Screenwriter Honey Irani has spent an entire life in the movies, quite literally. She first faced the camera at the age of 2 for a film called Ek Shola, went on to becoming an assistant director, and eventually became a screenwriter of movies like Lamhe, Darr, Koi Mil Gaya and Armaan, which she also directed. The last movie she wrote was Krrish 3 in 2013. Her two children Farhan and Zoya Akhtar, are both taking her legacy forward in the movies. "I hope to work with them some day. There will be a lot of fights, but also a lot of fun," she laughs. When I meet Irani at her sea-facing bungalow on Bandstand, she informs that she's been back at work, developing a web series. She didn't divulge what the show was about but says she's happy to be back at work.
Excerpts from our conversation:
What's your earliest memory on a film set?
I started acting in 1954. I was just two-and-a-half years old so I was too young to remember. But I do remember that I never liked going to shoot. They used to always tell me we're going to eat ice-cream and then take me to the studio. I used to see the studio gate and start howling but then I sort of got used to it because the actors were very nice. I slowly started having fun. Everyone cared for me and pampered me. Meena (Kumari) ji almost replaced my mother in my life and I used to look forward to being with her. All these great actors taught me how to say my lines. Sometimes I would fumble and they would say 'it's okay, she's a child. She doesn't have to say it properly'. I could never say the word darwaza. I'd say darwajja and they kept it even though there was no dubbing then.
But even when I grew up I wasn't very keen on acting. I was always interested in being behind the scenes. I became an assistant to Ramesh Talwar for three films and then I started writing.
I used to write short stories for myself. My writing was so badly and my spelling and grammar was horrible but I used to keep writing something or the other. Javed saab once came upon it and said 'This is very nice. You need to write more stories'.
You worked with so many massive stars. Were you ever star struck? Or were you too young to realise?
Now when I look back I feel I wish I had the sensibility then to realise that I was working with stalwarts like Balraj Sahni, Motilal, Ashok Kumar, Raj Kapoor and Nutan ji. I was never star struck. In those days there were huge studios so 5-6 films were being shot simultaneously. At lunch time everyone used to gather at those huge centre tables and bring their tiffins. Imagine Raj Kapoor and Nargis ji and Dilip Kumar all eating together and discussing their films. They'd tell each other 'you did that scene very well today' or 'aaj tere ghar se kya khana aaya hai?' It was so friendly and so beautiful.
Do you regret missing out on an education?
Every child doesn't like to go to school but I liked it. Unfortunately no school would keep us because Daisy (her sister) and I were always absent. So we had to keep changing our school. I could attend formal school only till the 5th class. I think I was in a private school till 10 years old and there were only 3 children and I was one of them. I was very excited I came third!
After that we had a tutor who would come with us to the sets to teach us. He would last for one month and then gaayab. Then my elder sister Maneka used to take our lessons at home. She was very strict. Now I regret that I didn't take it seriously. I was so happy that Zoya did her graduation. Farhan didn't, so I thought that probably comes from me.
Zoya has always said in her interviews that she was introduced to a lot of filmmakers around the time you had enrolled yourself in a course at FTII. What was that time in your life like?
I don't remember the year but I know I was kind of educating myself on the movies at the time. I knew that the archives in Pune had many old movies by great filmmakers. That time there weren't so many videos so that one month was for me was like an eye-opener. It was the Film Appreciation course at FTII. For me it was like going to college, something that I had missed, so I really enjoyed it and I took Farhan and Zoya along with me to Pune.
I had full mania for films. Whenever I would go abroad I would just buy movies. I had a library with some 500 films across languages and every day I would watch a film. I never told the children not to watch something. Sometimes maybe I would say you're too young for this but otherwise I'd say 'the library is open, see what you want'.
Who were the filmmakers that influenced you?
Oh, I was a great fan of Akira Kurosawa. He was a master. This course opened my eyes to world cinema. I saw a movie called Red Beard and I thought I have to see everything this director has made. And then I saw Roshomon – oh my, god! I moved to Fellini and Godard and Billie Wilder and David Lean. I then started watching Costa Gavras. Very few people had heard of him at the time but what great movies he's made! I used to buy and keep all these movies. That was my hobby. And I still have all of them in my house in Coonoor.
In the middle I had completely stopped writing and I worked only with Rakesh Roshan. I was comfortable with him and he was an intelligent director. Then beech main that went away. The kind of movies that were coming were mindless comedies with double meaning dialogues and item numbers. That's something I could not deal with.
By the time you started writing you were a single mother to two kids. Why did it take you so long? How did you realise you had the gift of writing?
I used to write short stories for myself. My writing was so bad and my spelling and grammar was horrible but I used to keep writing something or the other. Javed saab once came upon it and said 'This is very nice. You need to write more stories'. I was very scared to narrate it. I thought people will say – Javed likh raha hai toh uski biwi ne bhi likhna shuru kar liya. So all these complexes and fears were there. Then I mentioned it to Pamela Chopra. I told her about an idea I had. She said it's so nice, why don't you develop it as a TV series. It was Aaina. I was so scared of narrating it to Yash ji but he heard and said 'why do you want to make a TV show. Make a film'. Then he said he had an idea which had been with him for many years but it never materialised. That was Lamhe. It took me 15 days to write the film. It gave me a lot of confidence.
Were you disappointed when it didn't do well?
It didn't do well when it released but when it re-released it became a cult film. Suddenly people started talking about it and I thought to myself 'what happened to you'll then!' I think people just didn't want to accept the subject at that time. Somewhere they really felt like he's fallen in love with his daughter. But she wasn't his daughter! There was a big review which was written and it was all wrong so I asked the journalist, 'I'm sorry but where is this scene in the movie, can you tell me that?' And he said I haven't seen the film. How can you do that? So these kind of things happened with that movie.
You then wrote Darr. Was the famous stammering everytime Shah Rukh said Kiran always a part of the script?
Darr came from something Adi (Aditya Chopra) had seen… I think some other film, and I developed it. I thought someone who is so much in love with the person and is so shy and such an introvert will stammer a little while taking her name. You know that fear of should I call her by her name or not. That happens when you're so in awe of somebody. That really clicked.
I remember Aamir was to play that part but he felt that his audience didn't want to see him in a negative role, so he said no. Then when I narrated it to Sunny (Deol) I told him I personally feel you should do the negative role. He said, 'Picture nahi chalegi. My image is different'. They were scared to take risks at that time. That's how Shah Rukh became the best choice. He just grabbed it. Even for Aaina we asked Dimple (Kapadia) to play Amrita's (Singh) role and though she was a very good friend, she said no, and Amrita got an award for it. I remember Juhi (Chawla) was shocked when I gave her the script. She said it's the first time I got something complete with dialogues.
Were you among the few writers who had a bound script?
Yeah. Or else dialogues or scenes set pe aake likhte the. Sometimes actors would suggest lines and the writers had to change accordingly. I never understood that. If it's a good suggestion then fine, but every actor thought he was a writer. I had to put my foot down and say no. Actors would say, 'I did this in my last movie and it did very well so I'm going to do it again'. But I'd be thinking, it's not going with the rest of the film or with the character. Luckily they didn't mess around with me much because I had Yash Chopra and Rakesh Roshan backing me. But most directors used to just please actors. I never worked with those people. They'd be like star upset so jayega.
Why did you gradually start working lesser?
In the middle I had completely stopped writing and I worked only with Rakesh Roshan. I was comfortable with him and he was an intelligent director. He's absolutely specific about what he wants, he has discussions and has a good sense of humour, which is so important. Then beech main that went away. The kind of movies that were coming were mindless comedies with double meaning dialogues and item numbers. That's something I could not deal with. I thought I might as well sit at home.
Were you protective about your female characters?
Yes. I was very particular about them. All my female characters are very strong. I never liked ki koi ghatiya baat ho aurat ke baare main. No chance. I was very strict about it and that's why I couldn't do many films. I couldn't tolerate hitting the woman on the back, double meaning dialogues…
I imagine that at the time you started working as an assistant director there weren't too many women a film set.
There weren't too many. In fact, I was the first female assistant director when I worked on Basera, Duniya and Zamaana with Ramesh Talwar. Then more women started coming out. But no one made me feel like the odd one out. Ramesh ji would say, 'I don't need anyone else to look after the department because Honey is there'. Some of them used to tease me a lot. I remember I had to give a clap on Zamaana, it was a tight close of Chintu (Rishi Kapoor). So I gave the clap and said action and I was trying to go but I couldn't move the clap from his face. He had held it from down and everyone was screaming 'move from there!' But that was a lot of fun.
Duniya was fun because Dilip saab and Dada Moni (Ashok Kumar) were there and they had seen me as a child actor. They used to say 'Tu director banegi. Humein legi na hero ke liye?' I used to get very nervous in front of Dilip saab. Those people had a lot of charisma. They had time for you.
Even though you're still connected to the industry through your children – a lot of your collaborators and friends are no more or work much lesser now. Is it hard to build new relationships and start over?
In those days everything was family oriented. Yash ji ke yahan main raat ko reh jaati thi because we used to like getting up early in the morning. By 6.30 – 7 AM we used to be up sitting in the gadda room and that used to go on till lunch time. Nashta would also happen there, and then further meetings. By the evening he would be like idhar hi so jaa. I really miss those times. There was connect. Even with the actors, you could pick up the phone and talk to them.
Now if I have a script, first I have to tell the manager, she will read it and give it to the agent, then the agent will read … it doesn't even reach the actor. They tell you straight the actor doesn't have time. I miss that connect when you would narrate to an actor and you could see their reaction immediately. This waiting for three and four months I don't like. It's one of the reasons I don't work more. All new people have come and maybe they are not aware of what I've done.
Earlier shaam ke shooting ke baad hum sab yahaan aake baith jaate the. We would be chatting, listening to music, watching a movie together. That was a different generation and this is different, you shouldn't put yourself in the middle of it. I feel awkward even when they have a party here at home. I don't like to come down. I don't want them to think yahaan aake aunty baithi hui hain.
The young kids come here and say hello aunty but it's not the same thing. I'm still very close to Anil, Jaya, Amit ji – so that group is there. I don't need to send my script to Mr Bachchan. If I call him, he will say, ya come over. It's very difficult with youngsters. There's this awkwardness.
Now if I have a script, first I have to tell the manager, she will read it and give it to the agent, then the agent will read … it doesn't even reach the actor. They tell you straight the actor doesn't have time. I miss that connect when you would narrate to an actor and you could see their reaction immediately.
How have you kept your love for movies alive? Do you watch everything that releases?
I watch almost everything in the theatre unless it's a genre that I don't enjoy. Sometimes my children tell me 'mom you better not see this'. I loved Badhaai Ho so much from last year.
Who are your movie watching companions?
Now I'm writing a web series. I may do one for Zoya also. Let's see…
That's wonderful. You're getting back to writing after long. Is it hard to bring back that daily discipline?
I wake up very early in the morning around 5.30. I go for my walk, do my yoga and I start writing from 7.30 – 8 to about 1. I do this every day, except Sundays. I have a writing partner Nishi Prem and we're writing together. It's great fun. In a certain number of minutes per episode you have to say something and then bring them on for the next. We've already pitched the idea and it's been passed. We should start shooting in 4-5 months.
I've been watching a lot of web shows too. I just saw Made in Heaven which I hadn't seen earlier. I saw it in one shot. I also watch a lot of American shows like The Marvellous Mrs Maisel, This Is Us, and The Good Wife.
Are you emotional about everything that your kids make? Do you get nervous for them?
Zoya had put up this set for Gully Boy which I went and saw. It was so beautiful. I don't know how to explain what I feel. I can't put it in words. It's very emotional.
I used to see Zoya working with total concentration on this film – leaving at 4 in the morning and coming back at 8 pm and then having meetings. I think this was her most difficult film. Thankfully it's all paid off. When I saw it, I felt the same thing I did when I saw Dil Chahta Hai. I thought 'Woah! This is something we've never seen before'.
I'm also very nervous for them. Even during my time, when a film was about to release I would have high fever. Till today when my kids have a release they are more stable than I am. I read everything that's written about the film. I feel a part of it.
You've spent your entire life in the movies. What's the one piece of advice you gave your kids when they were starting out?
Never give up. It took Zoya quite a long time to make her first film and that used to bother me. But I always knew she was very talented. I'd tell her you'll get your break, just keep at it.