First look at Sooni Taraporevala’s photo exhibit of a community that’s earned the tag ‘mad bawas’
She’s come full circle. From focusing her lens on Parsis — a small community of followers of the Zoroastrian religion — in a very personal way by using her family as subjects, to documenting them at large in two editions of her book, Parsis: A Photographic Journey. After its release in 2004, it was back to photography with a personalised stamp for Sooni Taraporevala.
Interview Published in the Ahmedabad Mirror
The photographer filmmaker known for authoring landmark films Salaam Bombay!, Mississippi Masala and The Namesake, was recently invited to host a solo photography show on the community that now numbers 76,000 worldwide, at Harvard University’s Sert Gallery. A discussion with fellow Parsi and literary scholar Homi K. Bhabha followed. As she readies herself for Parsis, her first photo exhibition in the city of her inspiration (scheduled to open at Chemould Prescott Road on March 5), Taraporevala says with signature understatement, “Life’s been interesting.” Excerpts from an interview.
This is your first exhibition in Mumbai, the city you grew up in, left and returned to. What relationship do you share with it?
Bombay was my love and still is. I am thrilled to be showing here. The show is very much about a city that’s been my inspiration, the place I was always desperately homesick for. It’s a city of endless fascination that will take lifetimes to explore.
Did growing up in a Parsi neighbourhood make you less aware of belonging to a minority?
Forget growing up in a Parsi neighbourhood. Being a Parsi in Mumbai doesn’t feel like being part of a minority. This is where most of us are. But as soon as you get out, you realise with a jolt how microscopic we are, numerically.
Your latest photographs chronicle the gentle older generation and ambitious young Parsis.
I was a Gowalia Tank girl with big dreams. Ayesha Billimoria, a successful short distance runner who I have photographed, is a Khetwadi girl working towards realising her dream of competing at the 2016 Olympics. I worked campus jobs while studying English Literature at Harvard and cinema at New York University. Ayesha, too, holds two jobs Unlike me, who was on a scholarship, nobody has offered to help her. She scrapes together what she can to be coached by Gavin Fernandes, a physiotherapist from Australia. She is there now hoping to stay put for a year but expects funds to run out in six months. Then it’s back to Mumbai and being a sports therapist and training kids in sport. Brabourne Restaurant shut down in 2008, like most Irani cafés in the city: once ubiquitous, now rare. I first photographed owner Rashid Irani in 1984, having wandered in from the street outside, fascinated by the cafés painted mirror portraits of Zarathushtra and Christ. He subsequently became a dear friend, and Brabourne, the adda where friends and strangers (I once met the child star of Truffaut’s Small Change) stopped for chai, a smoke, a meal, a discussion on film, fiction and poetry of the most exquisite obscurity. Rashid is a connoisseur and one of the most well read people I know.
Dr Homi Bhabha said being Parsi for him “is a quiet thing. Our festivals do not send us out into the streets, our gods have no public shrines.” What does it mean to you?
It means I love dancing at Punjabi weddings! I miss the raucous celebrations other communities have. For me, being Parsi means being thought of as ‘mad’.
Sooni photographed Brabourne Restaurant’s last days with deep sadness. This shot of Rashid Irani mirrors one she took of him in 1984. “He reminds me of my grandfather and granduncle, who, in Jhumpa Lahiri’s words, ‘travelled the world without moving an inch’ solely through their reading and imagination.”
Dancing to Go Johnny Go, Wodehouse Gymkhana, 2012
Sooni clicked her parents last Navroze at their favourite haunt, the Wodehouse Gym. “My dad has always been the life of the party, and my shy mother, his silent admirer — though both will deny the admiration bit.”
Ayesha Billimoria, Oval Maidan, 2013
Ayesha is training for the 2016 Olympics in the 400 metres category. Sooni saw her as a schoolgirl arrive for tuitions in her building, seated on her dad’s scooter. Much later, they became Facebook friends. “I loved her style, her red hair. We met at the Oval Maidan after all these years. In the brief time I spent with her, I saw in her a reflection of my younger self.”
Mr Spencer, 2008
Dhunjishaw (Danny) Spencer, everybody’s favourite neighbour at Sooni’s Sleater Road home, was also in her movie Little Zizou. “We celebrated his 90th birthday with a party on his terrace. Unwell lately, he’s never happier than when surrounded by a fan club of beautiful, talented women. Most of them aren’t in town at the moment. I’m hoping this article will be a perk-up tonic.”