Film Personality Boman Irani: ‘An Actor Has to Feel Unfulfilled’

Film and theater actor Boman Irani was introduced to cinema at a very young age; when he was only 12, his mother used to insist that he go and watch the same movie 20 or 30 times and learn from it. But he took a meandering path to becoming an actor. His first job was working as a waiter. He then sold burritos from the family store, and later became a photographer. Getting into acting was almost an accident.

Today, with more than 60 films under his belt including hits such as Munna Bhai M.B.B.S. and 3 Idiots, Irani has also forayed into television with an interview-based serial titled “The Achievers Club.” The problem with Indian cinema, he notes in this interview with Wharton operations and information management professor Kartik Hosanagar, is that there are no good scripts. Irani was a participant at the recent Wharton India Economic Forum (WIEF) held in Philadelphia.

An edited transcript of the conversation follows.

Kartik Hosanagar: You joined films a little late in your career. Can you tell us a little bit about how you got into acting?

Boman Irani: I’ve always been interested in cinema. I was a student of cinema even when I was a 12-year-old in Bombay. We had a theater called Alexander Cinema and my mom used to actually encourage me to go and watch a film almost every day. If I watched the film, the next day she would ask me what I was doing. “I’m just playing.” So she would tell me to go and watch the movie across the street. “But I watched it yesterday,” I would say. She would ask me the name of the film. “Pyaasa,” I replied. Then she would tell me to watch it again and this time pay attention to the lyrics. And she would send me again and tell me to pay attention to the cinematography and the lighting. I never really understood why mom would encourage a person — her son — to watch so many movies. I used to watch movies 30 or 40 times, movies that were way beyond my age group. I wasn’t watching Disney movies.

I was probably dyslexic when I was a kid. In those days, we didn’t have a name for that kind of deficiency. We were known as the duffers of the class. That was the terminology and I was not really academically inclined. When I [graduated from] school, opportunities were not great for someone like me. So I took up a waiter’s course and was a waiter for a couple of years at the Taj Mahal hotel in Bombay. Then my mom had an accident (I had never had a dad.) We had this little shop, which I took over. It used to make and sell burrito chips. That wafer shop was in the heart of the cinema district. So every night, after I closed the shop, I would go and watch a movie. We had about 30 cinemas around us; half of them have shut down today.

After 12 years of sitting in the shop, I got married. I had responsibilities. The money that came from the shop ran the family. I needed to do something different and I picked up photography. I bought myself a camera. I started doing very basic photography — wedding photography, going to the airport and shooting groups that were going away. I made Rs. 20-Rs. 30 (40 U.S. cents to 50 U.S. cents) a picture. By the time I was 32, I had started doing professional photography.

Then [dance choreographer and Hindi film personality] Shiamak Davar walked into my studio and said: “You know, you’re an actor.” I said: “How do you figure that?” “Because I’m telling you,” he replied. He took me to meet [theater personality and ad filmmaker] Alyque Padamsee, who auditioned me for a musical. Davar insisted that I act in that play. I was paid Rs. 200 (around US$3.50) a night. We only did 10 shows. Five months of rehearsal and that was it. But I got great reviews….

Then I got another offer for a play. We’d booked three shows for it. It was an experimental play — two men on a park bench having a conversation. It ran for 10 years in the big theaters. It became a huge hit and people started talking about me as an actor. I had never bargained to be an actor. Suddenly, I realized that I was learning acting on the job. I read a lot of books; I observed. I used to do a lot of exercises on my own, developed by myself, take notes all the time. I was naïve. Because I was naive, I had no ego about learning. Long answer, sorry.

Hosanagar: No, I appreciate that. It set up the context really well. You have acted in close to 60 films by now. Today, as an actor, what kind of opportunity excites you? Is it working with a certain kind of actor? Is it working with a certain kind of director? Is it a certain kind of screenplay?

Irani: I have this theory about screenplays. I think that you can give a great performance in a mediocre movie and it will demote itself to an ordinary performance because the screenplay isn’t great and there’s no resonance. But if you do a good performance in a great film, it promotes itself to a great performance. So I think it’s very important to pick scripts that are relevant.

Why should every movie be about social change? Why can’t we have movies that touch your heart and talk about human nature — relationships? Where’s the social change involved in all that? I want to be challenged as an actor but only in good scripts. Otherwise, I am very happy to lend myself to an entertainer. I am very happy doing that also, but [there is] always one for the people and one for the soul. That’s my mantra at this point of time. Like all actors, I think no actor can really operate or do better if he’s not frustrated as an actor. He should feel unfulfilled at all times, even if he’s got six Academy Awards. He should feel unfulfilled because it is only when you are angry with yourself that you need to go out there and say, “I have a lot more to give you and to myself and I’m not doing enough.” It is not about opportunity; opportunities come. But Indian cinema is suffering from mediocrity today. We do not have scripts that can make a mark on the international stage.

Hosanagar: How do we fix that?

Irani: I wish there was a quick fix….

Hosanagar: What is the underlying issue? Is it that good scripts are not being green-lit? Is it that good scripts are not being written?

Irani: I think good scripts are not being written. There were some very important films that were made last year. It was like a good French wine year for cinema. But not one of those films could hold its own internationally. Sometimes good scripts need not be [successful]. But if there is a plethora of great scripts, at least a few will get green-lit. If there is just one great script hanging around somewhere, nobody’s even going to know. There has to be a plethora of great scripts coming from every angle because, from that, five or seven good films will come out in that year. But we don’t have great scripts.

Hosanagar: Do you think the industry is not nurturing writers?

Irani: Yes. But, of late, there have been attempts. We are moving in the right direction and certain people have been working on it with great sincerity. But, otherwise, the scripts that are being green-lit are about business.

You have a great script, come to me. But those great scripts aren’t really internationally great. I’m not saying they should be winning Oscars. But they should receive respect and credibility across the board — across the world — in festivals. Oscars are not the ultimate thing. We believe that only because we have grown up on Hollywood films. I think we can do well internationally. We have the talent. We might not have the education.

Hosanagar: Let me switch gears for a little bit and talk about your recent participation in the TV side of media. You’ve had your own show. Can you tell us a little bit about how TV as a medium differs from cinema? What are some interesting challenges you face there? What were some of the factors that motivated you to move in that direction?

Irani: I think when you talk about TV, there are two types of television. One is the soap. Let’s not talk about news because it’s not about entertainment, even though news is very entertaining these days. The other is the reality show. The soap to my mind is a little regressive; the reality show is sensational. I had been offered a few reality shows and I have no problem as long as they entertain people the right way.

This opportunity — “The Achievers Club” — came along and I … asked the studio head: “What is the idea behind this program?” She put it in a nutshell and said something that made me agree to it immediately: “It should be like a handbook for young entrepreneurs to become achievers.” The moment she said that, I said, “OK, done. Let’s do this. We won’t get great ratings. We won’t get great advertising. But what we will have is respectability. If there is a generation of youngsters watching and one line that can influence a young mind, I think victory is ours.” [I asked Infosys chairman emeritus N.R. Narayana Murthy]: “You’re a rich man. What’s your definition of money?” He said: “The power of money is the power to give it away.”

Hosanagar: I remember that.

Irani: That shook me completely. I said it changes a young man’s perspective. I got some wonderful reactions for that.

[UTV Group founder and chairman Ronnie Screwvala’s] crew said on the show that to fund your first project may be easier than funding your second project and he gave reasons. [Screwvala] was the first cable operator in India; look where he is today.

I think it’s important that we highlight achievers, not famous people. Successful achievers need not be famous and all famous people need not be successful. I feel that everybody wants to become famous at some point. The people who came on the show didn’t have to be entrepreneurs. But their lives had to have an impact on the youth of India. I would be [like] a little schoolboy sitting and listening to these people [talking about] what they’re doing and their philanthropic work. It makes you feel small and that’s a good feeling. One should feel small, only then can one grow. I used to happily feel small and dwarfed by all these wonderful people.

Hosanagar: Do you have an interest in the business side of cinema?

Irani: Baby steps. I am a creative person, so I write and direct. My interest in the business side is not necessarily to make money. It is to protect the creative person in me. I will not let an entrepreneur twist my arm to make the kind of cinema that will make him money. So if I am making or losing money, I would like to be a producer so that I can protect myself as a creative person. That’s a stupid policy to have, but that’s what I believe in.

Hosanagar: It’s not uncommon for a creative person to say that. Finally on a lighter note, what’s your favorite movie of all time?

Irani: You know, you are going to be very disappointed because you are not going to get a very intellectual answer. It is “The Sound of Music.”

Hosanagar: Why? That’s a really nice movie.

Irani: Because it brings back fabulous memories of innocence. I think it’s one of the most innocent movies ever made. It’s about the genesis of music, which is very close to my heart. It’s shot magnificently. It is great cinema, but it is cheesy cinema that was actually palatable. When I watched it after many years — I watched it again recently — and the moment the titles came on, I had tears in my eyes because that movie pulls. There’s something very special about that movie. I’m sure people who believe in cinema will say “What a bad choice.” But I don’t care.

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