For Parsis growing up between the 1950s and 1980s, social life was defined by weekly visits to the theatre, to watch, re-watch and enjoy Parsi plays. Directors like Adi Marzban and Pheroze Antia wrote original comedies about ordinary Parsis, actors enlivened the stage in traditional saris and community topis or dapper suits, and audiences — including many Gujaratis — demanded encores after laughing through plays nearly six hours long.
Parsi plays today have not been able to recreate that vibrant culture, but city-based author Meher Marfatia does it successfully in her new, self-published book, ‘Laughter in the House: 20th Century Parsi Theatre’.
The book, which was launched last month, chronicles the heyday of this unique dramatic genre through well-researched essays, interviews with former actors, first-person accounts and hundreds of black-and-white photographs of old plays.
Although Marfatia’s prose rings of nostalgia for an era that may never return, her aim, she says, was to record that age clinically, acting as a historian.
“There are international accounts of Parsi theatre up to the 1930s, but after that the genre has just not been documented,” said Marfatia. She spent more than two years researching for the book, uncovering facts and anecdotes about Parsi theatre that few youngsters in the community would know today.
That genre of Gujarati drama, for instance, had grown so popular in the 1950s, that Indian National Theatre — the country’s foremost theatre organisation — opened a separate wing for Parsi theatre. Moreover, the plays, particularly those by Adi Marzban, became so popular for their rib-tickling humour that Marzban’s attempts at serious plays almost always failed.
As old thespian stalwarts passed away, there was a visible change in the culture of Parsi playwriting, acting and even theatre-going. Today there are just a handful of Parsi directors, most of whom release plays only once a year, usually around New Year; the crowds in their halls have thinned too.
“The younger generation does not have the passion or dedication for that genre,” said Marfatia. “I have dedicated my book to the Parsi community,” she says. “Through those plays, we learnt to laugh at ourselves.”