Laughter, the worst medicine

Parsi theatre has been in decline thanks to its audience’s refusal of watching anything other than comedies and the language divide

Coffee table books scare me for two reasons. I don’t have a coffee table and I’m averse to betraying the purpose of these books by putting them on a book shelf. The second and weightier reason is their weight.

By Shanta Gokhale | Mumbai Mirror

Last year Maharashtra celebrated its 50th birth anniversary with a coffee table tome of which I was one of the recipients. I wandered around the house looking for a place to put it in. Finally I cleared the bottom shelf of my book case and put it there, half in and half out. Later, the self-same occasion brought me another tome.

If the first tipped the balance at two-and-a-half kg, the second said my trustworthy British made spring balance, weighed in at five kg and a bit over. Not wishing to risk my wrists over it, I requested the person who transported it to step right in and put it on top of the other tome.

Meher Marfatia’s book, Laughter in the house 20th century Parsi theatre, might give the impression of being a coffee table book because of its weight (two kg), large format and lavish spread of delectable black and white photographs (credit: Sooni Taraporevala, no less). But it fails the test in one important respect. Coffee table books by definition devote scant space to text.

They are meant for visitors to leaf through lazily while they wait for tardy hosts. But Marfatia’s text occupies as much space as the photographs. Under ripples of laughter, this is a serious documentation through oral history, of the two golden decades, from the sixties to the seventies, when Parsi theatre kept not only Parsis, but also Bohras, Khojas, Kutchi Memons and Hindu Gujaratis of the city in stitches.

Four writers presided over this theatre of laughter Pheroze Antia, Dorab Mehta, Homi Tavadia and the redoubtable, multi-talented theatre guru, radio and television broadcaster Adi Marzban, whose Budhi Dansaak Mandal on radio and Aavo Mari Saathe on Doordarshan, were hits across linguistic lines. Besides writers and directors, dozens of actors and technicians lived the best part of their lives on the boards and Marfatia records their voices and stories.

Today Parsi theatre is part of the city’s cultural history; but back then, plays opened on Navroze and ran through the year over weekends. However, nothing of this got documented. In the days when I was researching my book on Marathi theatre, I remember how hard I tried to get more than will-o’-the-wisp glimpses of Adi Marzban.

One of them came from Vijaya Mehta. She had been in the first batch of “cultural scholars” to receive a stipend for training in theatre. She joined the Indian Academy of Dramatic Arts co-founded by Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay and Marzban; and it was Marzban who later insisted that she start directing plays in Marathi.

What has brought about the decline of Parsi theatre cannot be only the passing away of the stalwarts of the “golden age”; it is also the passing away of an age. After the mid-seventies and the Emergency, theatre was expected to show socio-political commitment. Laughter was seen as escapist. The winds of change had begun to blow even earlier, in 1968, when youth protests had spread from Paris to the whole of Europe. It can’t have been such a coincidence then, that Marzban wrote and directed his only serious play in that year.

Asha Nirasha (Hope Despair) revolved around the lives of an elderly couple trying to cope with loneliness after their daughter has married and gone away. The play bombed. Marzban’s admirers had stuffed him into a permanent pigeonhole labeled “laughter” from which he could not escape. The ever pragmatic theatre practitioner, commenting on the fiasco, said to Bachi Karkaria, “People do not want to leave tragedy behind at home only to discover it has stalked them into the auditorium.”

But theatre cannot survive on laughter alone. What makes people laugh today leaves them cold tomorrow. Nor can it survive without language. “We seem to be a community in a rush to turn our backs on Gujarati,” Marfatia notes with a sense of loss. Under the circumstances, Dinyar Contractor’s elegy must stand as the final word. “Now there is nothing nothing but the death of talent and imagination. Our theatre is a spent force, it’s over. I say close it away in a cupboard…”

Marfatia has closed it away, not in a cupboard but in this compendium, raising a last nostalgic laugh in its memory before bidding it a formal farewell.