Max and Rohinton Unwalla see no reason for public display of affection to be tagged as nuisance. In one quick swoop, love meets devotion when Max’s candy tongue flutters across Unwalla’s face, before finally enveloping his nose as the two take a breather after their morning walk on the steps of Building no. 782 at Dadar Parsi Colony.
Unwalla, better known around the lanes that wrap the iconic Five Gardens as Ronny Uncle, meets Max, the boxer, Maxie the Lhasa and Laila the Golden Retriever each morning after a quick brun-maska-chai breakfast with his old colleagues from Godrej. Since he retired in 1999, the 65-year-old has become an indispensable cog in the wheel of this neighbourhood’s survival, walking the residents’ pets and shacking up with them in his ground floor flat when their owners are on holiday.
Ronny Uncle has made it to the star credits of a 15-minute documentary, the first to trace the 92-year-old story of Dadar Parsi Colony, directed by Anand Kulkarni. The young filmmaker along with his production partner, Tejas Shah, plans to release it on March 21 which the community celebrates as Navroze or new year.
It is late evening; the sun threatening to shut shop any minute. We are on a terrace overlooking half the metropolis. The trinity of writer-director-editor Kulkarni, cinematographer Kuldeep Mamania and sound designer Rohan Puntambekar are ready for their last shot of the day. Architect and trustee of the Bombay Parsi Panchayat Jimmy Mistry, who until now has only corresponded with Kulkarni over email, is expected to arrive at his palatial residence Della Towers — the only 21-storey building in a cluster of 250 buildings in the Maharashtrian-dominated middle-class neighbourhood of Dadar that houses 10,000 members of the Zoroastrian faith, making it the largest Zoroastrian enclave in the world.
The colony was conceived in 1921 by a young civil engineer named Mancherji Joshi, and inaugurated by celebrated merchant-philantropist Sir Jamshedjee Jeejeebhoy. Kulkarni, who has spent every day of the last three months roaming its leafy bylanes was struck by the thought of capturing it on film whole researching a movie on the contribution of Mumbai’s Parsis.
Zareen Engineer was one of the first residents Kulkarni would meet, and later realise was Mancherji Joshi’s granddaughter. “Anand excitedly asked me all sorts of questions about how it all started,” laughs Engineer, at her spacious home overlooking the Five Gardens. “It’s possible that I have repeated that story a 100 times, but I didn’t mind sharing it once more for the film.” Sooni Davar, her elder sister, who has dropped in for a yoga session, says the legacy has built it own odd fallacy. “Because he built the colony, they think we must be millionaires. He was a middleclass man, and died one. He paid his rent faithfully until the end.”
It was the early 1920s, and Joshi was a civil engineer posted with the Improvement Trust (equivalent of the BMC). Parsi pockets of Fort and Grant Road were undergoing redevelopment, leading to widespread displacement.
Joshi discussed his plan for a piece of land in the suburbs to build homes for the underprivileged and middle-class residents. Architect Mervanji Framji Surveyor and civil engineer Jehangir Engineer helped Joshi develop the colony.
With funds from wealthy members of the community and the Bombay Parsi Panchayat, a plot was purchased in Dadar. “But before the buildings, he created 14 gardens, which we work hard to maintain,” says Engineer, founder of the Mancherji Edulji Joshi Residents’ Association. “Those who say sparrows and parrots have left the city, should visit the colony,” she says with pride about the green lung that houses trees as old as 80 years.
The wide roads that wind through the area — Lady Jehangir Road, Jam-e-Jamshed Road and Dinshaw Master Road — have all been named after philanthropists who helped fund them. Engineer says Joshi envisioned a school, a gymkhana, the Dadar Madrasa, a library, the Palamkote hall to host religious ceremonies and an agiary, all within the neighbourhood. It was dedication enough for the residents to create the casket of his statue that’s now a city landmark, while he was alive. All these feature in Kulkarni’s film.
THE SUPPORT STAFF
Kulkarni scripted the film while spending his Sundays at the Gymkhana. “Everyone seems to know everyone. They keep waving at each other.” The three-member team says they wouldn’t have managed to complete a film that’s cost them Rs 3.5 lakh without the help of random pedestrians like those at the Five Gardens, who asked if they could help, and Hemal Ghoshal,
resident and secretary of Mount Pleasant building, who offered her home to store equipment.
Shernaaz Engineer, the editor of Jam-e-Jamshed, a weekly community newspaper, put in an announcement, requesting old residents to share print and video footage they may have. “That worked,” says Kulkarni, “We even had a 48-year-old Parsi lady call in to check if she could ‘act’!”
It’s possibly this camaraderie that businesswoman and philanthropist Padma Shri Anu Aga refers to in the film, when she says of the neighbourhood she grew up in: “There’s scope for lasting friendships because of the way the colony and structure was built.” When Joshi conceived the colony, it had no fence, just a simple rule — no building could stand higher than two storeys, and a 15-feet open space between buildings was mandatory.
SAVING THE OASIS
It’s this very oasis that the residents are battling to save. The residents’ association has opposed the BMC’s plan to build a concrete-granite gazebo inside a children’s park, which they believe will reduce the Grade II B heritage garden’s size and mar the greenery. It was by the time that Kulkarni was into the third draft of the script that he learnt of the residents’ tenacious fight with the builder lobby that’s keen to modernise the area through the redevelopment model that pertains to old cessed properties in the island city. “I feel part of their voice and struggle. I hope the film makes a difference.”