The Parsis in Bollywood 

In their own quiet way, the Parsis have influenced Indian cinema and its culture in many ways. Here's a look at what they have given us.

Swati Goel

In the book 'Parsis of India: Preservation of Identity in Bombay City', author Jesse S. Palsetia chronicles briefly the initial Parsi contribution to Indian cinema, beginning with Jamshed Boman Homi Wadia (1901-86), scion of the wealthy Wadia family. He forayed into cinema with his Wadia Movietone founded in 1933, which had a ship as its logo as a tribute to the Wadia family heritage. Specialising in action and stunt movies in Hindi, the firm produced the iconic Hunterwali in 1935, giving the Indian cinema one of its legends - 'Fearless Nadia'. That the movie went on to be a superhit, triggering a cycle of similar high-adventure stunt films such as Cyclewali, Chabukwali and Motorwali, at the same time inspiring Hunterwali whips, belts, matchboxes and playing cards merchandise, is another story.

Another Parsi, Sohrab Modi, produced a host of historical and dramatic films around the same time, through his Minerva Movietone founded in 1936. His Khoon Ka Khoon (1935), Sikandar (1942), Pukar (1940), Prithvi Vallabh (1944), Jhansi ki Rani (1954), Mirza Ghalib (1955) and Nausherwan-E-Adil (1958) created a nationalistic sentiment that remains unparalleled.

Not to forget Ardeshir Marwan Irani’s path-breaking Alam Ara, which released on March 14, 1931, as the first Indian talkie. Based on a Parsi play by Joseph David, a playwright from Irani's Parsi Imperial Theatrical company, the film was borne out of Irani's vision about the impact of sound on cinema. Considered a 'mogul' in the industry, he is credited with between 225 and 250 productions in his lifetime, including India's first indigenously processed colour film, Kisan Kanya (1937).

This is not to say that the influx of Parsis in cinema was welcomed with open arms by one and all. Zoroastrian scholar Khojeste Mistree notes how there were heated protests over two Parsi sisters – music composer Saraswati Devi (born Khursheed Manchershah Minocher Homji) and sister Chandraprabha - working in a Hindi film ‘Jawaani ki Hawa’ (1935, debut production of Bombay Talkies) that premiered at the now-defunct Capital theatre. The Parsee Federal Council had even tried to ban it, but the predominantly Parsi board of Bombay Talkies stepped in and got the film released without censorship.

That the Parsis shaped the Indian cinema is hardly surprising though, given that scholars attribute the start of theatre in the Indian sub-continent itself to the community. The Parsi theatre introduced in Mumbai in the mid-19th century, while based on a British model, was a flourishing industry for well over a century. A hotbed for the culturally and creatively inclined, the theatre catapulted many to the world of cinema.

In her coffee-table book, Laughter in the House!, Mumbai-based journalist Meher Marfatia notes that the period 1853-69 alone saw at least 20 Parsi theatre groups in Bombay.“Such was the popularity of Parsi theatre, that the play, Raja Harischandra claimed over 4,000 shows from 1892-1922 and Bomanji Kabraji’s tear jerker, Baap Na Shraap ran for 500 nights with front row seats of Rs4 going for Rs22 in the black market,” says a newspaper report while quoting from the book.

Even though production houses have since gone into the hands of diverse communities and people, Parsis have had their moments in the Indian cinematic history. Among the several films that showcase the Parsi culture, one of the earliest - Khatta Meetha (1981) – remains an icon for its beautiful unravelling of the community's existentialist dilemma. Naseeruddin Shah and Anupam Kher-starrer Pestonjee (1988) gave us memorable Parsi characters. Such a Long Journey (1998), set in 70s, was a poignant portrayal of life and times of a Parsi man, Gustad Noble (played by Roshan Seth).

More recently, Being Cyrus and Parzania (both released in 2005), revolved around the Parsis, while 2012's romantic comedy Shirin Farhad Ki Toh Nikal Padi used the backdrop of the eccentric, fun-loving community to tackle the issue of compatibility between partners, of course in a humourus way. The films stars many Parsi actors including Daisy Irani, Mahabano Mody Kotwal, Kurush Deboo, Dinyar Contractor and Sohrab Ardeshir.

Despite frequent portrayals, the community has been a victim of stereotypes – the men, invariably wearing the cylindrical black hat and a white band-galla type of coat, driving a vintage car overloaded with a big family, and the women, dressed in an embroidered sari, a heavy pearl necklace and holding a hand-fan - are often shown as an eccentric, crazy bunch. Though fortunately, prominent actors Boman Irani and Perizaad Zorabian have tasted success in Bollywood without playing Parsi stereotypes.