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New documentary explores the Parsi community

Unique to India, there is no other community like the Parsis. Divya Cowasji and Shilpi Gulati, postgraduates from TISS and documentary filmmakers, get the community to share their most sacred spaces and tongue-in-cheek jokes in front of the camera, painting a delightful world in their new documentary, Qissa-e-Parsi. Kanika Sharma takes a dekko

“We’ve been here since the beginning of the city. We’ve helped to build it. We’ve such strong nostalgia about it,” says Feroza Mistree, a cultural historian in a new documentary, titled Qissa-e-Parsi: The Parsi Story. ‘Parsi’ practically meaning Persian, were once descendants of Zoroastrians from Iran and are now an integral part of not only the city but also India. A project in collaboration with the Public Service Broadcasting Trust and Ministry of External Affairs, it has been made keeping foreigners in mind.

Qissa-e-Parsi
A still from the documentary, Qissa-e-Parsi where a Parsi man is seen praying at a Fire Temple in Wadia Atash Bahram, Marine Lines.

Yet, the soft-hued documentary gets known faces of the community to aid a narrative of a community that has and is leading India in art, science, business, music and theatre. From screenwriter/photographer Sooni Taraporevala, TV personality Cyrus Broacha, Farok Shoki (owner of Kyani & Co), and Sam Kerawala (set designer/director), the duo of Divya Cowasji and Shilpi Gulati produce an endearing portraiture of Parsis in just 30 minutes.

Divya Cowasji
Divya Cowasji, a Parsi herself, has gleaned several old photographs from her family archive for the film

Hoo Parsi Choo
“Ever since I first moved to Mumbai in 2005, the abstract love affair I had had with the idea of being a Parsi all my life, took on a more involved, nay obsessed form. It is during our Masters at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai (TISS) that Shilpi and I met, became inseparable, and decided that both our dissertations — hers on the Derawal community and mine on the Parsis, titled ‘The Parsi community and the politics of gendered exclusion: Implications for the 21st century’ — would translate well into documentary films. And that is how our partnership and foray into the world of documentary filmmaking began,” says Divya Cowasji.

Boman Kohinoor
Boman Kohinoor, owner of the Britannia restaurant, is an epitome of the Parsis’ congenial relationships with the British, as he shows off a MiD-DAY article reporting a letter written to him by the British queen

From the tying of the kusti to prayers in the fire temple, panoramic visuals of the congenial Parsis punctuate Qissa-e-Parsi. The fact that numbers of Parsis are dwindling is an underlying sentiment as a young Parsi adolescent declares himself, “unique”. Given the context, the limited community has great love for its eccentricity and ability to laugh. But more than that, Cowasji and Gulati manage to make the Parsis self-retrospect as an entity. The verdict? They are good and honest or as religious scholar Khojeste Mistree says, they have an “ethical awareness”.

unique identity
The documentary shows how the Parsi community is proud of its unique identity

LOL with us
From explaining certain religious iconography, such as the Fravashi (the guardian spirit) to their indispensable relations with the British, Qissa-e-Parsi is also able to unfold a beautiful mystery — the genesis of peculiar surnames such as Bharucha, Readymoney, Engineer, Daruwalla and Sodabottleopenerwalla. The film reveals that in the early 1900s, the British created a law that everyone had to have a surname making the innovative Parsi take their professions or village names as part of their identities within a fortnight.

Udvada
The duo have emphatically captured Udvada in Gujarat as it is regarded as a pilgrimage spot by the Parsis

In fact, any narrative on Parsis is incomplete without this humorous take and this documentary has a fresh dose of it — “a face like an advertisement for castor oil” says Taraporevala or “gone into the photo frame” shares journalist Meher Marfatia. Gulati actually admits, “We could have filled the entire half hour with funny anecdotes. For as the saying goes, ‘In Bombay, 99% of the Parsis are mad. The other 1% are statues.’ ”

Sooni Taraporevala
Sooni Taraporevala is a prominent commentator in the documentary

The question of faith
The duo share that they also endeavoured to include the minority’s interfaith issue that rankles many: “The community today is faced with the stark reality of its dwindling numbers and the very real possibility of extinction. This has given rise to anxieties over issues of conversion, intermarriage, and purity of race; the burden of which seems to be falling increasingly on the Parsi woman. One is told that with the privilege of being born a Parsi come the material, social and ritual benefits of belonging to an affluent community. And, if a woman chooses to marry outside, she chooses to forego those benefits,” informs Cowasji. One of the sharp highlights of Qissa-e-Parsi is the juxtaposition of Mistree’s orthodox opinion and Udvada’s head priest Dasturji Khorshed’s liberal views.

documentary
A production still from Qissa-e-Parsi

In the eleventh hour
The duo had their share of adventures while making the film. Cowasji recalls, “We were shooting in the grounds of a fire temple in Mumbai when the head priest came bursting out of his chambers. He could not contain his pure joy and as he gave us bear hugs, he informed us that a Parsi lady in Surat had given birth to 11 children! For him, this was nothing short of a miracle.”

On Divya's Hindu name
“I have never silently fumed more at my parents as I have recently for not giving me a Parsi name. Would Dinaz or Dilnawaz have been so hard? Halfway through a shoot at a fire temple in Gujarat, a priest came over to chat and asked me my name.

Directors Divya Cowasji and Shilpi Gulati
Directors Divya Cowasji (L) and Shilpi Gulati (R)

Before I knew it he was screaming at the top of his voice as to how I had entered his fire temple much less with a camera! I sheepishly explained to him that I am a Parsi with a Hindu name,” says Cowasji.

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