The year is 2022 and actor Boman Irani, at age 62, has made his debut on a streaming show. In Mihir Desai's psychological thriller Masoom (streaming on Disney+Hotstar), Irani plays the seemingly-sinister Balraj Kapoor, who is suspected of having killed his wife. Coming up on a 20-year career and a filmography that for the most part is made up of film roles that have usually afforded him just a handful of scenes, Irani said he didn't take the significantly longer screen time he got on Masoom for granted. "I was conscious that more screen time doesn't necessarily mean better performance. Given the additional screen time, one might try to make a meal out of their character and the whole thing might go off the rails," Irani said over a Zoom call from London.
It takes a certain kind of actor to breathe life into thin writing. And when such actors get a whole season centred around them, it becomes an exciting thing to watch. As Balraj, Irani uses his body language to craft his most memorable performance in a long time. His recent appearances have all been in mainstream films — as former cricketer Farokh Engineer in Kabir Khan's 83 (2021); an airline honcho in Ajay Devgn's Runway 34 (2022); an antagonist chasing his son and wife in Divyang Thakkar's Jayeshbhai Jordaar (2022). After the limited scope and screen time of such roles, it's refreshing to see Irani craft a character in Masoom that is nuanced and has the space to breathe on screen.
Irani said yes to the show after reading the first three pages of Masoom's script. Was he hooked by the suspense? Irani answered in the negative. "Building intrigue is basically hyping information. That's something for the audiences. When I'm reading a script, I'm looking at how a character is revealed on the page," said Irani. Masoom begins with the close-up of Sana (Samara Tijori), as she remembers a conversation she had with her mother (Upasana Singh). She narrowly escapes a car crash and is reprimanded by a cop (Manu Rishi Chadha). When the cop asks to see the car's papers, the audience learns Sana is the youngest and estranged daughter of Dr. Balraj. Even though his character is only referenced in these moments, the way all the information was layered into this first scene convinced Irani that Desai knew what he was doing. Although he's not the show's protagonist, Irani is the one everyone has noticed in Masoom — yet another bit of vindication for the actor who simply wandered into show business without a plan.
"What changes their mood? Once you've figured that out, not only do you add layers to these performances, you also tend to identify with them as human beings," he said.
Starting work in his late teens as a waiter at the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel in Mumbai, Irani worked at a family-run farsan shop through his 20s while dabbling in photography. He made his theatre debut in his mid-30s and was 42 years old when he entered the movie business, appearing in two English films – Rahul Bose's Everybody Says I'm Fine (2001) and Ram Madhvani's Let's Talk (2002).
In Let's Talk, Irani sheds all vanity, at one point even sitting with his legs spread out on a sofa, while wearing only a towel. "That's how you sit when you're quarreling with your spouse, don't you?" said Irani when I asked him about that scene. Madhvani's film imagines scenarios in which a wife (Maia Katrak) wants to tell her husband (Irani) about her extramarital affair, and that she is pregnant. The film digs deep into the ugliness of a relationship whose intimacy has been extinguished, removing all pretence from the equation, leaving behind only two petty and vicious adults.
Madhvani, who went on to direct projects like Neerja (2016) and Aarya (streaming on Disney+ Hotstar), said he had to lock Irani in his office to get the actor on board for Let's Talk. That's how convinced the director was that he needed Irani to play the role of the husband in his debut film. "He [Irani] can play an antagonist where you see the antagonist has a point of view. Even while playing a 'function' in a hardcore mainstream film, Boman brings complexity, nuance, dignity, humour and believability. Given that the scope is limited, it's all the more worth noting," Madhvani said.
When playing any character that is unlike his own personality, Irani likes to look for their Kryptonite. "What changes their mood? Once you've figured that out, not only do you add layers to these performances, you also tend to identify with them as human beings," he said. That awareness of a character's vulnerability and complexity informs most of Irani's performances, even when the roles are minor on paper. For instance, as Mr Kapoor in Shakun Batra's Ek Main Aur Ekk Tu (2012), he makes a character that's as flat as a cardboard cut-out feel dynamic and memorable. In a scene towards the end of the film, Mr Kapoor is seen 'prepping' his son Rahul (Imran Khan) for a dinner party that could fructify into a lucrative business deal. Irani's Mr Kapoor is a strict and manipulative parent, but he never comes off as a one-note villain – not even when he is literally tying a noose (of a tie) around his son's neck and tightening it gradually.
Similarly, in Cocktail (2012) and Jolly LLB (2013) – where Irani plays a boisterous uncle settled in London and a premium lawyer seemingly on a million-buck retainer respectively – he adds depth to a part where most actors might deliver a functional performance. He also brings the elegance of restraint to most of his roles. Take, for example, how Irani plays the lawyer who argues (in good faith) for his client in Jolly LLB. He doesn't resort to overacting or adopt a tic to signal a lack of scruples (think Amrish Puri, who practically founded his own school of villainous lawyers in Bollywood). There's an economy in a Boman Irani performance that is often dissonant in a loud Bollywood potboiler.
If one were to go through Irani's filmography, the actor has done some impressive work even while playing roles that make up the supporting cast – like the forgetful principal in Farah Khan's Main Hoon Na (2004). Irani's timing is so good, he elevates a role that is mostly garnish into something that makes an impression. Or as Khurrana in Dibakar Banerjee's Khosla Ka Ghosla (2006), who, as Irani saw him, was fuelled by the knowledge that his son is ashamed of him. "He [Khurrana] says it in a throwaway scene — 'Mere bete ko baap se sharam aati hai [My son is ashamed of his father]'. And that's why he tries to dress up like Sethi [Navin Nischol] and tries to hang around him," explained Irani. As the cunning realtor Lucky Singh in Lage Raho Munnabhai (2006), Irani skirted close to the stereotype of a Sardar, but imbued the character with just enough personality to feel like a distinct (and real) person. Irani reminisced about the time he and director Rajkumar Hirani discussed Lucky Singh's reaction to being confronted by his daughter (Dia Mirza) for being a cheat and a liar. "He becomes small and curls up in the foetal position and starts crying. I would like to believe he's found some innocence after being called out by his daughter," Irani said.
If Irani sounds like a screenwriter while talking about his past acting roles, it's because he has been writing his own film. For most people, writing is a solitary process, but in Irani's case, it's been the starting point for building a new community. At the launch of his production company, Irani Movietone, instead of throwing a party, Irani organised a screenwriting workshop. "It started off with my own project," he said. "I'd just finished writing it, and I found that while there was something to it in terms of quality, I realised it was still lacking in finesse. So, I became a student. And I began learning how to better the craft of writing."
For the screenwriting workshop, Irani flew down his friend and Oscar-winning screenwriter Alex Dinelaris (Birdman, 2014), and invited 200-odd writers from the Indian film industry with varying degrees of experience. "I also thought that whatever quantum of knowledge I got, why should it just remain limited to me?" he said. When the pandemic struck and lockdown followed, a few of the participants of that first workshop set up a Zoom meeting. That eventually developed into a daily ritual. Every morning at 11.30am sharp, Irani and this group of screenwriters jammed on the craft of screenwriting. "Five days into it, three students became 350. No questions asked. A Zoom session has become a movement today," said Irani. The initiative is called Spiral Bound. In April, they had their 500th session where Irani got friends like Hirani, Madhvani and Anupam Kher to participate and share notes with the aspiring screenwriters.
While we wait for Irani to make his debut as a screenwriter, the praise he has got for Masoom may lead to more acting projects in the streaming space. Most actors (including Irani) prefer film projects designed for the big screen, but it's worth wondering whether contemporary mainstream Bollywood can give a character actor like Irani the space and scope he deserves. Irani, though, has no complaints against Bollywood. He said he's got more than he could have hoped for from the commercial film industry. "It's like a businessperson saying 'I wish I'd set up 10 more companies'! Where does it stop? How much is enough? When I made my first movie, did I know that 20 years down the line, I would be talking about a career that made me happy as a human being?" he said. "There might be 10 times the money or 50 more awards – how much does that change things if I'm already happy with what I have?"