Actor Burjor Patel, Adi Marzban’s collaborator on modern Gujarati theatre, gets back to Mumbai, and acting after 20 years
Burjor Patel resurfaced in viewer consciousness when an endearing telecom ad featuring a young boy and an avuncular old man who talked through his eyes and the body language of an acting maestro hit television screens. Was it the same man whose plays we watched with such relish three, even four decades ago?
A telephone call confirmed that it was. One remembers him as having migrated to the Middle East in the 1980s. When did he get back, what was his current occupation, what did he think of his beloved city to which he has returned, and the theatre scene, of which he had been such a powerful influence?
Wading through the misty passage of a quarter century gone by during a recent meeting at the Cricket Club of India, Patel was sometimes wistful, but not overly sentimental. His rich baritone is still intact. Strong Parsi genes and a zest for life have kept him sprightly and mentally alert even at 82.
Patel’s longevity provides a sweep of Bombay-turned-Mumbai and of the city’s theatre activities dripping with delightful (occasionally sad) nostalgia about events and people. Having returned in 2009 after 20 years in Dubai, he has both an ‘outside in’ and ‘inside out’ perspective that is unique and riveting.
“High rises have arrived as well as the neorich. The old kind of community feeling has definitely diminished and people nowadays talk only of money,” he says when asked about the difference he sees between Bombay and Mumbai. But he laughs, “That may be only my way of looking at things. We belong to the old generation, the old world.”
It’s not the neo-glitter that Patel has noticed. The decline in standards is also apparent. “I stay on Wodehouse Road where the pavements are all broken, and vendors have taken away space that belongs to pedestrians. There is no discipline on the roads. Cuffe Parade is still well-maintained. But what can one say? The Ambanis next door at
Sea Wind, are going through similar issues!”
However, he does not feel that Mumbai’s essential cosmopolitanism has changed. “We keep hearing about Mumbai for Maharashtrians, but I have not felt uncomfortable.” With the wisdom of age he adds, “It depends on how you think.”
Patel played cricket in school (Bharda High School) but when he went to college at Elphinstone, there was “no chance to get into the team with the Apte brothers and Subhash Gupte”. But college did get him into what has been a life-long passion: theatre.
The turning point was meeting Mumbai’s theatre great Adi Marzban. “In those days, he used to rehearse near Churchgate. I would sit and watch the rehearsals waiting for my chance… for more than a month. Then I got a role with two lines. I realised later that this was Adi’s way of mentoring — exposing young talent to the drill and regimen of acting, not blooding them instantly. That discipline helped me enormously.”
From those two lines, Patel grew to become Marzban’s collaborator. And there was another benefit: “I met my wife Ruby in theatre. She was a brilliant actor then, and still is.”
Apart from the fame, money and a lifelong companion, Marzban introduced Patel to the media with a job in Jam-e-Jamshed’s advertising department, after he finished his law degree. He lasted 12 years. “It allowed me to pursue theatre because of Adi and exposed me to people from all walks of life.”
Marzban and Patel created modern Gujarati theatre, moving it away from the archaic, overly theatrical style of Sohrab Modi and others. Comedy and farces were big hits. “Parsis have always had the ability to laugh at themselves, but Gujaratis, Bohras, Khojas and Memons also patronised the shows.” Language dissolved all communal and religious barriers.
Patel moved on after 12 years with Marzban and joined The Times of India. It was not a happy move: “Adi was very possessive, and this led to bitterness.” When at the Times, he was cut off from theatre because there was just no time for such pursuit.
He then moved to The Statesman: “C R Irani had been chasing me for more than 15 years and I finally relented, because he also encouraged me to do theatre. When the theatre bug bites you, it’s for life. Along with Hosy Vasunia, I formed the Parsi Syndicate Group which was behind all kinds of plays — comedies, thrillers, melodrama.”
But after a while, Irani was no longer enamoured of his executive following his passion. Patel was transferred to Delhi, but the theatre bug made him fly back to Mumbai on weekends on his own account, perform on Sunday and be back in the Delhi office, Monday 9 am. This arrangement he says was “too good to last”.
Patel was back in Bombay and his fancy now was English. He tied up with Marzban again, starting off with the super hit My Darling Daughter. But the second innings of the relationship vapourised rapidly. “I wanted new directors like Alyque Padamsee and Pearl to direct, but Adi wouldn’t have any of it,” says Patel, whose daughter Shernaz Patel is a well-known actress and co-founder of Rage Theatre.
Subsequently he and actor Hosy Vasunia joined forces. “We did a lot of plays but our biggest success was Bottoms Up with Bharat Dabholkar, spawning a whole series with Son of Bottoms Up, Grandson of Bottoms Up and so on.”
Cheeky, irreverent and very funny, the Bottoms Up series took Bombay, and wherever in India it travelled to, by storm in the 1980s. “Mainly, this was political satire, and because the political situation was so volatile, there was enough grist for the plays. Shiamak Davar and Arshad Warsi, incidentally, were just starting out as dancers then.”
Filled with the fervour for life the Parsi community is known for, Patel took on a new challenge at an age when most look at retirement. Aged 58, he moved to Dubai as ad manager of the Khaleej Times to spend the “rest of my days peacefully”. He stayed there for 20 years, “grew into Vice President-Marketing and in this period saw Dubai transform from a sleepy emirate into a highoctane megapolis”.
He came back in 2009, “my two regrets being that I never learned Arabic and even more grave, deprived Ruby of 20 years of acting.” But he is encouraged by English theatre today, with its original writing and Indian themes. The audience also impresses him: “They are young, enjoy escapist fare, but don’t mind serious plays either.”
Now at 82, he wants to give back to theatre, to the media “and to young people in any walk of life that can gain from my experiences and knowledge. Sometimes I get frustrated this doesn’t happen readily.” As the greatest philosophies remind us, the rhythm of life is not perfect; rather, it’s the vicissitudes that define its richness.
By that score, Burjor Patel’s had some life!