At the Brahmaputra Valley Film Festival in Guwahati, Boman Irani spoke about his childhood and struggle as an actor.

At BVFF Boman Irani recalls struggle with speech defect working as waiter at Taj
Flix Cinema Friday, November 30, 2018 - 11:15

When journalist Karma Paljor tested the mic saying “check 123”, it seemed like Boman Irani simply couldn't resist muttering “cash 123” into his mic in a cheeky response that had the audience applauding well before an incredibly warm and humorous session began. Karma Paljor and Boman Irani were in conversation on Thursday evening at the Brahmaputra Valley Film Festival in Guwahati, where they discussed Boman’s past as a nervous child with a speech defect, as the proprietor of a potato chips shop, a waiter at the Taj Hotel in Mumbai, a theatre practitioner and a successful Bollywood actor.

Instead of posing questions in the usual format, Karma threw selected keywords, designed to prompt a memory or a story, at the always-entertaining Boman. The result was a personal and amusing retelling of his life’s journey, in his own words. Upon hearing that this was how the session was going to go, Boman immediately quipped, “What I think you’re doing here is assuming I’m an intelligent man.”

The phrase “bechara Boman” had him thinking back to his childhood, and the reasons why he became interested in the movies, and turned to theatre in his youth. “When I was a kid, I was very afraid to speak, because I had a speech defect. So because of that, I never spoke, and everyone used to feel very sorry for me. It was always the neighbour's mum, because she wants her kid to look better than me, she used to call me Bechara Boman. And since that day, I used to be called Bechara Boman. I kept saying, what's wrong with me? But there’s nothing wrong with me, there’s something wrong with you! Because the moment I came out of my shell, I haven't shut up since.”

He told the audience how his mother recognised very early that he wasn’t academically inclined, and instead of pushing him to focus on traditional academics, nudged him towards movies and the theatre, clearly recognising his early talent, and what the stage could do for him.

“My mum wanted me to go see an Alfred Hitchcock film, I was only 11. She said go see it, I said but they're not letting me in. She wrote a letter to the manager saying ‘I have no problem with my son seeing this film’. Can you imagine. She used to make me go watch movies every single day. And that ended up becoming my way to come out of my shell, and converting my shyness into boldness: the stage, the theatre,” he said. “My big victory was the day I took the stage for the first time: my voice rang out, all my shyness was gone. This is what theatre, the stage, does for you.”

He told the audience how, as a 9-year-old child, he had watched Barbara Streisand’s Funny Girl (“which is not a funny movie at all”, clarifies Boman) 42 times at the Strand Cinema, and loved how the movie would begin with Streisand’s character entering the New York Public Theatre through the artist’s entrance, instead of with the general public, and realised that this was exactly what he wanted too: to enter from the artist’s entrance, and really take the stage.

Later in the session, in response to an audience question on what having a theatre background does for a Bollywood actor, Boman said, “I missed out on formal training, and I gave myself as much training as I could when I was in school, and I would read as many books as possible. I went on do to theatre, active theatre, for 14 consecutive years before I accepted my first formal role in a movie. I think it was important I did those years in theatre, that I understand what it meant to dismantle a set, cut your hands, you understand there’s a lot that goes into it backstage. You appreciate other people’s characters, and see how much goes into each performance. Understanding the power of the discipline of theatre, where you say I’m not going to just learn my lines, I’m going to learn a whole play, you know the play backwards and forwards, and understand in what context you’re saying those lines. Also in theatre, you do your lines to support the protagonist, to support the story, the theme.”

“So theatre actors,” he concluded rousingly, “they don’t end up being dependent on hits and flops in the industry. They learn from everything, and from others.”

The words “from the bottom to Rendezvous” had him harking back to the time he had worked at the Taj Hotel in Mumbai. When he couldn't get into any college because of his grades, he decided to become a waiter, and headed to the Taj Hotel, because if he was going to be a waiter, he wanted to be “the best damn waiter he could be”.

When narrating (in different voices) how a Parsi man who worked there had asked him which department he wanted to join at the hotel (to which Boman said Rendezvous, the fancy French restaurant on the top floor, and was promptly sent to do room service in the basement), Boman turned it into an amusing side note on being Parsi. “The Parsi community is the smallest in the world: there are only 67000 of us, and I am one of them. It's a dying community, that comes from Iran. So sad. The community elders come to me and say Boman, kuch karo, do something. What can I do! I can’t go and tell youngsters how to increase the tribe. I can’t go on the honeymoon and supervise. They talk about Kaziranga and the rhino getting extinct. I said forget about the rhino, the Parsi is getting extinct!”

The keyword prompt "10 feet by 4.5 feet" revealed how Boman used to work at a potato chip shop named Golden Wafers, which was started by his grandfather when he moved to India from Iran, and then managed by his father before it came down to Boman.

He said he would spend his time working here taking copious notes about every customer who walked in: what their facial expressions and how they carried bodies told him, and what he could observe about their characters from the way they opened their wallets. Later on in the session, whilst answering a question about so-called method acting, he segued into a discussion on how the only way to remain successful as an actor is to surround yourself with real people and to closely observe their candid emotions, something successful actors often stopped doing because of the ivory tower of celebritydom they get trapped in once they’re truly famous.

The real good stuff in any session, of course, usually comes with the audience questions, but a moment here to reflect on the audience at the Brahmaputra Valley Film Festival itself. Just a few minutes into his session, even a seasoned speaker and film festival regular like Boman picked up on how uniquely keen, even for a film festival audience, this one was, and said that he could judge how evolved this audience was by its great ability to pick up on the jokes he deliberately delivered flatly. The audience’s comments, in pretty much every session at BVFF, and particularly Boman’s, showed a keen respect for the artist or filmmaker in question, and a really thoughtful, kind and considered approach to asking questions about the craft of filmmaking.

One audience question had Boman discussing the artistic tensions between artists and directors. When asked by director Kshitij Sharma, whose film The Devil had been screened at BVFF earlier in the day, how Boman would negotiate having a different vision for the character than the director, Boman said it was an excellent question, and that this kind of disagreement nearly always happened.

“Everyone has their own interpretations, but eventually the director is the champion, he's the captain, he's the everything, and you have to respect his face. But let’s respect his face on the shop floor, the rehearsal room is where you can hash these things out. And I do lots of rehearsals. I sit with individual directors, in their homes or mine, and we discuss how individual scenes could be played in an unexpected way. So you can always convince the director during rehearsals, but on the studio floor, its always the director’s vision.”

But perhaps the most heart-warming and telling interaction, even more than Boman wielding an acoustic guitar and singing 'Give Me Sunshine' from his 2009 hit 3 Idiots, came from one audience member, Raju. Raju wanted Boman to do some lines as the infamous Dr Viru Sahastrabuddhe from 3 Idiots, and to respond to Raju’s own portrayal of Sharman Joshi’s Raju Rastogi. While Boman, who said he had trouble remembering lines while actually shooting, let alone nearly 10 years later, clearly had no idea what these lines were supposed to be, he sweetly invited Raju to take the stage with him, and gave improvising a jolly shot. With Raju’s eager prompting, Boman did remember the lines Raju so badly wanted to hear him say (a thickly enunciated “as expected!”, complete with Viru's trademark lisp), visibly making Raju’s day and giving the enthusiastic audience another reason to cheer. 

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