Laughter in the House shows us a community that can laugh at itself
Long ago, in an interview with Bachi Karkaria, the late Adi Marzban said, “All this longhaired discussion on Miller and Bartok…how does their work apply to India? I give people what they want — healthy laughter and a few hours enjoyment.” I take this quote from Meher Marfatia’s engaging book, Laughter in the House, which has inspired Marzban’s old team mates to come together to stage a tribute to him in a variety revue that takes its name from the book.
Looking back, I will admit to having been a paid-up member of the long-haired “Miller and Bartok” gang that Marzban dismissed from his purview, except that our discussions in the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s, which marked the peak of Marzban’s multi-media career, were not about Miller and Bartok, but about Habib Tanvir and Vijay Tendulkar, Mohan Rakesh and Badal Sircar, all writers whose work applied most forcefully to India. As a result we didn’t have time for laughter. Which meant we didn’t have time for Marzban’s Parsi Gujarati plays and revues. Yet there I was at Saturday’s ‘houseful’ show of Laughter in the House at Tata theatre, laughing my head off.
Cultural forms are expressions of their time. They are created, they grow, they decline and disappear. But decades later, they acquire an appealing patina that allows us to view them with nostalgic indulgence, provided they don’t look moth-eaten. Laughter in the House looks far from moth-eaten. It is as fresh and energetic today as it would have been two decades ago, with its elegant set (Fali Unwalla), five-piece band, and talented cast of old-timers and newcomers, led by veterans like Ruby and Burjor Patel, Dolly and Bomi Dotiwala, Sheherazade and Rohinton Mody, Villoo Panthaky Kapadia and Sam Kerawalla, the director.
The people behind the show have done well in choosing to present a variety revue as a tribute to Marzban, rather than one of his plays. Plays tend to get dated, whereas revues can be repeatedly injected with new items and new talent. This one introduces the Hormuzd Khambata dance group performing to an eclectic assortment of songs including Maharashtra’s raging favourite, Kombdi palali, Farah Ghadiali singing a soulful Come back to Sorrento and compere Jim Vimadalal, who contributes in no small measure to the professional polish of the show.
The gags are ribald and far from politically correct; but each one is enacted with such panache and ends with such a surprising twist, that you are laughing before you know what hit you. Favourite subjects for the gags are pregnancies not authored by rightfully wedded husbands and sexual goings-on of a not too licit nature. Their timing and pacing is so perfect, the transitions from gag to song to dance so fluid, that by the interval you are gasping for breath. No worries. There’s chicken farcha and cutlets outside to keep you cosily cocooned within the Parsi culture and put the wind back in you.
The musical highlight of the show is the well-known and muchloved women versus men qawwali with which the revue ends. Led by the Dotiwallas, it treads the familiar battle-of-the-sexes ground, with both sides trading insults. While the actors don’t necessarily hit the right notes every time, their enunciation is so clear that you don’t miss a single dig. There’s more exaggeration than wit in those digs, but who cares? By now we are so completely drawn into the spirit of things, that we clap on demand — women for the women’s side and men for the men’s.
My descent from my longhaired credentials is thus complete. Have I felt a twinge of guilt in the last 150 minutes for laughing so uproariously at nonsense, while the Muslim world is in flames over an American crankpot’s film, and Walmart is standing on our threshold with one foot in the door, and Arjun Kejriwal is about to deliver a non-corrupt political party? Niet niet. I have been more than happy doing what Adi Marzban intended me to do — leaving tragedy behind and enjoying.
In times when the world has lost its sense of humour, when a tweet can lead to a politician being sacked, and forwarding a cartoon can send a professor to jail, Laughter in the House shows us a community that can laugh at itself. We must salute our Parsis for keeping this rare faculty intact and join in the blessing contained in the last line of the Zarthosti anthem, which the actors sing with happy fervour: “Hammesa hasti reh!” (May you always keep laughing).
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