Parsis at Chemould Prescott Road

The sense of a beginning
By Carol Andrade | Afternoon DESPATCH & COURIER | March 11, 2013


Taraporevala. When photographer, script writer and indie film maker Sooni Taraporevala came out with the first edition of Parsis,  a veritable tome of her photographs show-casing the ordinary life of this minuscule community back in 2000, even she was surprised at the ease with which copies flew off the shelves.

Actually, make that “from under her bed”, which is where she says she stacked the copies! There were 5,000 in that first printing and she got out a second edition of another 5,000 copies in 2004. She laughs as she admits that they have moved much more slowly, but also admits to having less than 1,000 left. “Which means the book is in 9,000 homes all over the world, and that’s not a bad thing”, she declares.

Actually, Sooni Taraporevala is at a point in her life where most things are good. She has this exhibition on at the Chemould Prescott Road Gallery, just behind the Khadi Bhavan, where ‘Parsis’ is drawing a steady stream of visitors. Comprising exactly 104 photographs out of the thousands she has shot over 30 years, images of the dearly loved figures so important to the life of this city, other images of unknown Parsis instantly recognizable by stance or clothing or situation, all carefully identified and captioned, you find yourself browsing, looking for details, spending far longer enjoying the frames than you expected to. Sooni has exhibited several times abroad, but surprisingly, this is a first for Mumbai.

She is careful to explain that most of the photographs have been taken from her archives, others were shot after ‘Parsis’ was printed, so even for someone who has the book, most of it is all new material. Originally, the criteria for selection were frames that showed Parsis in ordinary situations, on the street, in their homes, at special functions and events. “Then I felt this was not a fair representation of the community, so I added a section on personalities who have passed away, and called it a tribute. Into this I put the artists, the film-makers, the writers, the journalists, politicians, industrialists.”

So you have the late Nani Palkhivala in his element, making his post-budget speech at Brabourne Stadium, Atomic Energy Commission chairman Homi Sethna standing at the side of a portrait of Homi Bhabha,  JRD Tata, the biggest names of the world’s smallest, arguably most successful community in proportion to its size. But there are also plenty of people who are reaching for money to pay for vegetables, praying  before the Sea off Marine Drive, enjoying a moment of laughter at a wedding or at the Race Course, dressed for tea at Mahabaleshwar during a summer holiday, vignettes of lives that are engaging, fascinating or plain nostalgia.

All this is just one aspect of Sooni herself,  for whom everything that she did at Harvard in the 1970’s and early ‘80s seems to have led to her career in films.

“I had a scholarship to do four years of undergrad work, and I had gone there thinking I wanted to do Economics! I hardly knew what it meant, just that it sounded serious.  But the best thing about the system is that you can change as you go along, and I discovered you could do all sorts of exciting things. I studied film, learned to analyse the craft. I borrowed money from my room-mate, bought a camera and learned photography. I paid her back, working at several jobs – dishwasher, in the Library, in security. I paid her back!”

Harvard also brought her the person who was responsible for the collaborations that have made Sooni an international name in script writing – Mira Nair.

Salaam Bombay was her first film and a heady experience. “You know it’s re-releasing next week and Mira is going to be here for the event,” says Sooni.

“After the film which did so well, I found I had a new career as a screen writer.” Other films followed, Mississippi Masala, The Namesake, both for Mira Nair, Such a Long Journey directed by Sturla Gunnarsson and in 2009, Little Zizhou, the independent film Sooni wrote and directed herself.  Made on a comparatively shoestring budget, the film ran for eight weeks in the multiplexes, charming the socks off the audiences, especially in Mumbai.

There has been yet another film on Baba Saheb Ambedkar that Sooni co-wrote for Jabbar Patel. “I’ve written more than 20 scripts and only six have resulted in films. But they have all been commissioned works that I enjoyed and they paid well, so no problems.”

Having come to the point where she can sit back a bit and take stock, Sooni says she is working on two projects right now, at least one of which she intends making for herself and could involve considerable engagement with Bollywood. She has spent the last four years working on the script and has to re-write once more before she can start the serious business of fund-raising. For direction is something she loves with an almost equal passion as script-writing.

“It’s lovely and I am totally hooked,” she says simply. And when you are doing both, writing and directing, it opens you up to change.” At least that is the way the combination affected her when she was making Little Zizhou.

What is her new script about? Well, it’s based in Mumbai and is “very much about current stuff with not a Parsi in sight!” And if there is a single little grouse she has about life, it is that more needs to be done to encourage the making of the small independent film, for which she is convinced there is now a market.

“Bollywood is so huge, it is difficult to fight; it’s a David and Goliath situation. But for indie films to create their own space there must be a groundswell of support from the audience. Abroad, there is art house cinema with dedicated theatres. Here we need dedicated theatres for the smaller films.”

How else will we get to see all the really good stuff that is now beginning to see the light of day?


Afternoon DESPATCH & COURIER | March 11, 2013

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