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Indian actor and producer Boman Irani, who made his acting plunge at the age of 44, fits the ‘late bloomers in Bollywood’ mould. But who decides it’s late, asks Irani, who has been hyper-productive during the Covid-19 lockdown in India.

“Many ask me about joining movies at 44 and how it was pretty late to start … But who makes those rules? Remember, you need to make your own rules,” said Irani in an exclusive Zoom video call.

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Irani, who is known for his impeccable comic timing in films such as ‘3 Idiots’ and ‘Munna Bhai MBBS’, is an aberration in an age-biased industry like Bollywood that takes great pride in its youthful and agile dancers.

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Irani in ‘3 Idiots’.

But Irani — through his pick of eccentric roles — has managed to stand out and considers himself a perennial student of life and cinema.From wanting to direct and write his own film at 61 to clocking a whopping 150 online screenwriting classes as part of his ‘Spiral Bound’ initiative, Irani — who owns his own production house Irani Movietone — believes it’s never too late to learn. His online masterclasses — which have seen the likes of Oscar-winner Mexican director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu and ‘Kapoor & Sons’ director Shakun Batra turn teachers — were a spectacular success with over 100 aspiring talents attending sessions every day.

Excerpts from our interview with the actor, who has films such as cricketing biopic ‘’83’ with Ranveer Singh and ‘Jayeshbhai Jordaar’ in the pipeline...

Congratulations on spearheading 150 virtual sessions on screenwriting during this lockdown. Let’s start with the very basic question: Can you teach a person to write a good screenplay? Or should the skill of writing be intrinsic and inherent in you?

I believe that you can teach a tone-deaf person music. He need not be the best musician in the world but you can him teach music. Remember, Beethoven was deaf when he composed his iconic sonatas and operas. I would never put it past anyone to do anything. Who can tell if you are a born writer or not? I am actually arguing with the very nature that did not give you the writing bug.

Also, screenwriting — apart from being a creative thing — is a scientific-process. But, poetry is an expression through a string of words that you weave together and when you choose your words, it becomes a beautiful lyrical thing. Poetry writing may be difficult to teach, but screenwriting is a scientific process as it has a structure to it. There is an understanding, a timeline and you can teach those elements. There were some students who could not write four lines when they joined my classes, but today they can write half a script at least and it gives me great joy. Honestly, I can’t call them students because many who enrolled are screenwriters who have worked 10-15 years in this business. They want to up their game.

So writing can be taught …

We learn every day of our lives and I do not deny anyone the opportunity and claim: ‘No, you don’t have it in you’. In my early auditions as an actor, I was told, ‘You just don’t have it in you to make it as an actor.’ But I was determined to learn. The talent that I have as an actor maybe lesser then somebody else, but you can always learn things.

That’s heartening to hear. Why did you attempt to teach screenwriting as opposed to acting? Do we need screenwriters that badly in Bollywoods?

When I was a kid, I wanted to be a writer or director. I don’t believe in timelines. Whenever you want to take a stab at something, just go ahead and do it. I wrote a script of my first film a few years ago and when I read it, I realised that it had a lot of heart, but it did not have the science or have the flow. So I decided to be a student at the age of 53. So, when I was in New York at a restaurant, I met a playwright and I told him about my story. He said it’s a wonderful story, but called it a bunch of pearls that are not strung together. I asked him about how to do that and he scribbled on my napkin.

I wish I had saved that napkin that day because it would have made for a great story. And when he explained about screenwriting, I thought: ‘oh boy, I need to sit and study this and he should ideally teach me.’ He agreed and then when we stepped outside of the restaurant, which was near the New York University, a few Indian youngsters approached and started taking selfies.

It was then that the playwright realised I was an actor and asked me why I would want to learn screenwriting at my age. I told him I wanted to learn and he agreed on the condition that if he wanted to say something about my writing, he could come across as rude and that he won’t hesitate to air his thoughts. That was our deal because when you learn you need to also learn to pick yourself up after the hard knocks. I made him my guru and luckily I had picked the right person. He had written just one film at that point — an art house film that he believed will just ’come and go’. But our friendship blossomed and he won an Oscar for that same film.

Was it the director of ‘Birdman’, Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu?

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Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu.

Yes! I thought I might lose him as a friend after that win as he was going to be the busiest man in Hollywood. But strangely our friendship blossomed. Last year when I launched my own company, I flew him down to India for a workshop on screenwriting, instead of having a party. We have wonderful stories but we may not necessarily have great screenplays and that is the distinction I am trying to make. A good story could end up in a bad screenplay. We could lose a good story because the narrative of cinema is very different from reading a book or writing a novel synopsis. You got to stretch your screenplay for 2 hours and that requires craft.

It is interesting that you call screenwriting a science because I always assumed that writing was fluid and liberal?

A few years ago, I went to Italy and I saw this iconic statue of Michelangelo’s David. I could see every muscle on that man’s body and his hand and the guy with me said that Michelangelo learnt anatomy first. He studied the human anatomy like a doctor, before he started chipping away on a marble. He studied the insides, the lungs and he studied every muscle before he started and that is science right?

Art is a fluid form but there is a science to it. There might be art in making a beautiful table with great inlay, but it should be a levelled table first before you put a lovely inlay that makes it ornate. Shouldn’t it be sturdy enough to stand on four legs? And that is what I strive to tell people that don’t think you are a creative person and you can do whatever you want. Shakespeare wrote plays and sonnets to a structure. So what exempts you from writing a story in that manner.

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Bollywood is often criticised for being star-driven and not have a sturdy, solid screenplay. Is that true or has that changed?

What are you trying to tell me?... In Bollywood, we have made some wonderful movies. Are you telling me that ‘Deewar’, ‘Sholay’, ‘DDLJ’ [‘Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge’] or Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s films had no story? Of course, they had story and why else would they continue to engage you for so many years or run in cinemas for years and years? A Bollywood star may help with his or her charm, charisma or their acting talents. But it was their stories that made these movies succeed. Look at ‘Lagaan’, what an amazing ‘David Vs Goliath’ tale. It isn’t fair to generalise. We make good and bad films everywhere and it’s easy to criticise.

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A still from 'Deewar'.

You are a portrait of a late-bloomer actor. Do you believe that it’s never too late to start or learn a new skill? For instance, my father has cracked the law entrance exam this year and will attend a three-year law graduate programme at 69 …

Yes, I am a late bloomer but who decides it’s late? Who can decide if your father is late for studying law in a college? He is going when it was his time to go. Many ask me: ‘At 44, you going the movie industry and isn’t that pretty late?’. But who are they to assume that? It was perfect for me. I might write and direct my first movie 61. I am a debutante grandfather at 61. So who makes these rules? You just need to make your own rules.

Quote/Unquote

“Scenes and characters make a good screenplay. For example, my wife claimed she didn’t like films about cars, but recently I asked her to watch ‘Ford vs Ferrari’ for company’s sake. And, after watching the movie, she realised that it has got nothing to do with cars. It has to do with two human beings, their trials and tribulations.” — Boman Irani when asked what makes a good screenplay.

“When you are teaching you have got to be convincing and true to your craft. I have been studying for eight years about writing a good screenplay. Just because I have clout (which I have none) as an actor, I can’t pull off 150 virtual sessions.” — Boman Irani when asked if it was his brand name as an actor that lured students to sign up for his masterclasses.