At the fifth series of Shri Jal P Gimi Memorial Lecture organised by Rashtrasant Tukdoji Maharaj Nagpur University (RTMNU), Bollywood star Boman Irani narrated his awe-inspiring life journey, from a being waiter to a sports photographer to a successful film star.
Boman Irani, popular for his roles in super hit movies like Munna Bhai M.B.B.S., Lage Raho Munna Bhai, 3 idiots, etc., spoke more gleefully about his struggle than his successful film career. Irani, who’s known for his awesome comic timing, left the audience teary-eyed as he narrated the poignant tales of his bitter childhood experiences. Hundreds of students, at NU convocation hall, listened with rapt attention to an hour-long speech of the actor, who worked as a waiter at The Taj Mahal Palace, Mumbai before acting happened to him.
‘They say Nagpur’s oranges are extremely famous, but I feel Nagpur’s diamonds are very famous and one of them is Rajkumar Hirani. I can’t believe the fact that I’m the same person, delivering a speech here, who was once academically weak! My father passed away in May 1959, and I was born in the same year in December. Technically, I was born late! So, I make sure I’m punctual on sets, etc. 🙂 I had a distraught family, so we were different from other families. I was surrounded by women all around – right from my mother, three elder sisters, five maasis, chachis and a couple of cousins. So, I had never even seen or heard a man’s voice! Such incidents left a huge impact on my life. I had a problem of speech impairment then. I couldn’t even articulate my thoughts and had a thin voice. Incidentally, I used to speak like ‘Virus’ (my character from 3 idiots) and people would make fun of me. Till the time I was 12 (seventh grade), I never opened my mouth because of the inferiority complex I had, as I assumed that something was miserably wrong with me.
When my family and me relocated to Mumbai, my mother took me to St. Mary School. There, the school’s Father told my mother that if I recognised the two pictures he’d show, they’d enroll me in the school. The Father showed me a picture of a horse but I knew that I wouldn’t be able to pronounce it, so I just kept my mouth shut. He then showed me a picture of a mouse and I still kept mum. So, I didn’t get admission in the school. While my mother couldn’t stop crying on our way back home, I thought that I had made a wise decision of keeping quiet in front of the Father.
One week later, the same Father called up my mother after the school reopened; even the admissions had got closed. He said, ‘Mrs Irani, we are educationists. Is your son stupid? No. Are we stupid? Yes! Who doesn’t know what a horse or a mouse looks like? There is something really wrong with this child and we’ll try to bring the best out of him.’ This is how I got admitted in St. Mary School. I realised the fact that I was dyslexic and was going through an attention deficiency syndrome.
I thank Amir Khan and his movie ‘Taare Zameen Par’ for bringing up issues like dyslexia and educating people about the same. In the early 60’s, the word ‘duffer’ was synonymous to dyslexia. All my neighbours would call me duffer! Always beware of your neighbour’s mothers! They’ll try to prove you stupid just to portray their child as the smarter one. This is the biggest problem in parenting these days.
Parents go against their children’s wishes to bring out the best in them. They should realise that a child can’t be judged on the basis of his percentage. Birds never fly at the same height. If Sachin Tendulakar’s parents had pushed him into engineering, what a loss it would have been for the country and the world at large! I think youngsters should be encouraged in a way that they feel comfortable to become passionate towards life. One should follow his heart and not run behind money. If I had told my parents about my dream of becoming an actor, they would have definitely termed it as a ‘nautanki.’ But here I am today! So, it’s extremely important to nurture our children’s talent and make sure they never feel inferior. In my school days, a student who scored a 60% would be considered to have passed in first class and a 70% scorer would be tagged as a genius! Times have drastically changed. So much so that even a 95% scorer doesn’t get an admission in a reputed medical college. Where does it all end after all?
Coming back to the time when I was in my seventh grade, I just said one thing to myself, ‘Jo dar gaya, samjho mar gaya!’ I gradually overcame my complexities. I can now proudly say that I passed my 10th grade despite cutting classes. I did my best; and that’s what matters. I went to Pune and chose one of the Wadia colleges for my further studies. I realised that I didn’t have the courage to become a doctor, engineer or something as ‘cool’ as a chartered accountant then. So what did I do? The penny dropped! I assessed myself in front of the mirror, and realised that I was interested in performing arts. But, all this had to wait.
If not anything, I thought I could definitely be a great waiter! I attended a small course in hospitality for a couple of weeks and then I went to my grandmother. I was so afraid to tell her about all this but I somehow gathered the courage and told her, ‘Granny, I want to be a waiter!’ ‘A waiter?’ she asked. ‘Good but only on one condition – be the best waiter in the world,’ she said. I went to The Taj Mahal Palace Hotel, where my boss was a khadoos (grumpy) Parsi, who asked me about my qualifications, to which I replied, ‘Food and Beverage.’ He said, ‘Idiot, the entire hotel is about food and beverage! Which department?’ I said, ‘Rendezvous Restaurant.’ With all sarcasm, he said, ‘So you want to start at the top? Very good! Idiot, start at the bottom!’ I was asked to provide room service. For two years, I did my job of room service, paid my dues, collected my tips and saved it in my piggy bank.
We owned a small shop in Mumbai, where we sold Gujarati items for 12 years. But something kept bothering me. I was restless. Just when I sat in the shop, figuring out what I wanted to do in my life, I met the most beautiful woman in the world – my mother-in-law – who introduced me to my wife – Zenobia Irani. Married at 25 and a father at 26, I learnt that I was proud to be a wafer-wala dukandaar. Despite working for long, I could never take my family out for a vacation even after seven years of marriage. It was extremely shameful for me because I wasn’t fulfilling my responsibility as a father. So, I decided to earn good money. I broke my piggy bank, bought a camera and started doing sports photography. I gradually started selling pictures of people playing sports like cricket, basketball and other matches for Rs 25. I would deliberately click pictures of the students, as I knew that their parents would always buy their children’s pictures. I earned decent money through this.
I finally took my family to Ooty, for our first holiday, which turned out to be the most disastrous trip as our hotel looked like a horror movie’s bhoot bangla! It was the last straw and I needed to ‘wake up.’ I got a very good opportunity to click pictures for a boxing championship for a Norwegian magazine. I was supposed to click just three pictures, for which I was being paid $300, which turned out to be the biggest paycheck of my life. I got a call from Norway and they told me that they really liked my pictures. They paid me $300 per picture and they sent me $900! You can do wonders if you take control of your life. Then, I got another cheque for $900. I was so surprised to receive the same. There was a note with the cheque that read, ‘$900 for the re-usage of your photographs.’ Their ethical act made me feel that this money would bring good luck and prosperity for me and I’d too follow similar ethics till I die. Every time the Europeans used my pictures, they sent me a cheque of $900. Unfortunately, I had gone into depression as I wasn’t able to repay my debts and they kept increasing. Gradually, I repaid all my debts.
I met Shiamak Davar in a studio and three months later we met again and he took me out for lunch, where I met Alyque Padamsee, who wanted me to audition for a theatre role. He said, ‘Boman you are an actor’. I declined. But he still gave me a role of some two and a half minutes. I was skeptical but Shaimak forced me to give it a chance. I did the role. The play was a flop but I got some good reviews. I got another role, where I had to play a 75-year-old man in a play called ‘I am not Bajirao,’ for which I was paid Rs 200. We were to stage the play in an auditorium with a capacity of 150 people. Just few days before the opening show, a gentleman walked up to us and said, ‘Why are you releasing this play in such a small theatre, you need a big one.’ We thought, why to book a big theatre for such a small play. He said, ‘Nothing in this world is small or unimportant’. For some strange reason, we booked the TATA theatre, which is a 1200 seater; and it was a house full. People smelled the quality and efforts that we had put in. People enjoyed our work so much that they gave us standing ovation. The play kept running non-stop for 10 years in the same theatre. If you believe, the audience will believe, if you don’t believe, the audience will not believe.
Finally, a friend of mine called up and said ‘I want to make an experimental film which will have only two actors. For this film, we shot straight for eight months. Then, I asked my director, when would we release this movie? He said, ‘Oh! I forgot to tell you! We were never going to release this movie’. I kept quiet. Something strange happened during the premiere of this movie. A gentleman, who was also present at the time of editing, asked people about me. The next evening he took me out for dinner and handed over a cheque of Rs two lakhs to me. I asked him what was that for? He asked, ‘What are you doing next December?’ I cross questioned him, ‘What are you doing next December?’ To which he replied, ‘Next year December is mine, I will cast you for my movie’. I asked, ‘which movie, what script?’ For the cheque he gave me, I asked, ‘Why are your giving me such a hefty amount?’ He said, ‘If I don’t, you will give your dates to someone else’. He called me up one fine day and said, ‘Boman script ready hai’. I asked him the movie’s name and he replied – Munna Bhai MBBS. This was not making sense to me, so I asked him about the plot. He gave me another shock! ‘Ek gunda, doctor banta hai’. I asked him about my role and he said that I was playing the Dean. And what does the Dean do? He replied, ‘Kuch nahi, bas hasta rehta hai’. I thought I waited for six months for the script and this man is making a fool out of me. He asked me to meet his colleague Raju (Hirani) and I followed.
I was so impressed with him, that I did not care about the story or anything. I just wanted to be friends with this Nagpuri ‘heera.’ We asked Vivek Oberoi, Shah Rukh Khan, Aishwarya, Kajol to work in the film, but everybody walked out. Finally, we found a 44-year-old handsome hunk to play ‘Munna’ and he was non other than Sanjay Dutt. When the movie came out, it flopped. I went up to Raju and he said, ‘Picture hit ho gai!’. I said, ‘Par theatre main toh koi aya hi hai hai’. All he mentioned was, ‘Sab has rahe hai, ro rahe ha, yeh hi mujhe chahiye tha’. Every night, I used to shut my shop, buy balcony tickets in Maratha Mandir and would watch the movie. While I was walking down the stairs of the hall, I found a woman sitting on the footpath and staring at me. She said excitedly, ‘Maamu ho na! Mast kaam kiya’. I had got bouquets, some good reviews and some bad for the film, but this was something which came straight from her heart.
I was going to attend the first award function of my life. Backstage, Arshad Warsi asked me what I was wearing for the award function. I never owned a suit in my life. Arshad called up his celebrity tailor and asked him to make a suit for me. The tailor asked, ‘Kiske liye?’ Arshad replied, ‘Boman Irani’ to which the tailor replied, ‘Main nahi jaanta usko, nahi banega’. Arshad told him who I was and which movie I had acted in; and again a miracle happened! He just asked Arshad my height and said, ‘I will make it!’ Arshad asked him, ‘How would you do that without measurements? He said, ‘Movie ki pirated DVD hain, usko pause, play karke bana dunga’. I could not believe my ears! The award function started and the suit arrived. I wore the suit in all dark but I was so excited. While I was putting my buttons, Prem Chopra saab announced, ‘The best supporting actor-male goes to Boman Irani’. I came running on the stage and fell on the dark steps, I hurt my hand, I dusted my suit, much like I have done all my life! I came on the stage and accepted my first award!’