There is something to be said about Parsis their sense of humour is unique. Maybe they tend to make fun of themselves before others do, as a defence mechanism, considering their minuscule population, which is also rapidly shrinking.
In other Indian cities, people don’t know much about Parsis, but in Mumbai, they are a much loved community, as much for their achievements in every field, as for their quirks, their peculiar way of speaking Gujarati, mangling Hindi and Marathi, and using the choicest abuses in their routine conversations without even realising what slipped through their lips.
Mehernosh Siganporia is the ‘Mad Bawa’ character Danesh Irani portrayed in two productions - The Class Act and Four Square; a character who is loud, obnoxious and rude to everybody in sight
All their foibles are in full display in the Parsi plays that are performed specially for Parsi New Year and Khordad Sal, when it’s a tradition for the community to watch a play and then go for a lavish dinner. It is understood expected even that a Parsi play will have ‘naughty’ jokes, which they will guffaw at, but also call “koilu” and cluck their tongues at in mock horror.
Danesh Irani’s stand-up comedy show The Last Parsi encapsulates the Parsi character with a rambunctious sense of fun, and since the audience at the opening shows are also Parsi - maybe friends, family, neighbours the inside jokes go down particularly well. Like a Parsi’s horror of vegetarian food; their running gags against Gujarati miserliness, vegetarian and teetotalling ways, and the Parsi’s mistrust of Muslims, because, “No Parsi can see eye to eye with a community that fasts for a whole month,” according to Danesh.
And why don’t Parsis allow outsiders to enter their fire temple? Because they were driven out of their homeland, and figured if they don’t let anyone in, they can’t be pushed out. The thing about a Parsi stand-up act is that it can make fun of everybody and nobody minds, because the biggest target of the Parsi’s jokes are Parsis themselves. Danesh brings the house down with the episode of his grandmother driving a Nano, even though the “koilu” element gets full play.
Almost everybody has seen his earlier plays, and when the name Mehernosh Siganporia is uttered, there is spontaneous laughter. This is the ‘Mad Bawa’ character Danesh Irani portrayed in two productions — The Class Act and Four Square. A character who is loud, obnoxious and rude to everybody in sight. A fellow who ought to get his own comic book series, or at least, memes.
In an earlier Parsi New Year production, Soda Bottle Opener Wala, Danesh played a waiter in an Irani café, with the oddly appropriate name of Chashni (sugar syrup). And he is, well, loud, obnoxious and rude to everyone in sight.
Danesh is part of a theatre company called SillyPoint Productions, and acts in almost all their plays, with his cohorts Meherzad Patel and Danesh Khambatta writing and directing by turn. They have understood the tastes of their audience and have come to specialise in comedies, that have Parsi characters, but the stories are universal. For instance, Rusty Screws has a guy of the typical ‘sandwich’ generation coping with pressures of aged parent, delinquent son, hassles at work, and disgruntled wife. I’m Bawa And I Know It starts with a housing shortage, and goes on to tackle homophobia and narrow-mindedness, but in a humorous way.
Soda Bottle Opener Wala takes off from the recent social media-fuelled panic about Grant Road’s iconic Merwan’s shutting down, and sweeps in real estate problems, greed and the old ways versus the new. Their latest The Buckingham Secret is about the British Royal family, which works with a fictional scenario, but pokes fun at the Parsis’ adoration of all things British and still bowing to ‘Aapri Rani’ (our queen). Some old Parsi-owned establishments still have a picture of Queen Elizabeth on the walls, and the death of Princess Diana was mourned by the whole community.
According to Danesh, the only thing a Parsi can’t do, is get into Bollywood — try getting a Bawa to say, Didi tera dewar deewana. But still, Parsis were showbiz pioneers (Ardeshir Irani, the Wadia Brothers) and there’s Boman Irani breaking down barriers, leading a small but determined roster of Parsi actors in films and television. Add to that half Parsis like Farah Khan and John Abraham, and the numbers add up.
The stand-up show may be called The Last Parsi, and its poster may show Danesh Irani with a vulture perched on his head, but the community is far from giving up the ghost.
Deepa Gahlot is an award-winning film and theatre critic and an arts administrator. You can follow her on twitter @deepagahlot