A look at Mumbai’s dwindling Irani chai shops

UPDATE: Link to the documentary mentioned in this article is here.

A lot can happen over chai. Once over 300 Irani tea-shops in Mumbai were as intrinsic to the city as streetside cafes are to Paris.
During the 1950s-60s, the unfussy restaurants-cum-stores flourished, attracting a regular clientele of senior citizens, office-goers, campus students, writers and artists.

Adorned with glass paintings of Zoroaster, vistas of sunrises over waterfalls and notice boards chalk-written with stern warnings on the lines of “do not talk politics.”
Today, the megapolis is home to barely 30 Zoroastrian Irani shops, and even this number is dwindling. The restaurants are famous for their spindly chairs which were designed in Germany at the turn of the 19th century.

The tea served is a blend of tea leaves, sugar and thick milk but brewed with a touch that is exclusive to the Iranis. Hard crust “brun” bread as well as the soft “bun maska” are the ideal starters to the 6 am to 6 pm tea ceremony. Some restaurants had “specialities” like the mawa cakes of B. Merwan, the gooey cream pastries of Kyani and the lamb mince pau of Military, all situated on expensive real estate areas of south Mumbai. Kyani has been declared a heritage structure and is in no danger of vanishing, but prime cafes like Bastani, Alice and Brabourne have downed their shutters.

Reasons: leaner revenues, indifference of the new Irani generation in slogging round the clock at the cash counter, and of course, the killer competition from the fast-food chains.

The story of Irani cafés has been documented before perhaps. My intention was to offer a subjective take on the hospitality offered by the restaurants, besides celebrating the spirit of the steadfast generation of Irani settlers, many of whose children have already migrated to the US, Australia and New Zealand.

The 45-minute documentary, The Last Irani Chai, is a cheerful look at the community and its pragmatic ethos, instead of being predictably lamentful or glum. This, indeed, could be the film’s strength or weakness. It smiles instead of going didactic or defeatist. In conceptualising the project, there were certain dilemmas. Mumbai’s surviving Irani restaurants are owned and managed by Muslims, too, but the focus had to be kept on the Zoroastrian Parsi establishments.

The Muslim Iranis are another story altogether, their tea and hospitality too have a distinct warmth and flavour. Another contentious area was whether to travel to Dahanu — a traffic-choked five-hour drive away from Mumbai — where several Irani families have retired to look after chickoo orchards. Industrial pollution and real estate sharks have vitiated the tranquil atmosphere for the retired families.
It was a point, which the unit agreed had to be incorporated into the documentary, never mind if the on-ventilator budget could ill-afford the trip.

Hitting a cul de sac: that’s where the excitement and creative energy of documentary filmmaking stems from perhaps. A bakery owner who had been interviewed swung into action to organise one-to-ones with the Dahanu settlers. We also met a feisty grandmother who has been campaigning against the expansion of an industrial plant there. The documentary rather than being a series of talking heads, had to be structured somewhat unconventionally. Ancillary shots like those of the bakery fires and hidden vignettes of the customers at the tea joints were taken throughout the 12-day shoot

For a documentary, which by its very principle does not set out to make big bucks, technicians come on board selflessly. Rishi Kapoor instantly agreed to do its voice-over commentary (his first ever), A-list Bollywood cinematographer Aseem Bajaj handled the videography, Pune Film Institute graduate Meggna Aschitr whom I met on Facebook edited the 10-hour material into shape, and upcoming composer Ritesh Nalini scored the music. Without an altruistic team, documentaries do not happen.

Finally, how satisfying is the documentary medium? Unquestionably, it’s perfect for those who want to retain their independent voice. Bollywood filmmaking means selling your soul. Intervention is endemic and the result is miles away from what a director or writer intended it to be. Throughout India, there are cultures and lifestyles as well as biographies which need chronicling at this very instant. The number of screening outlets and festivals dedicated to the medium are fast multiplying. A camera, some semblance of a budget and friends on the same page are all you need to get up and go.

  • Nozerd

    Where can we view the actual documentary ?

  • Nozerd

    Where can we view the actual documentary ?

  • Katkalrays

    THERE WILL NEVER BE THAT HAPPINESS & CONTENTMENT THAT WE HAVE EXPERIENCED & ENJOYED IN THE GOOD OLD DAYS. LIKE THE SAYING GOES  “OLD IS GOLD”. ITS SO VERY TRUE.
    WE REALLY REALLY MISS THOSE IRANI CAFES THAT WE HAVE VISITED WITH OUR DEAR, VALUABLE PARENTS. I WISH THEY COULD REALLY OPEN UP AGAIN BUT THE STUFF WE GET NOW IS OF NO EQUAL TO THOSE DAYS UNDER THESE CORRUPT POLITICIANS.
    WE WILL ALLWAYS CHERISH OUR IRANI RESTAURANTS. WE CAN NEVER FORGET .

  • Katkalrays

    THERE WILL NEVER BE THAT HAPPINESS & CONTENTMENT THAT WE HAVE EXPERIENCED & ENJOYED IN THE GOOD OLD DAYS. LIKE THE SAYING GOES  “OLD IS GOLD”. ITS SO VERY TRUE.
    WE REALLY REALLY MISS THOSE IRANI CAFES THAT WE HAVE VISITED WITH OUR DEAR, VALUABLE PARENTS. I WISH THEY COULD REALLY OPEN UP AGAIN BUT THE STUFF WE GET NOW IS OF NO EQUAL TO THOSE DAYS UNDER THESE CORRUPT POLITICIANS.
    WE WILL ALLWAYS CHERISH OUR IRANI RESTAURANTS. WE CAN NEVER FORGET .

  • Icchaporia

    Parsee /Irani owners do not believe that scenario has changed. Th re is fierce competition fro m upmarket shops like CCD.Thesze Parsee owners want to bask intheir past laurels. There is no service motive or desire to provide customer saisfaction. Their aim is to make superormal profits in the short run anf then occupy an easy chair. Thats what has caused decline in Irani Chaishops.Let us ccept realities, changed situations and upmarket life style. Modify your attitudes or perish. They have much to learn from South Indian eateries. Even to day, a Manglorean joint near Strand – Colaba by name draws more Parsee crowd for value for money and no arrogance of the owner.

  • Icchaporia

    Parsee /Irani owners do not believe that scenario has changed. Th re is fierce competition fro m upmarket shops like CCD.Thesze Parsee owners want to bask intheir past laurels. There is no service motive or desire to provide customer saisfaction. Their aim is to make superormal profits in the short run anf then occupy an easy chair. Thats what has caused decline in Irani Chaishops.Let us ccept realities, changed situations and upmarket life style. Modify your attitudes or perish. They have much to learn from South Indian eateries. Even to day, a Manglorean joint near Strand – Colaba by name draws more Parsee crowd for value for money and no arrogance of the owner.

  • xyz

    Two months back, we lost the best irani restaurant in western  suburbs-Andheri west opp. railway station because of quarells amongst 6 partners. Now, Mac donalds will start their business soon in competition with another mac donalds on the opposite footpath. This was 50 year old restaurant and booming business from 5 a.m. till 11 p.m. open seven days a week. Brabourne and Bastani Restaurants at Dhobi Talao also closed down due to quarells only amongst partners. I sincerely wish Iranis can unite and work peacefully and open more restaurants in mumbai in the near future. 

  • xyz

    Two months back, we lost the best irani restaurant in western  suburbs-Andheri west opp. railway station because of quarells amongst 6 partners. Now, Mac donalds will start their business soon in competition with another mac donalds on the opposite footpath. This was 50 year old restaurant and booming business from 5 a.m. till 11 p.m. open seven days a week. Brabourne and Bastani Restaurants at Dhobi Talao also closed down due to quarells only amongst partners. I sincerely wish Iranis can unite and work peacefully and open more restaurants in mumbai in the near future. 

  • Jimmiefm

    One more important reason for this dwindling businesses was, the advent of the Bhat chaiwallas who popped up in small dingy shops without sitting and providing tea on the roadside which was more econimically beneficial to them, but without the charm of Brun & Bun Maskas. As fast as they sprouted up they killed the Irani tea business they have now themselves vanished but succedded in dealing a death blow to this great Iranian culture.

  • Jimmiefm

    One more important reason for this dwindling businesses was, the advent of the Bhat chaiwallas who popped up in small dingy shops without sitting and providing tea on the roadside which was more econimically beneficial to them, but without the charm of Brun & Bun Maskas. As fast as they sprouted up they killed the Irani tea business they have now themselves vanished but succedded in dealing a death blow to this great Iranian culture.

  • Percy Madon

    Soon you also see Irani bakeries disappearing also….we just lost 1 in my area..

  • Percy Madon

    Soon you also see Irani bakeries disappearing also….we just lost 1 in my area..

  • Neville S. Gandhi

    Excellent Documentary.  It made me nostalgic.  Wish we could revive the closed Irani Restaurants.  I cherish my visits to Irani Cafes for their special typical Irani Chai, Pastries and Confectionery whenever I am in Mumbai.  Unforgettable.  Thanks. 

  • Neville S. Gandhi

    Excellent Documentary.  It made me nostalgic.  Wish we could revive the closed Irani Restaurants.  I cherish my visits to Irani Cafes for their special typical Irani Chai, Pastries and Confectionery whenever I am in Mumbai.  Unforgettable.  Thanks. 

  • Irani129

    yes where can we view the documentary

  • Irani129

    yes where can we view the documentary

  • Dara
  • Dara
  • Dara

    Reminded me of the “Five Parsi Films by Kaevan Umrigar” seen before, here: 

    http://parsikhabar.net/film/five-parsi-films-by-kaevan-umrigar/389/

    and here:

    Dadar Ormaj, maney jaldi bolaavo (from Five Parsi Films)
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UQvZ-tEsFVs&NR=1 

    Invisible Parsis: The poor of a prosperous community (From Five ParsiFilms)
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q-iZbiiIEiU 

    Non-Parsi (from Five Parsi Films)
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4jejWWLTGgc&feature=related 

    Parsi Wada, Tarapore – Present Day (from Five Parsi Films)
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nqPw96mbHHI&feature=related 

    Bedpan (from Five Parsi Films)
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ryIJyr2m4KI&feature=related

  • Dara

    Reminded me of the “Five Parsi Films by Kaevan Umrigar” seen before, here: 

    http://parsikhabar.net/film/five-parsi-films-by-kaevan-umrigar/389/

    and here:

    Dadar Ormaj, maney jaldi bolaavo (from Five Parsi Films)
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UQvZ-tEsFVs&NR=1 

    Invisible Parsis: The poor of a prosperous community (From Five ParsiFilms)
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q-iZbiiIEiU 

    Non-Parsi (from Five Parsi Films)
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4jejWWLTGgc&feature=related 

    Parsi Wada, Tarapore – Present Day (from Five Parsi Films)
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nqPw96mbHHI&feature=related 

    Bedpan (from Five Parsi Films)
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ryIJyr2m4KI&feature=related