Parsis: The Zoroastrians of India Pakistan and The World

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.