Parsis: The Zoroastrians of India Pakistan and The World

Parsi Natak, Jivto Reh

After a long lull, Parsi-Gujarati theatre gets a shot in the arm with young talent from the community dishing out fresh stories, Bawa-flavoured.

Article by Reema Gehi, Mumbai Mirror

Last Saturday on Khordad Saal, a day when the Parsi Zoroastrian community celebrated its Prophet’s birthday, the all-Bawa crew (with a few “honorary Parsis”) of SodaBottleOpenerWala was ready to see the curtains rise yet again to a packed Tata Theatre. Earlier that week, the young men and women behind SiLLy PoiNt Productions, had revelled in the energy of a full house when the play about an Irani cafe and the mayhem behind the making of mawa cakes had premiered.

13-01
Top: Afshad Kelawala, Dilshad Khurana, Shahrukh Irani, Jigar Mehta, Pheroza Mody and Danesh Irani rehearse for the house-full SodaBottleOpenerWala, a play that highlights the dying Irani café culture; (Above) Jim Vimadalal (red T-shirt), who collaborated with thespian Dinyar Contractor (centre) says it was a rare opportunity for the young cast – Sanaea B, Errick Elavia, Huzan Wadia, and Rumi Zarir – to learn from the 74-year-old’s experience

That evening, five more Parsi-Gujarati plays – Sam Kerawalla’s Hasa Has, Dinyar Contractor’s Bhaag Bawa Bhaag, Dinyar Tirandaz’s Darling Humna Nai, Vistasp Gotla’s Savaksa Ni Sex Badlai and Cyrus Dastur’s Havey Mane Joi Lav – were performed across venues.

This was a first in many years, says Contractor, a veteran who has made generations of Parsis leave the auditorium smiling in time for their salli boti dinner on Pateti. “It is like a revival of some sort,” he smiles, glad that the myth of Parsi theatre losing its grip is being challenged – this time, by young stage talent.

The 74-year-old, whose Dinyar Contractor Productions, collaborated with Jim Vimadalal to stage Bhaag Bawa Bhaag on Navroze and the Parsi-Gujarati-Hinglish adaptation of Derek Benfield’s Touch and Go in June, says the young lot bring with them sleek production values and the ability to market theatre. “The onus to take Parsi theatre forward is now on them,” he says, highlighting a movement that theatre stalwarts believe has well begun.

It’s a serious responsibility Contractor refers to, considering the Parsis are credited with launching the modern theatre movement in India in the 1850s, influenced largely by European drama.

Back in the day

The earliest plays were Indianised versions of Shakespeare (Dil Farosh was an adaptation of The Merchant of Venice and Gulnar Firoze was based on Romeo and Juliet). The Parsi Natak Mandali (1853), considered the first Parsi theatre group, was owned by Gustadji Dalal and supported by Dadabhai Naoroji, K R Cama and Ardeshir Moos, among others. Companies owned by wealthy businessmen toured the country, collaborating with local talent to give rise to plays in Gujarati, Urdu and Hindi.

Then, the post-independence era brought with it new writing, and the birth of thespians like Pheroze Antia, Dr Ratan Marshall, Dorab Mehta and Adi Marzban. They were credited with freeing Parsi drama from tradition, introducing realism into scripts and bringing regularity to performing. “The weekly staging was possible because Adi, for instance, had a dynamic producer like Pesi Khandalawala, who encouraged artistes,” says Kerawalla. “And so, the momentum grew gradually.”

In 1966, when Marzban’s repertoire split, several key members including prolific actor couple, Burjor and Ruby Patel, branched out, starting a Parsi wing in collaboration with the Indian National Theatre. “We did some wonderful plays like Hello Inspector, directed by Arvind Thakker. It was a thriller with a smattering of humour,” recalls Patel.

In 1987, he teamed up with Marzban to launch a production house. Their first venture was an American comedy, My Daughter Rated X (Marzban decided to call it My Darling Daughter), which opened at the Bhulabhai Auditorium to a full house. “Back then, it was about sophisticated humour. Plays weren’t vulgar or offensive, a trait that Parsi nataks eventually became associated with,” he says, referring to the gradual fading of fantasy, melodrama, folk and spectacle genres to give way to the comedy-farce routine typical of plays performed on Pateti and Navroze.

Kerawalla, one of the foremost technical directors of Parsi stage, is one of the few to have continued the tradition of staging a play written or previously performed by Marzban every year. “The Tata Theatre is booked on August 18 every year. It has been a norm since the 1970s,” says 82-year-old.

But this was more exception than the rule. Patel says Parsi theatre was non-existent for a few decades. “Barring a handful of actors, who stayed committed to performing on festivals, I’d say, Parsi theatre skipped an entire generation”. But he is quick to acknowledge that there is an effort in place to change this.

In an interesting collaboration, a committee that includes Patel, his daughter and actor Shernaz Patel, writer Meher Marfatia, and Vimadalal (with support from Jam-e-Jamshed and the National Centre for the Performing Arts), is set to launch Drame Bawas. It’s a community initiative to scout for talent among Parsi youth. Advertising entrepreneur Sam Balsara has volunteered to design publicity material that will be plastered across various Parsi baugs, encouraging the young to act or direct new plays.

The best of the lot will be staged at the NCPA in March next year. “Our attempt is to introduce new faces on stage,” says Patel.

May there be more

The guys behind SiLLy PoiNt are excited at having company in future. Started five years ago by four boys from St Mary’s – Meherzad Patel (26), Danesh Khambata (28), Danesh Irani (24), Sajeel Parakh (26) – and a Cathedralite, Darayus Subedar (26), the production house has staged 12 plays. They say they are bound by a love for theatre, which explains the inclusion of Sharmeela Kazerouni, the 50-year-old “mum of a school friend”. “She’s an eye surgeon,” says Meherzad Patel, “but enjoys what we do. So, she has come on board as a member.”

Then there is the love for laughter, which in fact, is true not just of Parsi theatre talent but the community, too. Parsis refer to slapstick humour as ‘koihlu’, and Irani says, “Whether we like it or not, that’s what most audiences want to see, especially on happy occasions. They wish to have a laugh before they make it for dinner and drinks.”

Irani recalls his introduction to the natak on Parsi New Year in 2005 when he acted in Maja Mastini Mokano, after a chance meeting with veteran actor Dinyar Tirandaz, at a fire temple in Charni Road. Irani, like the other 20-yearolds in the troupe, candidly admits he wasn’t gung-ho about being associated with over-the-top hackneyed humour. “And so, many decided to pursue theatre, but not necessarily Parsi nataks,” says Vimadalal.

Kerawalla, who is regarded as a one-man institution, having honed a generation of theatre talent from Fali Unwalla to Shernaz Patel, and Vimadalal, Khambata and Irani of Silly Point, says, slapstick wasn’t responsible for Parsi theatre’s decline. “Over the years, Parsis have stopped reading and writing in Gujarati. How many youngsters speak the language?”

Meherzad Patel, who since 2008 has written and directed both, English and Parsi-Gujarati plays including the popular Rusty Screws and Pakar Maari Poochri, agrees.

“Although I can read and write Gujarati, my scripts are always written in Roman-English,” he says. It started when he had to adapt Rusty Screws into Gujarati (Screwala No Dhilo Screw) in 2011.

That their scripts are able to discuss issues central to the community is reason enough for all-Bawa productions to find an audience. I’m Bawa and I Know It – a parody on LMFAO’s 2011-hit number, I’m Sexy and I Know It – is a title song that has won more hits on YouTube than there are people in the dwindling community. The play is about a homosexual Parsi couple that can’t get married because one of their parents is keen to move abroad, and give up their flat in a Parsi baug. “Only a Parsi with family can inherit a home in a Panchayat-controlled colony,” explains Meherzad Patel. “Through humour, we have raised the issue of housing, which is a key concern in the community.”

The need for original scripts means writing talent also has a chance to grow. Afshad Kelawala, a 25-year-old actor who is a regular with SiLLy PoiNt, reasons that those who’ve watched an original Adi Marzban aren’t in the mood to watch a rehash with a fresh cast.

“Besides, you can command a price (a ticket at a venue like Tata costs close to Rs 1,000 for the first eight rows) only if you are staging a new play,” he says, adding that novelty has worked in their favour.

What they see in Parsi theatre is “still no profits, but promise.”

Both, Vimadalal and Gotla, believe it’s crucial then to keep up the regular tempo of performances. Twentyyear-old Gotla has staged Pheroze Antia’s all-time hit, Behram Ni Sassu, and his own Degree Vagar No Doctor, at Bhartiya Vidya Bhavan on days other than Parsi festivals.

“It can work,” says Meherzad Patel. “‘Parsi’ sells. Besides, if we don’t talk about our culture, who will?”