‘The Path of Zarathrustra’ made in English is a film that perhaps for the first time explores the Parsi identity and the history and origin of the faith. This reminds us of the contribution of the Parsis to Indian cinema. But has Indian cinema been kind to the community in portraying them? SHOMA A. CHATTERJI probes.
It began with Ardeshir Irani who gifted us the first Indian talkie Alam Ara and followed by great filmmakers like Sohrab Modi, J.B.H Wadia, Homi Wadia and now actors as talented as Boman Irani and Mahabanoo Mody-Kotwal are names that count.
But the portrayal of the average Parsi in mainstream Indian cinema has been within stereotyped cliché or captured marginally. The Parsi in films comes across as an exaggerated caricature with speech patterns bearing a superfluous accent that is a funny mix of Gujarati and English. But rarely does one come across a negative Parsi character or a villain with a Parsi identity. There is a delightful character in Avtaar (1983) named Bawaji. He helps Avtaar (Rajesh Khanna) when the latter wishes to start his own business. Sujith Kumar portrayed this character with depth and understanding.
Oorvazi Irani who has both directed and acted as the protagonist in The Path of Zarathrustra, says, “I would not like to name films, but it is the oversimplification that popular cinema as a mould forces a director to appeal to the mass audience that hurts us. Mostly, these stereotypes show a Parsi as an eccentric or as a buffoon to be laughed at rather than presenting an authentic picture of a Parsi. We are neither buffoons nor eccentrics but are normal human beings leading normal lives.”
The first film that comes to mind featuring a Parsi story set against a Parsi backdrop with actors drawn from the non-Parsi groups is Basu Chatterjee’s Khatta Meetha (Sour-Sweet) made in 1978. Like its name, it was a touching family drama that brings two different Parsi families together through two marriages, one between two aged couples who have lost their spouses and find it difficult to manage their growing children alone and one between two members of the next generation. It was a very entertaining film with lovely music and wonderful performances by Ashok Kumar, Pearl Padamsee, Deven Verma, Preeti Ganguly and others. The family drama was woven into with interesting sub-plots like the molly-coddled son of a widowed mother who wants to marry a ‘healthy’ girl and happily gets wedded to Preeti Ganguly! The characters are fleshed out very well and this remains a memorable depiction of the Parsi identity in Indian cinema.
Noted writer Cyrus Mistry’s Percy appeared in print in a collection of short fiction. This was turned into a Gujarati language film directed by the late Pervez Merwanji, an FTII graduate. Unlike most Parsi stories laced with good-natured humour, Percy was different. It was a mother-son story that underscored the mother’s obsessive possessiveness over her son which deprived him even from thinking on his own. He cannot live without her support and yet, when she dies, we see him dancing away merrily to his favourite notes of music with an imaginary partner, celebrating his ‘freedom.’
Says Cyrus Mistry: “The idea of a person finding some sort of self-realization through an exposure to music seemed to me a very literary idea. Maybe because I was raw – in terms of my knowledge of cinema – I didn’t initially see its potential nor realize how effective the music could be in cinema. I think I made Pervez wait two years before actually taking it up.”
Percy used four different languages (Gujarati, English, Marathi and Hindi) so it was multi-lingual. The smooth flow of languages, one into another, with never a false note, is another of Percy’s achievements. Ruby Patel and Kurush Deboo did brilliantly as mother and son which has a universal resonance. Produced by NFDC, Percy won the National Award for the Best Gujarati film in 1990. Percy is the most memorable and authentic portrayal of the Parsi in Indian cinema. It bagged an award at the Mannheim International Film Festival.
Pestonjee (1987), a film directed by Vijaya Mehta on a story by B.K, Karanjia, was a serious satire about a mismatch in marriage of one of two friends who grew up together. The film, produced by NFDC won two National Awards– one for the Best Hindi Feature film and the other for the best Costume Design. The film offers an intimate glimpse into the life and manners of the Parsi community especially those living in Bombay (now Mumbai) in the 1950s and 60s.
Ironically, the film and the story are titled not after the hero Phirojshah (Naseeruddin Shah) but after his childhood friend Pestonjee (Anupam Kher) who marries Jeroo (Shabana Azmi), the woman Phiroj cherished but could not marry and decided to remain a bachelor after that. But Jeroo turns out to be a shrewish, quarrelsome harridan and even more so, after Pestonjee dies. Phiroj discovers that Pestonjee’s mistress (Kiron Kher) is a better human being than his wife who drove him to death. The film shows how Naseeruddin Shah meshed so well with the character that no one could say that he is not a Parsi.
Shrin Farhad Ki To Nikal Padi (2012) is a romcom filled with Parsi actors playing Parsi and non-Parsi characters in the film which includes , other than Boman Irani and Farah Khan who is half-Parsi, Kurush Deboo, Daisy Irani, Shammi, Dinyar Contractor, Mahabanoo Mody-Kotwal and Nauheed Cyrusi. The film marked the directorial debut of Bela Bhansali Sehgal who explores the awkwardness that can emerge when a 40+ man and woman begin to like each other but find expressing it tough and embarrassing.
Ferrari Ki Savari (2012) is a serious film of a boy’s cherished dreams set against a very cosmopolitanised Mumbai backdrop filled with characters of all colour and range but with the main actors set within a typical Parsi family in financially dire straits. The acting honours are shared equally by Boman Irani and Sharman Joshi as father and son in a struggling family with no woman to take care. The film offers a glimpse into a Parsi family filled with hopes that forces a father to steal a car to get his son’s dream of playing cricket at The Lords come true.
Another suspense thriller film needs to be mentioned too. It is Homi Adajania’s Being Cyrus featuring Saif Ali Khan in a different kind of role. The film made in 2005 is a psychological drama revolving around a dysfunctional family.
Little Zizou directed by Sooni Taraporewalla featured an entirely Parsi acting cast that began with Boman Irani and went through the entire Parsi casting album of Zenobia Shroff, Jahan Batlivala, Iyanah Batlivala, Sohrab Ardeshi, Cyrus Broacha, Mahabanoo Mody-Kotal and John Abraham whose mother is Parsi and father is Malayalee Christian. The film had touching moments focussed on the long-existing dispute between and among different groups with the Parsi community – the traditionalists and the liberals.