A veteran stage actor walks down memory lane and recounts the time when Parsi Theatre blossomed in the city.
If one has to trace the legacy of Parsi Theatre in the city, it goes back to 1850s, when the first play Bejan Manijeh by Kaikhushru Kabraji was performed. Several Parsi Natak companies sprung up during the time performing classic Persian and Indian sagas such as Sohrab and Rustam and Shakuntala. The groups also ventured into Urdu epics such as Laila Majnu. There’s a whole history of Parsi Theatre of that era. One of the frontline writers of that era was Bomanji Navroji Kabraji famous for socio-dramas like Bholi Gool, and Baap na Shrap, which enjoyed runs of over 500 nights.
Photos courtesy Meher Marfatia from her book Laughter In The House: 20th-Century Parsi Theatre
Article By Burjor Patel | Mumbai Mirror
I had the good fortune to be a part of one of the plays of Kabraji called Kalyug written in the year 1894. Kabraji’s daughter Shirin P B Vatchha decided to revive the play in 1950. My uncle Nariman Patel who belonged to that genre of plays, was invited to direct and play the lead role in the play, which opened in Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, a popular venue for Parsi Theatre. Nariman uncle, knowing my passion for theatre, invited me to play a comedy character called Dosu Dafasya. In between high drama, Dosu provided comic relief. It was indeed a new experience. Such plays are history now.
Post-Independence, when the likes of Adi Marzban, Pheroze Antia, Dorab Mehta and Homi Tavadia arrived on the scene, Parsi theatre took a new turn. My association with this modern Parsi Theatre started with my meeting the legendary writerdirector Adi Marzban.
It was 1949, I was in Elphinstone College when I first met Adi. He was rehearsing a Parsi Gujarati play called Shirinbai nu Shantiniketan.
Expressing my interest in acting, he invited me to a rehearsal, which was in progress. I was anxiously waiting to grab a good role in the play. At the end of each rehearsal, he would tell me “kaale aavjo” (come tomorrow). This went on and on till the grand rehearsal date arrived, when I was given a four-line role in a crowd scene. This was Adi’s way of inculcating the value and discipline of hard work for new aspirants.
(L) Piloo Wadia and Pheroze Antia in Marzban’s 1949-play, Shirinbai nu Shantiniketan; (R) The legendary theatre maker Adi Marzban with Homi Tavadia while rehearsing for Piroja Bhavan
My journey with Adi continued through several memorable plays starting with Piroja Bhavan, a comedy play that tracked the travails of a family struggling to spruce up a white elephant of a property. The year 1954, which in my opinion was the beginning of the modern Parsi Theatre. Until then, this genre of Parsi plays were performed for three to four nights largely during the Parsi festival days. Piroja Bhavan broke this trend with a plus-30 run. The audience, which till then were largely Parsis, opened out into all the Gujarati-speaking communities – the Gujaratis, Bohras, Khojas, and Memons. They loved the Parsi humour and the Parsi Gujarati dialect as also a glimpse into the Parsi way of life.
Piroja Bhavan was followed by the identifiable antics of a dysfunctional yet loveable family in Mota Dilna Motabawa, the cat and mouse game played by a married couple in Kataryu Gap, the tender love story in Mari Pachhi Kaun.
The runs of the shows kept on increasing from 30 to 50 to 70 to reaching 100 with Adi’s iconic play called Sagan ke Vaghan, a bitter-sweet chronicle of a husband and wife from their wedding night until they pack up and move 35 years later.
Another innovation of Adi was musical revues with live band on stage. Goody Seervai filled that gap for us. The content was songs, dances, hilarious sketches, and front curtain gags.
We revived one in 2014 under the title Laughter in the House starring some of Adi’s old timers, who we call Golden Oldies, along with some new kids on the block. The finale was Adi’s famous Parsi Qawwali, a battle royale between women and men, which truly brought the house down with demand for encores.
One of the other legends of the Parsi Gujarati theatre was actor, writer and director Pheroze Antia. I used to meet him at the Central Bank of India head office near Flora Fountain. I was privileged to act along with him in Adi’s iconic play Mota Dilna Motabawa, where he played my sophisticated father.
As he entered the stage dressed in a three-piece suit with a felt hat and stick in his hand and stood majestically near the door, the audience broke into peels of laughter and applause. Such was his popularity. He is equally famous as a writer of several comedy plays including the Behram series of plays — Rangilo Behram, Behrame su Kidhu, Wah re Behram and the most famous Behram ni Sasu. I acted in one of his comedy play called Shanti Mansik Hospital.
Another accomplished Parsi writer, director and actor was Homi Tavadia. He was a solicitor by profession. Some of his memorable plays include Pestonji na Parakram, and Bairi Mari Mohabat Tari. Apart from his own plays, he largely acted in Adi’s plays.
(L) Adi Marzban’s iconic 1968-play, Sagan ke Vaghan ran for over 100 shows; (top right) Dorab Mehta is a writer of popular Parsi comedies Jahan Jov Ta Baira; (above right) Actor, writer and director Pheroze Antia is known for his famous Behram series
After a 12-year association with Adi, circumstances resulted in my moving out and launching a Parsi Theatre wing under the Indian National Theatre (INT). We performed most of our plays at Jai College hall, Birla Matushri Hall and Tejpal Hall. I had heard of Dorab Mehta as a writer of popular Parsi comedies Jahan Jov Ta Baira. I invited him to pen a play for us. Called Tirangi Tehmul about a self-styled Lothario juggling his three fiancées, until all three land in his apartment at the same time. It was directed by INT’s dynamic young director Pravin Joshi. The play was an instant success. This was followed by Gher Ghunghro ne Ghotalo about a married man in his late ’50s suddenly learning he’s becoming a father again and Oogi Dahapan ni Daadh about a philandering dentist keeping his many affairs at bay by claiming to be married with children. Both were penned by Dorab Mehta and both celebrated Golden Jubilee runs.
My association with INT continued for almost a decade, during which we took Parsi Theatre to new heights with hit comedies like Taru Maru Bakaliu and Lafra Sadan, the latter completing a run of 100 shows. With INT, we also broke the myth that Parsi Theatre was only comedies. Plays like Solmi January ni Madhrate, a court room drama, and Hello Inspector, a suspense drama, were highly successful.
Finally, we have to credit all those who brought these memorable works physically on stage — the legendary Parsi actors. All the laughter and applause at the end of the evening was largely due to their efforts — Piloo Wadia, Dinoo Nicholson, Ruby Patel and Doli Dotiwala, the reigning queens of the Parsi stage and the Kings of Comedy — Dinshaw Daji, Dadi Sarkari, Jangoo Irani, Bomi Dotiwala, Dinyar Contractor, and Jimmy Pocha.
Unfortunately, Parsi Theatre has taken a back seat in today’s times. We are back to three to six show, which runs largely during Parsi festival days. Parsi youngsters today hardly know their language. Their preferred choice is English theatre. Also, there is a lack of quality Parsi writers.
Meherzaad Patel is the only new Parsi writer on the horizon. Against that, the proper Gujarati theatre is reaching new peaks. That audience is there if Parsi Theatre is serious about bringing back its glory days. The Parsi business and corporate houses will be more than willing to support such an initiative. After all, as the legendary artist M F Husain once said, “Nothing in the world is more joyous than Parsi Theatre in Bombay.”
The author is a well-known theatre personality