The contribution of Parsis to Indian cinema began with Jamshed Bomab Homi Wadia, scion of the affluent Wadia family. He entered into cinema with Wadia Movietone, which was founded in 1933. It had ship as its logo as a mark of respect to the legacy of Wadia family. The firm produced Hunterwali in 1935. Specialising in the genre of action and stunts, Wadia Movietone gave Indian cinema one if its legends – Fearless Nadia. The movie went on to become a commercial success eliciting a series of high-adventure stunt films like Cyclewali, Chabukwali and Motorwali.
Sohrab Modi is another Parsi who produced a multitude of history and drama based films through Minerva Movietone founded in 1936. Some of his films like Khoon Ka Khoon (1935), Sikandar (1942), Pukar (1940), Prithvi Vallabh (1944), Jhansi Ki Rani (1954) evoked nationalistic outlook that remains matchless. Then there is the unforgettable and path-breaking Alam Ara by Ardeshir Marwan which released on March 14th, 1931 – India’s first talkie. The movie mushroomed from Irani’s Parsi Imperial Theatrical Company, on which Joseph David had a Parsi play. Irani had visualization about the impact of sound in Indian cinema. As a magnate, he is credited with producing between 225 and 250 films in his life span, of which Kisan Kanya (1937) – India’s first indigenously processed colour film was a part.
Not everything was rosy as it looks. The incursion of Parsis in Indian cinema was not greeted with open arms by everyone. Zoroastrian scholar Khojestee Mistree noted how there were animated protests over two Parsi sisters. One was a music composer, Saraswati Devi (born as Khursheed Manchershah Minocher Homji) and the other was Chandraprabha – both of whom worked in a Hindi film, Jawani Ki Hawa (1935), a debut production of Bombay talkie that was premiered at the Capital theatre, now out of use. The Parsee Federal even went ahead and tried to get the film banned, but the Parsi Board of Bombay Talkies paced in and allowed the movie to get released without any censorship.
It would not be an exaggeration to suggest that it were the Parsis who shaped Indian cinema, by influencing the start of theatre in the Indian sub-continent. Although a British model, the Parsi theatre was introduced in the mid-19th century was a thriving industry for more than a century. A breeding ground for the culturally and creatively inclined, the theatre industry propelled many aspiring artistes to the world of cinema.
The period between 1853-1969 saw at least 20 Parsi theatre groups in the city of Bombay. The popularity of the theatre was so huge that Dadasaheb Phalke’s Raja Harishchandra claimed over 4000 shows and Bomanji Kabraji’s Baap Na Shraap ran for 500 nights. The front row seats were sold for Rs 22 in the black market.
All around the world, Parsis celebrate the festival of Nowruz. India being a land of diverse language, ethnicities, culture and religion, art happens to take different forms and shapes. Now that production houses have been branched out and held by diverse communities and people, it is worth an effort to look back at the past and present moments involving Parsis in the cinematic history of India.
Among the numerous films showcasing Parsi culture, none other comes to the mind than the earliest film unscrambling the existentialist quandary of the community, Khatta Meetha (1981).
In 1988, came Pestonjee. Directed by Vijaya Mehta, the film starred Anupam Kher, Naseerudin Shah and Shabana Azmi playing the character of thorough Parsis, which is considered as Bollywood’s most exhaustive portrayal of the community. Based on a story by B.K. Karanjia, a film journalist, Pestonjee won the award for the Best Feature Film at the 35th National Awards. The beauty of the film lies in its intricate details – the wedding, architecture inspired from Persian culture, wobbly lifts and ethos – all pay homage to Zoroastrianism. The film remains enduring for its titillating script and stellar performances.
In 1998 came Indo-Canadian film Such A Long Journey based on the novel written by Rohinton Mistry in the same name. The film was directed by Sturla Gunnarson and the screenplay was written by Sooni Taraporevala. A poignant portrayal of life and times of Gustad Noble, played by Roshan Seth, the film received twelve Genie Awards and was also screened at the Toronto International Film Festival.
Homi Adjania directed Being Cyrus in English, a black comedy thriller film revolving around the life of a dysfunctional Parsi family. Saif Ali Khan’s most underrated performance till date, Being Cyrus was nuanced cinema at its best. Parzania was released around the same time and featured Naseerudin Shah and Sarika in lead roles. Directed by Rahul Dholakia, the drama film was inspired by the true story of a ten-year-old Parsi boy, who disappeared from the Gulbarg Society in the aftermath of the 2002 Gujarat riots. It traces the journey of Pithawala family who try to locate their mission son. Sarika’s portrayal of a Parsi mother won her the National Award for Best Actress in 2007 whilst Rahul Dholakia won the Best Director Award.
The quirky, eccentric and funny side of the community was beautifully captured in the 2012 romantic comedy, Shirin Farhad Ki Toh Nikal Padi, which boasted an ensemble cast of Parsi actors including Daisy Irani, Mahabano Mody Kotwal, Kurush Deboo, Dinyar Contractor and Sohrab Ardeshir.
Based on the controversial case between K.M. Nanavati and State Of Maharashtra, which led to the end of jury system in India, Rustom was a fictionalised version on the event. Akshay Kumar played the lead character Rustom Pavri, whose marriage with Cynthia Pavri, played by Ileana D’Cruz turns sour after a series of malicious moves, eventually leading to a murder. The film was one of the biggest hits of 2016.
Whilst the film industry is dominated by the Khans, Kapoors and Kumars, the Parsis have also played their parts well. Daisy Irani is one of the oldest Parsi stars and was a well known child artist and acted in movies like Jagte Raho, Naya Daur, Hum Panchi Ek Dal Ke and Musafir.
Dinyar Contractor is best known for his act as a college principal in the movie Khiladi and as a Judge in Khichdi: The Movie. One of the most popular female faces, Perizaad Zorabian, made her debut in Nagesh Kukunoor’s Bollywood Calling, and hit recognition with Subhash Ghai’s Joggers Park. Farooq Sheikh, one of the finest actors of Bollywood, was born to a Muslim father Mustafa Shaikh and Parsi Mother Farida. His roles in Noorie, Chashme Buddoor, Umrao Jaan, Kissi Se Na Kehna, Biwi Ho To Aisi and Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewani exhibit his talent.
Boman Irani is currently the most popular Parsi in Bollywood acting in plethora of successful films like Munna Bhai M.B.B.S, Main Hoon Na, Lage Raho Munna Bhai, Dostana, 3 Idiots. Talented actor, screenwriter, director, singer Farhan Akhtar is the son of Javed Akhtar and a Parsi mother, Honey Irani. He directed films like Dil Chahta Hai, Lakshya, Don, Don 2 and also played memorable characters on the celluloid in films like Rock On, Bhaag Milkha Bhaag, Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara and Dil Dhadakne Do.
The hilarious sibling duo of Farah Khan and Sajid Khan were born to Muslim father Kamran Khan and Parsi mother Menaka Irani. Known for their multi-talents, Farah Khan has directed Blockbuster films like Main Hoon Na, Om Shaanti Om and Happy New Year besides her enormously successful career as a choreographer. Brother Sajid Khan, apart from being a comic host, is known for directing successful comedy films like Heyy Babyy and the Housefull series.
The guru of modern contemporary dance is another Parsi Shiamak Davar who has choreographed for several films including Taal, Bunty Aur Babli and Dhoom 2. Handsome hunk John Abraham was born to Farhan Abraham, a Malayali Nasrani father and Parsi mother. John is a model, actor and also produced films like Vicky Donor and Madras Cafe.
Though the Parsis have been subject to stereotypes in the film industry, many Parsi actors and actresses have tasted success without playing their community roles. Whether in films or textile, the Parsis are undoubtedly fun loving and wealthy people with an industrious nature.