Thea Shroff, Darius Shroff, Azmin Vania, Danesh Irani, Danesh Khambata, Pheroza Modi, Hormuz Ragina in Sahebji Sohrabji

The Last Parsi

Reading Time: 5 minutes

So the editor calls me up and says – “Meherzad, I want an article from you for our page, highlighting – Parsi Theatre … so I respond – Ok, sure. And I hang up. But wait. Parsi Theatre? What is that? I don’t know if that is an insult or an expression?

Did you just belittle theatre of the Parsees? Or did you praise it?

Theatre is theatre, right? Why are we communalizing it?

For those of you who don’t know who or what a Parsee is, just refer to Boman Irani, Shaimak Davar, Ratan Tata, Zubin Mehta – that is the famous lot, along with Freddy Mercury. What a talented bunch aren’t we? Apart from Mr. Tata, the rest have owned the performance space in a way nobody else could.

Parsi Theatre, is, for the lack of a better word to explain, typical behavioral traits that stereotypically allow one to identify directly and instantaneously with Parsi culture and creed and capabilities and … stop me whenever? … Let’s simplify it – Parsees are a dying breed, but rare and tender, and how appropriate is it to talk steak and Parsees in the same sentence?

Parsees are eccentric. Parsees are mad, loud, neat freaks, who love to wash their car, have a drink, eat their meat, sleep after dhansak and whenever possible, punctuate with ^%$#%@#%@!$!^#@$%^ – (FYI, if you’ve just read a lot of random symbols, then the editor has decided to censor my article, and rightly so I guess, nobody wants to publish foul language.)

If you’ve lived in Mumbai, there is a Parsee in and around you somewhere.

So why did the editor call upon ME to write about Parsi Theatre? I’m as far away from being Parsee as possible. I don’t drink, I don’t wash my own car on a Sunday, I’m a vegetarian and dhansak isn’t made in my house. Or as my wife puts it – dhansak without mutton is not dhansak at all! … Yeah sure … guess who’s not getting a well-cooked meal by their husband anytime soon? …

But there is a bit of Parsi in all of us. The traits we portray spill over into our professional life and personal. The unfortunate truth is that we’re so embarrassed about our culture and heritage. We don’t like our non-Parsee friends making fun of our swag (that’s another word for style), so we wear a shirt and a tie and shine our shoes and put on a smile.

So from 2012, Parsi Gujarati plays have been a staple feature in our performance calendar. Twice a year, when our egos are so terribly inflated as the community throngs to the venue and fill up the seats a month in advance.

In 2012, we sold out in 2 days for a 1000 seater. In 2016 – we sold out before we even knew as a production house that the sales are live. In 2020, we sold out a month in advance – for 2 shows – and then? COVID-19 – 5 days before the performance. The rest is everybody’s story.

So, here we are. Writing ABOUT Parsi Theatre, instead of actually performing.

In this profession, the hamming style of performance is surely still there with regards to Parsi Theatre. Nataks. Gujarati plays. Skits. ‘Time Pass’. Drama.

The full cast of Bombay Bawa

It’s been referred to by numerous names.

There are 5 pillars of a Parsi.

  • Food
  • Car
  • Queen
  • Fire Temple
  • and Parsi Nataks

When you think of cars, you visualize that Parsi man in his vest and shorts, cleaning his bike or car in the colony or baug. When you think of the Queen, you hear your Parsee friends say – “Aapri Raani” – “Our Queen” … and swear that Diana was more Parsi than her Daughter-in-law.

These 4 things, you can see, and touch and feel. What about Theatre?

Theatre in Mumbai has three wings –

  • The isolated Prithvi Theatre and NCPA actors who believe in the purity of Theatre (we’ve all been there); with the aristocratic audience, drinking cold coffee and watching an English play at NCPA, Nariman Point
  • the Gujarati theatre actors who do 45 shows a month for an overflowing population of Gujaratis;
  • and a handful of 4000 Parsees who will watch a play only on 2 days in the year – 21st March, Navroze and third week of August, Parsi New Year.

God forbid you have a houseful show, the old Parsee aunties will shout at you – “how can you be houseful?” … “Aunty we will have a repeat show in a couple of weeks, why don’t you come then?” …
“Who cares about that?! That is not on new years day! What good will come off that?” …

That’s a typical Parsi moment on New Year’s Day. This is how the regular day in the life of a Parsi will be on Parsi New Year

Wake up, have a shower, go the fire temple, pretend to know your prayers in front of the serious Parsee aunties, go home, spend an hour correcting and educating all your non-Parsee friends who’ve ignorantly wished you – HAPPY PATETI – that – Pateti is the last day of the previous year, and it surely isn’t considered a “happy” day, so don’t wish me that. Followed by a heavy lunch, preferably someplace you get a buffet.

All those people poking fun at our dwindling populations need to try going for lunch somewhere on Parsi New Year, good luck getting a table anywhere. All 50,000 of us are in some restaurant or the other.

Danesh Khambata, Danesh Irani, Sajeel Parath and Pheroza Modi in Amar Akbar Akuri

This is followed by a nice nap. Then we wake up, get dressed. NEW CLOTHES. Don’t forget to wear your new clothes on the New Year day! And then go for a PARSI NATAK. Doesn’t matter how good or bad it is. That is the beauty of performance on this day. The audience is in such a festive and good mood, that they’ll watch anything with a positive attitude. They come dressed in their best outfit, a smile on their face, and dinner reservations made. Yes, that is most important. Dinner reservations made. No two ways about it. When people call the box office to find out details about the play – it is never – who is the director? What is the play about? Who are the actors? What time does it start? Where is it? Is it even a play? … They only ask one question – what time will the show end? As we’ve got to make dinner reservations! Food. Food is so important to our community that theatre, education, professional responsibilities all take a backseat where food is concerned.

Yet, there is more Parsiness on stage than I’d like. I urge my actors, don’t behave Parsee, please. Don’t Ham! That phase has passed. And invariably my actors end up doing just the opposite. The audience does the same thing … I get those yearly calls – “what are you doing this New Year? … Hope nothing koylu!” (that’s the word for hamming) … I deduced what the scenario was. It wasn’t the play or the restaurant’s lavish buffet, it wasn’t the quality of the natak … what we’re looking for is that feeling of being amongst our people on this auspicious and festive day. People don’t care what they watch or eat or pray, as long as it is together. With each other. To me, that is true Parsi. Being with your fellow Parsees … then you can go for a natak, or a movie, or just for dinner … even just sit at home … but … a true Parsi will do so in the presence of other Parsees … that’s Parsiness to me …

What is fascinating to watch is the promise with which they still want to celebrate this occasion. Since they cannot come to the theatre, this year we decided to take the theatre to them and made a movie to showcase online on YouTube and over 600 families signed up to watch it. 600. That is an entire auditorium of people, twice over – who are watching it together, but yet – separately. And nothing better in the world than a happy Parsi Play to forget about the virus for just about an hour…

That’s theatre… leave your worries at the door…when you hear the third Bell, that’s another world you’ve entered.

Welcome to our theatrical world.

– Meherzad Patel

About Meherzad Patel

Meherzad is a writer, director and producer at Silly Point Productions. He has written 23 plays in English and Gujarati including The Class Act, Rusty Screws, Relationship Agreement, Laughter Therapy, Devil Wears Bataa, Amar Akbar Akoori, Bawa and I Know It and Geedra of Thrones. He is a Trinity certified Speech and Drama instructor and teaches at several schools in Mumbai.

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