An original story idea for a Parsi feature film
By Sorab Irani
Authors Note: As this is written in visual terms for a movie screen, readers are reminded to bear this in mind while they read it & imagine the visuals. This is a work of fiction.
The film opens in a bungli in Doongerwadi where our protagonist Aspi is one of the Nussesalars who brings in a Parsi corpse. It is late at night. By the time the rituals are complete and the body is prepared for further ceremonies an exhausted Aspi is seen going to his quarters with his elderly mother. In fact today Aspi has filled in for his sick father. In their quarters in Doongerwadi Aspi expresses to his father his frustration with this way of life. Noshirvan, Aspi’s father had fallen in love with Dolamai- Dolamai’s parents did not approve of Noshirvan or his family. To spite Noshirvan and stigmatise him forever the girl’s father demanded as a pound of flesh that Noshirvan became a Nussesalar if he wanted to marry Dolamai. Noshirvan accepted.
Noshirvan tries to calm Aspi down by sermonising on the significance of the Nussesalars job. Aspi retorts saying that he knows what was the real reason for Noshirvan being trapped, as a Nussesalar. Aspi is very upset, he does not want to eat or drink anything and being exhausted goes to bed. We see the Parsi funeral rites going on now with the relatives and priests. The scene ends with a procession heading for the final journey to the dakhma.
At the Bombay racecourse, Aspi is seen walking and in conversation with Adil Khambata a breakaway Nussesalar himself, now a successful bookmaker operating at the racecourse. Aspi pours his heart out to Adil, telling him that he admires him for making the break and would he help him to breakout too. Adil readily agrees and offers Aspi to take up residence at his place.
Back at the entrance of Doongerwadi Adil drops Aspi. It is evident that Aspi enters Doongerwadi with a sense of forbearing. Aspi breaks the news to his parents that he will be leaving home tomorrow. His parents are in anguish but Aspi is of firm resolve. Next day it is a tearful farewell. Aspi with his meagre savings and a small suitcase of personal belongings sets out to start a new life.
We see Aspi climbing the steps of a flat in Khareghat colony, he is joined by another group. He comes to the door, which has the nameplate ‘Captain Rustam Sidwa’. We learn that this is also the headquarters of the ‘Parsi Reform Brigade’, a fledgling socio-political reformist organisation. Brief sequences of Captain Sidwa a confirmed bachelor, conducting the meeting. The Agenda of the meeting is ‘Save Udwada’.
Through speeches of members we are made aware of the many urgent problems facing Udwada – the Mecca of the Parsis. Chiefly among them are environmental problems, where Udwada is losing its land to the sea. Socially, the lack of infrastructure, amenities, job opportunities, employment & small-scale industries to induce Parsis to stay & work in Udwada. An alarming situation of law and order has risen in the area as robberies, violence and other crimes are on the increase.
At the racecourse Adil Khambata is in an animated conversation with one of his Parsi clients who claims that he had placed a bet with Aspi and that now he should be paid. Obviously Aspi, not being so involved in the racing scene, has negligently forgotten to mention the acceptance of the bet.
Aspi is seen on the streets of Bombay and then at the entrance of an Agiary buying sandalwood. He enters the Agiary and while washing his hands and face, as is the ritual, we dissolve into a brief flashback scene where a younger Aspi is seen riding in a jeep, with his Rusimama through jungle tracks of sandalwood forests in Mysore. The loud chanting of a fellow Parsi brings Aspi back to the present. Aspi then goes in the inner sanctum of the temple.
Aspi enters Adil’s house, the matter of the bet is brought up & Aspi is made to feel very bad of his negligence, which has resulted in a loss of a large sum of money. Adil tells Aspi that as he is not interested in racing maybe he would like to work for a very rich stud farm owner friend of his, Cyrus Marden in Poona. Aspi agrees.
Montage of Aspi & Adil travelling to Poona. They enter Cyrus’s office. Cyrus explains the job to Aspi and informs him of two important events that day, one is an auction of his horses and the second is that Persis his niece is due to arrive to the Stud Farm from Canada.
We capture the entire sequence of Thoroughbred auction and see Aspi busy.
Persis is a very pretty 23-year-old girl, a Canadian American Parsi. She is in India studying the Parsi Reform Movement but in reality is searching for her roots, totally disillusioned by western society. A jeans clad Persis emerges out of the small Poona airport, is greeted by Lalji, Cyrus’s old faithful chauffeur. She settles down in the limousine, which takes her to the stud farm. We see Persis very sad and tears are rolling down her cheeks.
This image metamorphoses into Persis witnessing a viscous fight of her parents in Canada this is intercut with a short montage of the isolation of the Parsi community. At the end of this sequence it is clear that her parent’s marriage is over. We come back to the present as the limousine with Persis is seen entering the gates of the stud farm.
At the farm the auction is ending and the distinguished guests are all leaving while Persis arrives and is greeted by Cyrus.
Next day Cyrus is having breakfast with Persis on the lawn of the paddock, watching his horses doing their morning workout. Aspi appears & requests Cyrus to sign some urgent papers. Cyrus while doing so introduces Aspi to Persis. When their eyes meet it is evident that some chemistry is at work. The two are attracted to each other. Aspi collects the signed papers & leaves.
Dusk on the farm Persis has returned from her evening ride & as she dismounts from her stead she is met by Aspi. They walk back towards the farmhouse and from the conversation it is clear that Persis is here on a mission to study the Parsi Reform Movement. Yes she has heard of the ‘Parsi Reform Brigade’ and is happy to know that Aspi is part of the same. She bids farewell to Aspi saying that she has to leave for Bombay tomorrow and makes a date to meet him in the ‘Parsi Brigade’ meeting -Sunday.
The expression on Aspi’s face tells us that he is very excited at the prospect of meeting Persis again.
We open with Persis addressing the ‘Parsi Reform Brigade’ meeting. Aspi is late and he slinks in, settles down & admires Persis as she talks. Suddenly the door is slammed open and we see ‘Radio Bawa’ an elderly man with fiery eyes holding a transistor to his ear, which is emitting nothing but radio static. Gesturing animatedly, he says, “This is the ‘Tower of Babble’. We are the chattering middle-class. The ‘Tower of Babble’ will collapse and bury the chattering classes unless words are replaced with action”. Then he summarily turns around and walks out. Captain Sidwa explains to a shocked and half-amused Persis that this was the colony’s eccentric old man & she should not take him seriously.
The meeting ends after refreshments and all the members leave except Aspi who is sitting brooding in a corner, & Persis who is discussing something with the Captain. Captain & Persis notice Aspi sitting very dejectedly. The captain calls him over and asks him about his new job. Aspi says that he had walked out of that job, as he could not come to terms with the attitude of the boss. Just then there are sounds of a major commotion and we hear shouts of the colony boys calling out to Captain.
We soon see what the commotion is all about when Persis, Captain & Aspi are trying persuade ‘Radio Bawa’ to stop obstructing the busy peak hour traffic outside the colony. The Captain takes ‘Radio Bawa’ away & Aspi walks Persis to her car. Persis agrees with Aspi saying that Cyrus was a very difficult man to live with & she herself was planning to move to her aunt’s house in Bombay further this would save her the difficult commuting between Poona & Bombay. They bid each other tender goodbye.
A dejected depressed Aspi finds himself staring at the façade of the entrance of Doongerwadi. He feels defeated by life and with a lowered head he starts walking towards his Nussesalar quarters. As the darkest hour is before the dawn we see from Aspi’s point of view the tips of his shoes and passing asphalt. This metamorphoses once again to a younger Aspi riding in the jeep with Rusimama, with Rusimama saying to Aspi, “What does your nose tell you – My boy, breath deep, this is the fragrance of sandalwood, the most revered timber in the world”. The jeep moves deeper into the forest and on the soundtrack – “fragrance of sandalwood, fragrance of sandalwood” echoes louder & louder till Aspi trips and is brought back to the present. Aspi’s face lights up, the depression vanishes, and an idea is born. He is elated & runs towards his house excited & happy and hugs his mother & says- “Mummy! Mummy! I am going to do business in sandalwood, please find me Rusimama’s address. Remember when I was a kid we had visited him he had ancestral sandalwood forest in Mysore.”
In the next sequence we see a montage of Aspi visiting many fire temples in Bombay with their imposing façades we see Aspi in conversation with the sandalwood vendors present there. We come out of the montage with Aspi on the phone with Persis telling her about his business plans of dealing with sandalwood.
He says he will be rushing off to Udwada, to meet the famous sandalwood dealer, supplying sandalwood to the Parsi community, Mr. Sohrabshah Kanga. Persis is also happy as she too had to go to Udwada for her work and she looked forward to meeting Aspi outside the main entrance of the Iranshah fire temple on Sunday morning at 11.am.
Udwada station – Aspi alights from the train, bargains with the taxi driver, Aspi is driven to the dharamshala & heads out to meet Sohrabshah Kanga. Sohrabshah is a benevolent kind orthodox village Parsi. He patiently listens to all that Aspi has to say. However he is non-committal to any of Aspi’s proposals. He does emphasis though that it is becoming extremely dangerous and difficult to maintain the supply of sandalwood. Next day Aspi is early for his appointment with Persis & while he is waiting he is accosted by Nousar Vakil, the local biscuit maker and bakery owner who is aggressively trying to sell biscuits to Aspi.
There is something about this man that makes Aspi take an instant dislike to him. Aspi hears his name called out and he turns to see a stunningly beautiful Persis in a Parsi Gujarati sari standing there to meet him. They both walk into the firetemple. The biscuitman cycles off.
The sun, the sea and the idyllic surroundings of Udwada go a long way in cementing the friendship between Aspi & Persis into a torrid youthful romance. We see the young couple in a romantic montage, which ends with them being seen at a dubra village festival.
They think that they are the only Parsis there till Aspi spots the biscuitman coming out of a hut quite drunk. By the romantic firelight & the rhythms of the native drums and a moonlit sea Aspi & Persis decide to be together forever. And Persis then knowing that Aspi has nowhere to stay in Bombay puts forward a bold invitation to Aspi, to live with her in her aunt’s house in Bombay till her aunt returns from Simla.
Back in Canada we see Persis’s mother & father in separate scenes reading with great emotion Persis’s letters which passionately speak of her love for Aspi. Also her reflections on the community’s prejudice of the Nussesalars. Her determination & courage to defy dogma & social injustice inspire both the parents to meet more frequently to discuss their daughter’s future.
Back in Bombay tongues are waging. The middle-class Parsi community is scandalised by Persis & Aspi living together. Several sequence which will show the animosity towards Persis & Aspi. Early one morning Persis’s doorbell is continuously ringing. An impatient & annoyed Persis opens the door only to find ‘Radio Bawa’ with mischief in his eyes as he says “God gave the 10 Commandment to us, but God could not prevent Adam & Eve from tasting the forbidden fruit – Humata Hukta Huvaresh… “Saying this he floats down the stairs leaving Persis totally stunned.
Persis is at a get-together in a posh affluent Parsi home in the up market area of Mallbarhill these are the people that she has to meet in connection with her project. While Persis is socialising with the affluent guests one of the ladies quite purposely asks her – “Dear Persis how is it making love to a pallbearer, it must be as exciting as sleeping with the devil”. All heads turn to look at Persis. Persis is thoroughly disgusted and leaves.
Persis is made acutely aware of the narrow-mindedness of the Parsi Indian community as compared to the west. Back home, Persis discusses all this with Aspi over a quiet dinner and they both decide that it is best that Aspi leaves, before aunt Freeni comes back to save each other much humiliation.
As Aspi is also quite putoff with the gossip & malicious treatment meted out to him he decides to go back, to Udwada & try & work out some supply deal between Sohrabshah & Russimama who is in Mysore.
In Udwada Sohrabshah is happy to see Aspi again & even though he is an orthodox Parsi he welcomes Aspi but he maintains his stance that he cannot help him with the sandalwood business. He offers him to spend the night with him. Aspi is put up for the night in the outhouse. Aspi is exhausted & falls into a deep sleep.
Next morning is a black day in the history of Udwada. Aspi enters the main house through the garden entrance & is traumatised & shocked to see the body of Sohrabshah in a pool of blood very dead. He rushes to the front door but it is locked from outside, as was the practise that Pakya the old faithful servant slept with he keys outside on the veranda. A totally panicky Aspi shouts for Pakya to wake up screaming that Sohrabshah is killed. Pakya doesn’t stir but the neighbours respond, when they remove the blanket from Pakya’s body they find that he is wounded & unconscious. They can not find the keys & while some of the neighbours’ runoff to summon the police; some of them break the lock & get Aspi out.
The police arrive; Pakya is taken to the hospital and everybody around give their statements to the police. The police officer is quite sceptical about Aspi’s statement, that he did not hear anything during the night. However the matter is put to rest for the time being after he is shown how far the outhouse was located from the murder scene. The body is taken to the morgue.
The next day happens to be the most auspicious day in the Parsi calendar, when busloads of Parsies, normally arrive in Udwada, to worship at the fire temple.
Early that morning it is discovered that the fire temple storeroom has been broken into & the entire stock of Kathi (which is a special wood used in bulk to feed the holy fire) along with the stock of sandalwood is missing. The sleepy town of Udwada reeling under the shock of Sohrabsha’s murder, receives yet another terrible shock, when rumours spread that now there can be a real threat, that the holy fire, which has been burning continuously for the past 1166 yrs. may be extinguished, owing to the lack of Kathi & sandalwood, to keep it burning.
There is utter pandemonium when the busloads of Parsis arrive & there is no Kathi & very little sandalwood.
The biscuitman comes to the rescue & tells the committee of high priests that he can definitely turn up enough Kathi & sandalwood to tie over this immediate crisis.
He does add though that he should be made the official sandalwood supplier, as now Sohrabshah no longer exists. The biscuitman was trying for years to become the supplier of sandalwood to the community but Sohrabshah was in his way.
While biscuitman goes off to get the promised supply of Kathi & sandalwood the Captain & Persis arrive on the scene in the old Morris minor. They are here in connection with their work for ‘Save Udwada’. Aspi in his distressed state is happy to see them. The visiting crowds of Parsies are very disturbed & anxious as this is something they have never experienced before.
The police along with politicians & government officials, have also landed up, but are not allowed inside the temple premises.
For the first time there is a huge crowd of Parsis guarding the temple, and the police, officials are in the veranda of a house opposite urgently discussing the crises. Soon we see a bullock cart fully loaded with Kathi parting the crowd as it makes its way to the fire temple. There are cries of cheer from the Parsi crowd. Persis & Aspi rush to the forefront & see the Kathi being unloaded under the directions & new-found authority of the biscuitman. Suddenly Aspi seems to notice an insignia branded on the wood. Aspi is dragged out of there as Persis has had enough for the day.
Back in the Dharamshala Persis & Aspi have their first major angry argument. Persis wants to go back to Canada with Aspi & start a new life together. Her search for her roots has got her nowhere. Aspi says he’s not a quitter and won’t leave. Persis angrily tells him that if that is his decision, then their affair is over, she says this and walks out.
That night, Aspi is very restless & cannot fall asleep. In the early hours of the morning when he does sleep he is having a nightmare. He sees visions of Sohrabshah being murdered, this footage is intercut with Persis with tears in her eyes – screaming at him – “It is over, Aspi its over.”
This then dissolves to young Aspi in the jeep with Rusimama which dissolves to a hot branding iron branding Russimama’s trees only now the insignia is what he saw on the wood supplied by the biscuitman, it is the insignia of Sohrabshah. The red-hot branding iron menacingly seems to appear to brand Aspi’s face. Aspi screams & sits up in bed. It is almost dawn.
He cannot sleep & goes on the beach for a walk & comes upon two women practising some kind of witchcraft enchanting Pakya’s name in the chanting of the ritual. He decides in his mind that he will go & meet Pakya and walks on ahead trying to make some meaning of his nightmare.
Just when the tip of the sun is visible it strikes him that the insignia on the lot of the firewood that was been unloaded by the buiscuitman was that of Sohrabshah which is conclusive proof that the biscuitman is the thief.
Aspi is told at the hospital that Pakya is discharged. Aspi goes to the Dubra village and enters Pakya’s hut. Pakya is delirious & is repeating ” Bhagwan Mane Bachao” Aspi sits besides him & very gently speaks to him telling him that he knows that the biscuitman was the sandalwood thief & if Pakya really wants to atone for his sins he should come clean and die with a clean consciousness.
Pakya breaks down & tells Aspi everything.
Aspi rushes to Vapi & is seen talking to the Parsi ACP. The ACP orders an ambulance and a police jeep to be immediately ready to leave for Udawda.
The jeep & the ambulance turn into the streets of Udwada & come to halt outside the biscuitman’s bakery. The biscuitman is arrested & is taken to Pakya’s village. Pakya identifies the biscuitman as the killer. The game is up for the biscuitman; his plan to get rid of Sohrabshah Kanga to corner the business is now frustrated. The Parsi ACP congratulates Aspi. The jeep with a handcuffed biscuitman and the ambulance with Pakya head out of the village.
The news of these dramatic events has reached the trusties of the Udwada fire temple & they are ashamed for their prejudices against Aspi. They treat Aspi as a Parsi hero & reward him by now making him the official supplier of sandalwood.
Through all these events, Aspi cannot really savour the moments because having achieved all this, he is missing Persis desperately. He tries to phone her but when Persis hears his voice, she slams the phone down. Aspi takes leave of all the people and is heading for Bombay.
Back in Bombay Persis is crying near the telephone as hearing her beloved voice over the phone seems to have rekindled all her love for Aspi. With tears in her eyes, she carries on her packing, for departure to Canada by the night flight.
The evening turns into night. Persis’s baggage is packed & ready. She is drying her hair after her bath. Just then the doorbell rings. She opens the door and is confronted with an emotionally charged Aspi. She leaves the door open & says – “Now what do you want, leave me alone.” Persis walks into the house. Aspi follows and notices that Persis is all packed to leave. Aspi is desperately trying to convince Persis not to leave but Persis is adamant.
In the midst of this, Persis suddenly hears someone calling her by her pet name, ‘Persu’ and in walk her parents hand in hand from Canada. They inform her that her letters & her courage to love a Nussesalar has opened their eyes and they are now happily reunited.
Aspi is dumbstruck by this sudden development. In walks an excited Captain Sidwa & pumps Aspi’s hand saying – “Well done lad, you are the hero of our community”. Persis is made acutely aware of Aspi’s true love for her, she cognises the fact that Aspi had left all the adulation and fame and had come to her & didn’t use any of that to impress her, except the fact that he truly loved her. Persis is moved to tears and rushes into the arms of Aspi. In walks ‘Radio Bawa’ he says – “Love ae Kholyu Karma Cola, Piyo, Tabiyat Thi Piyo”. All have a good laugh.
Dissolve to Marriage stage with the happy couple posing with family and friends for a wedding photograph. Photographer shouts “Cheese”. Flash goes off. Freeze-frame. We dissolve to 9 months in the future Persis is blooming pregnant with they first child. They have settled in Udwada. Life has changed in Udwada. The Parsi population has prospered and grown. Aspi & Persis’s new baby is much awaited by all and one in Udwada. The birth of they child symbolically heralds the start of the new millennium with a very optimistic and positive note. Cries of a new-born child are heard on a travelling camera over golden seawaters, we tilt up into a glourious sunrise. End Titles Roll.
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