Obituary: Farokh Jassawala was naked without his camera

Remembering city institution, photographer Farokh Jassawala, who pioneered event photography

For the past 30 years or so, at every event of note in Mumbai, a wizened turtle of a man wearing pleated trousers, a half-sleeve shirt and sports shoes would line up punctually with a camera around his neck. Unlike other photographers, he would not jostle for space in the pit, or call out to celebrities.

Farokh Jassawala, who rarely agreed to be photographed, seen here with actress Sushmita Sen
Farokh Jassawala, who rarely agreed to be photographed, seen here with actress Sushmita Sen

He would stand, smile and have a short conversation instead of asking a question. During the last few fashion weeks, handlers of celebrities would not let Farokh Jassawala ask questions during press conferences. He would grin, “You know, I like to warm up the star and then draw the real answer out of them. I can’t do this shoot-shoot questions.”

Jewellery designer Farah Ali Khan shot by Farokh Jassawala. He had a way of capturing a moment like no one else, she says
Jewellery designer Farah Ali Khan shot by Farokh Jassawala. He had a way of capturing a moment like no one else, she says

Jassawala is important as the pioneer in event photography, being the force behind Page 3 when it started in the early ’90s. He passed away after a cardiac arrest on Monday. Today, he would have turned 70. “He was naked without his camera, always working, always going somewhere. He had gone to shoot an event in Delhi and came back with a congestion,” says his daughter-in-law Mahrukh Jassawala.

He passed away while in hospital and is survived by his wife, son Hoshi and grandson Sherzad. Veteran fashion journalist Meher Castellino, who was one of his earliest colleagues, says, “He would ask some of the most interesting and intelligent questions at press cons. So much so that the celebrities would not know how to answer. He never pushed himself forward; he was always that polite smiling man but he had a good knowledge of the industry. You knew that from his questions. Towards the end, it made him a little sad how people in fashion treated each other — he wouldn’t get paid for pictures on time.”

“We are all making a living because of him,” says independent lifestyle photographer Yogen Shah. “He showed us how to do what we do. Ninety-five per cent of pictures from events in every paper would be from him.”
Always punctual is how Sathya Saran remembers him. “He had no vain and glory idea and determinedly did his job. I would see him at every event.”

And yet Farokh always called himself an amateur. “I call myself an amateur because I am still struggling,” he would guffaw. “I am not rich!” It is not without irony that getting a picture of the man has been a task — he shot the world, but very few people shot him. Jassawala studied to be a Chartered Accountant and began his tryst with photography in 1971 by shooting a dog show in Bandra.

“I loved animals and some newspaper liked my pictures and paid me Rs 2 per pic,” he had mentioned. He soon dropped his calculator and acquired a Leica and went on to shoot 34 Miss Indias. He especially liked talking to the girls to calm them down, telling them not to cry when they won the title because it would spoil the pictures.

He is also credited at having spotted a pretty Parsi girl at Five Gardens and convincing her to take part in the beauty pageant. “And that girl became Mehr Jessia,” he would say when he told the story. Jassawala said he liked glamour photography the best because, “The subject is beautiful. And the human face is dynamic. It changes and I like to capture that.”

In the later years, Farokh would be called by those who he bonded with. He shot Farhan Akhtar’s wedding and jewellery designer Farah Khan always had him at her shows. “‘Why do you want me? I don’t make the press deadline. I don’t shoot fast enough. Everyone says I’m slow’ he would say,” she remembers.

“But he had a way of capturing a moment like no one else. He was a smiley man who reminded me of my maternal uncle and it heartened me to see his face in a crowd. I told him I needed him to be there for me. I would use his pictures for personal use.” Fitness guru and former model Deanne Panday says she would always look out for him in the crowd at events.

“It was important for me to see that smiling polite face and go say, hello. He would stop shooting and take the time to come say things like, ‘Oh, you’ve put on weight! How can you do that being a fitness guru?’ Or ‘I read your book! See I am losing weight!’ He always had a joke for me. It didn’t matter that I was taking up his time when he was shooting.”

In keeping with his charm, Farokh never really took to new media. His old work was stored as unmarked, unorganised negatives at his Grant Road home, and often even he couldn’t locate what was there. Thought he graduated to a digital camera, he would download the pictures on a hard drive, take it to his trusted printers in Fort for a bit of digital touch-up and then burn them on pen drives or disks to give out to publications. In a time of selfies, he had taken no pictures of himself. “I don’t want to do all this twittering, baba,” he had said of social media.

At fashion week, Farokh would sit with a plate of steamed vegetables or a little biryani, good naturally complaining that there was no plain, untempered daal (‘mori daal’ of the Parsis) and then balance that frugality with a hill of ice cream. And since he always believed in being before time for any event, we can only assume he left in haste to attend a glamour event on some other plane. Or an all-you-can-eat ice cream buffet.

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