Mumbai’s iconic Parsi Colony is being memorialised by Bollywood even as it’s being transformed

We have all been inside Jehangir Bulsara’s apartment in Parsi Colony in Mumbai’s Dadar neighbourhood. We have walked over its Italian tiles, enjoyed a meal in the spacious living room, stared out from its balcony and bounded down the wrought iron external staircase.

Article by Aakash Karkare, thereel.scroll.in

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The apartment at Sohrab House, a three-storeyed bungalow in the south-central neighbourhood, has been used in numerous movies and commercials, and has come to symbolise the elements that make Parsi Colony a magnet for location scouts and filmmakers: attractive exterior architectural detail, spacious and impeccably designed interiors, ample grrenery, and a reminder of what a well-planned neighbourhood in Mumbai used to look like.

Located near Parsi Gymkhana, the 70-year-old Sohrab House is especially attractive for its wooden balcony, the absence of modern structures towers in the background, its colourful tilework and spiralling wooden staircase. In Special 26, Akshay Kumar spots his future lover on the balcony and it’s the vantage point from where snipers shoot Shah Rukh Khan’s gangster in Raaes. The interiors have made appearances in Bombay Velvet, Naam Shabaana, Ghanchakkar and Rustom, as well as numerous commercials.

“I used to go and watch the films in theatre when they came out,” 48-year-old Bulsara said. “Even friends would send me clippings of my house when the films came on television. But now it has become a habit.”

Interest in Parsi Colony is peaking even as vast parts of Mumbai are collapsing into sterile, glass-fronted uniformity. “Everything has started looking the same,” said Raj Kumar Gupta, the director of Ghanchakkar. “You can shoot anywhere, in any part of the country with skyscrapers, interior or exterior, and it would not make a difference.”

After dealing with gritty portraits of Mumbai in Aamir (2008) and Delhi in No One Killed Jessica (2011), Gupta wanted a comparatively dreamy location for his crime comedy, starring Emraan Hashmi and Vidya Balan. He finally zeroed in on Sohrab House, which had an “enigmatic quality” and a spacious compound with a garden – a luxury in space-starved Mumbai. “I wanted to create a feeling of magical realism,” Gupta said. “In a Parsi home, you cannot really tell anything about the people who inhabit the place. Are they middle class? Are they artists? Do they work in an MNC or a government office? I liked that air of mystery.”

Parsi Colony’s sense of timelessness makes it a favourite for period films, said Santosh Kesarwani, a location scout who has worked on numerous productions shot in the locality, including Talaash (2012), “That area has character, if we want to show old Mumbai then we go there,” he said. “No big builders or towers can be seen there and everything is well-preserved – the wooden doors and staircases and the balconies.”

Some of the productions shot here are Sanam Teri Kasam, Ek Thi Daayan, Ferrari Ki Sawaari and Meri Pyaari Bindu. Upcoming titles include the Rajinikanth starrer Kaala, the Rani Mukerji starrer Hichki, and Dharma Productions’ Ittefaq.

Since a greater number of permissions is required for external shoots, most of the productions confine themselves to the interiors of houses. Pockets of the outside world seep in through open windows and balconies. The staircase is a recurring motif, often used to create a sense of suspense or dread, such as in Raees.

The well-preserved interiors, particularly the tiles, are particularly attractive. In Naam Shabana, the quiet beauty of her home offer moments of respite for Taapsee Pannu’s spy. A garden is integral to the plot of Ghanchakkar and the balcony in Meri Pyaari Bindu.

Sanam Teri Kasam, which makes maximum use of the exteriors, allows its heroine to enjoy a quiet sob on one of the many wooden benches at one of the gardens in the neighbourhood. Children play in the surrounding area, complete her picture of loneliness.

Bollywood is, perhaps unwittingly, memorialising a neighbourhood that is in danger of losing its original character. Zarine Engineer, who heads the local residents’ association, rues the fact that each time she goes for a walk, a bungalow that had been around since the time she was a young girl is no longer there. A Parsi visitor from London couldn’t locate her childhood home because it was being redeveloped.

The colony was originally built on marshy land and planned by Engineer’s grandfather Mancherji Joshi, whom she described as a man who was “born a middle-class Parsi and died a middle-class Parsi”. Joshi was a civil engineer with the Bombay City Improvement Trust. Architect Kamu Iyer, who documented the area’s urban design in his book Boombay: From Precincts to Sprawl, wrote that Parsi Colony and the neighbouring Hindu Colony have retained their distinctive character because they were part of the trust’s suburban development scheme. Parsi Colony was designed by architects, as opposed to contractors who built Hindu Colony, Iyer says.

“Unlike, Parsi Colony, the residents of Hindi Colony were not bound by a single religion, region or subculture – the only commonalities they shared were language, mostly Marathi, and being part of the middle class,” Iyer writes. “There were physical differences in the two neighbourhoods too. A study by the Kamala Raheja Institute of Architecture shows that plots and flats in Hindu Colony were smaller than those in Parsi Colony, which affected the living standards of its residents.”

The biggest difference from Mumbai’s other Parsi colonies, such as Cusrow Baug and Jer Baug, is the open plan. Parsi Colony in Dadar consists of low-rise buildings that are arranged around five gardens and playgrounds and tucked away in quiet winding lanes. The planning goes all the way down to the type of trees planted in each of the lanes – copper pod for Mancherji Joshi Road and Ashokas for Jam-e-Jamshed Road.

The Parsis who moved out of South Mumbai in the early 20th century to live in what were considered the suburbs back then were initially ridiculed, Engineer recalls. However, over time, Parsi Colony has not only come to have a high concentration of the community, but has also emerged as one of the most expensive addresses in the island city. Compared to other neighbouring localities, Parsi Colony hasn’t changed as rapidly. Of the 103 buildings in the area, about 20% is reserved for Parsis and are owned by the Bombay Parsi Punchayet or public and private trusts.

There are rules limiting the height of these buildings upto a certain point. A proactive resident organisation that frequently protests any changes suggested by the municipal corporation, from allowing hawkers to sell their wares to road widening, has led to a semblance of uniqueness in a fast homogenising city.

All of which makes the neighbourhood irresistible for film crews.

“It’s the only place in Mumbai with space for actor’s vanity vans,” said Noshir Khariwulla, who allowed the makers of Talaash to shoot at his family home Ahura because he wanted to experience what a film production felt like. Khuriwalla recalled that Aamir Khan, the movie’s lead actor along with Kareena Kapoor and Rani Mukerji, stood on his balcony, surveying the greenery and quiet around, and told him: “You don’t get places like this in Mumbai anymore.”

Ahura isn’t going to be featured in another film in a hurry. Aside from the hustle-bustle of the vanity vans and crew members, hundreds of Mumbaikars lined the streets to catch a glimpse of Khan, Kapoor and Mukherji. Locals and family friends held vigils, sometimes till 3am, to get a photo with Khan.

“It was hell for 28-30 days,” the former vice-president of Bombay Dyeing said. “And in the end our house featured less than 20 minutes.”

The story is repeated in Pahormarjee building next to the fire temple at the centre of the colony. The pink-coloured entrance is a reminder of a past production, which was kept after the owner decided he liked the colour. In Sanam Teri Kasam, one of the productions shot at Pahormarjee, the nerdy librarian character (Mawra Hocane) easily gets a place to stay in one of its apartments after she is turned out of her family home. The irony is that getting a house in Parsi Colony is hardly easy even for Parsis. Almost all of the residents occupy family homes that have passed down over the generations.

Despite the sense of order that prevails in the neighbourhood, it is often quite difficult to manage a shoot there, said Kesarwai, the location manager. Residents often complain about the disruption caused by film productions. “But what can we do – we are helpless,” he said. “There’s no other place like Parsi Colony in Mumbai where we can shoot.”

Are filmmakers doing the residents an indirect favour by setting their productions there? Naheed Bharucha, a local resident, feels nostalgic every time she spots an element of the neighbourhood in a film or a television commercial. To her, they are reminders of how much has changed.

“I feel a little happy, but it ends there,” added Sanjeev Gandhi, a dentist and long-time local resident. He has turned down requests over the years to allow filmmakers into his pretty house. “I decline, because it is not for me – my home is my private space,” Gandhi said.

Like many of the privately owned buildings in Parsi Colony, Gandhi’s home will be redeveloped because of the Maharashtra Rent Control Act, which has artificially frozen rents to 1950 strictures to Rs 100 and Rs 200, making it nearly impossible for landlords to maintain their buildings. “If the rent act hadn’t stayed, we wouldn’t want to redevelop, but now what else can we do?” Gandhi said.

Change has already swept over the neighbourhood. Some of the older non-Parsi structures are being replaced by high-rises, and it is unlikely that Parsi Colony will remain as alluring for the next batch of filmmakers to shoot in.

“We have been fighting all these years but it is futile,” Engineer said. “The builder lobby is very powerful and has a lot of money. I will fight them as long as I am around but they aren’t going to stay away forever.”