built a beautiful community.
Any plans to go back to theatre?
Yes, hopefully. But for now my focus is on making my film. As a 10-year-old, I used to walk around with my dad’s Rollei pretending to shoot a film. I need to complete that childhood dream.
Udita Jhunjhunwala is a writer, film critic and festival programmer. She tweets @UditaJ