Bawas in Bollywood: Parsis in Hindi Cinema

Without fail, my posts manage to elicit more addenda and corrigenda than praise. That is a cross one has to bear while writing on Bollywood, as there is at least one person in the audience who has seen that one movie of 1994, which one had missed while trying to take a class test!
On top of that, you have people like Udayan who are making excruciatingly rude comments from faraway Amsterdam. (How is it my fault if his employer has not sanctioned a Kinky Sex Allowance?)
So, I tried to steer clear of Bollywood and dabbled in general racism. Just when I thought I had gotten away with it (even my wife praised the post!), Orange Jammies opined that I have ignored the Parsis in my pseudo-academic treatise on Indian pronunciation.
So, I thought I would make up for that oversight by writing about Parsis in Bollywood.

It is my contention that Parsis are ignored in almost every sphere of life except steel. Bollywood is no exception. In fact, it does worse than ignoring. Every time a member of the minority community appears on screen – more often than not – it is as a caricature.
And of all the stereotypes, the Parsis are probably the worst hit. The men are always wearing the cylindrical black hat and a white band-galla kind of coat, driving a vintage car loaded with a large family. The women wear a pink saree worn in the traditional fashion and carry a Japanese hand fan. They speak in a manic accent with all their T’s pronounced hard and use a whole lot of ‘dikra's in their conversation. I have never seen a Parsi like that in real life! Well, neither have I seen a Muslim who uses words like ‘barkhurdar’ and ‘lahaul bilaquwat’ in his conversation!

So, there are two groups to talk about – one, Parsis in the film industry and two, the Parsi characters in films.

In the showbiz, there has never been any dearth of Parsis, who have traditionally manned technical roles. Cinematographers, editors, sound recordists – of the names Fali, Nariman and Homi and surnames Irani, Nariman and Contractor and any combinations thereof – abounded all over for major parts between the 50’s and 70’s.
Of the more famous ones, we have Mickey Contractor who is staple for the soft-focus romances of the Chopras & Johars. Miss India-s down the ages have sworn by him.
Then there is Avan Contractor of Juice Salon – responsible for styling Hrithik’s hair in Lakshya and Aamir’s in every movie since Dil Chahta Hain.
I am not sure if the Irani sisters – Honey & Daisy – and Aruna are of Zoroastrian descent.
Then come the actors – Boman Irani is the flag bearer as he is surely the most recognized Parsi face in the industry.
For a more desirable face, you can pitch for Perizad Zorabian (who, incidentally, is married to one Boman Irani) who appears in films on and off now and whose father owns a poultry farm called Zorabian Chicks. So, she is not the only one in the family!
And among the character artistes, we have Tanaaz Currim playing the archetypal Heroine’s Friend (a role made famous by Guddi Maruti in the early 90’s) and becoming even famous by dancing like a dream in Nach Baliye.
We also have Dinyar Contractor – of the Mumbai theatre circuit – who appears in comic cameos every now and then. His most famous role is probably that of the nose-digging client of Jhankaar Beats. Old timers would remember him as the echo-talking principal of Khiladi.
A very long time ago, a lady by the name of Persis Khambatta won the Miss India contest and did a slew of modeling assignments in the Garden Vareli genre. She also appeared in a Star Trek movie with her hair shaved. Wonder what happened to her?
I will avoid mentioning the name of Cyrus Broacha as he is yet to break into Bollywood… though I am waiting for him!

As I mentioned, an overwhelming majority of the first group are caricatures and they have appeared in innumerable such films. I can think of a vintage car riding uncle in Qurbani (who bumps Feroze Khan’s car and whose wife eyes FK) and an aunty in Dil Hain Ke Manta Nahin (who gives a lift to Aamir Khan and pretending-to-be-pregnant Pooja Bhatt).
Of course, Dinesh Hingoo is an actor who is probably in the Guinness Book for the maximum number of Parsi parts and appears as Mr Batliwala in the trademark costume.
In recent times, the carrom-playing uncle of Munnabhai MBBS and his genius doctor son are probably the most famous Parsi characters!

There are only a few films I can think of that have portrayed Parsis realistically – but the flip side is that their viewership has been extremely limited!
Parzania got great reviews for its subject but it was too serious a film to attract the multiplex crowd, which flocked to Krrish!
Pestonjee was a deadly boring film about Naseeruddin Shah’s unspoken love for Shabana Azmi, who gets married to Anupam Kher. I think I saw it on a Sunday afternoon when Doordarshan used to show award-winning films but its terribly slow pace was quite difficult to bear.
Being Cyrus was an interesting thriller and a reasonably box-office success. It was about a very eccentric Parsi family and had probably the biggest star (Saif Ali Khan) playing a Parsi in any film (with the probable exception of Vinod Khanna donning the ‘dikra’ accent for a short scene in Muqaddar Ka Sikandar).
Khatta Meetha is the movie which has the highest number of Parsi characters ever! It had Ashok Kumar and Pearl Padamsee marrying and uniting their families of four children each! A huge number of Homi, Fal, Jal, Freni, Soli and Dara moved around!

And finally, we have to talk about the Greatest Film Ever Made and there is a Parsi there as well.
Remember the engine driver in the train that gets looted in Jai and Veeru’s introduction sequence? Well, that is Mushtaq Merchant looking suitably harassed by the attack of the Northies in his domain but does a decent job of cranking up the speed and providing Veeru with liquor!
Of course, the twist is that he is the only person to have a double role in Sholay. Do you remember a thin figure who screams and jumps as Jai-Veeru drive off in the double-carrier bike of Yeh dosti? That’s Mr Merchant again – as he plays the guy whose bike gets stolen by the heroes. There was a full sequence of the theft – but that got chopped at the editing table.

Just what I said… they are always on the sidelines!


Unknown said…
clap clap clap... awesome post dkc .. and no addenda this time.
Anonymous said…
persis died a couple of years ago.
yup, persis died in '98 of heart attack. now, was that a drug over-dose? i can not be so sure...

and you did mention the name of Cyrus Broacha, didn't you? :-)
Anonymous said…
sorry for the addendums im gonna add, but here goes...
persis khambatta passed on many years back. lung disease or something due to excessive smoking.
you missed the Contractors in Guru [mani ratnam's version of the Wadias]. They have a fleeting-ish appearance.
And also the Sethnas in 1947-Earth. They had a bigger role, supporting roles - the story is told thru the eyes of their crippled daughter. They are also quite anglicised and all that, not that much of the stereotyped parsee in this flick.
Anonymous said…
I think u have missed following parsis in bollywood

John Abraham- His father is a Malayali Saint Thomas Christian architect, while his mother Phiroza Irani is part of Bombay's Irani community
Nauheed Cyrusi-actress,vj and model
Jimi Mistry-is a British Asian actor.
Homi Adajania-director of "Bring cyrus"
Anonymous said…
Request - do a post on Parsi-Indo-English fiction too. I spent a month or two finishing everything from Rohinton Mistry. Then there is Ardeshir Vakil and others.
Anonymous said…
btw, cyrus broacha is half-parsee. his mother is catholic.
Rimi said…
Actually, the anglicised Parsi is yet another stereotype, not breaking the mould at all. Bapsi Sidhwa mentions this version of stereotyping in several of her books, and it's done both by other communities (derisively) and the Parsis themselves (with a considerable degree of pride). In fact, I'm told that the social skills of Parsi women were a bit of a dazzling phenomenon for several Western-educated young men, who were at once attracted and intimidated by them, being used to a less... visible kind of female populace.

Now that I think about it, probably part of the reason why Mani Ratnam, and none but him, show Parsis in their affluent Anglicised avtar is because he's a bit of an industry outsider.
Anonymous said…
Briliant stuff...I am a sholay trivia buff and must say the bit about mushtaq merchant was awesome...from where did you dig that one out ??
@ Anons: Pls leave your names. False ones if you are the shy types.

@ Rimi: Puh-lease, no deep meaningful thoughts about the representation of minorities in popular art forms. Next, you will be talking about didactic materialism!

@ Priya: I actually enjoy the addenda. Keep 'em coming!

@ Anon after Rimi: Magicians never tell!
Anonymous said…
Ooooh! A post on demand! I'm LIKING this, Diptakirti!
Most folks have mentioned all the bawas there are...except Sohrab Ardeshir. Well, he's a rare sight, being a theatre actor (now Parsis in THEATRE would be another 300 posts) but he's there alright...mostly playing hard-drinking Cattlik man roles because his horrendous Hindi accent won't permit anything!
I'm always ranting about the bumbling idiot portrayal of Parsis in Hindi cinema too... grr! You can test my Hindi if you ever meet me!
Oh, and you forgot the Wadias.. I think that Hunterwali Nadia was married to one of them.. Sohrab, I think. They were the original movies guys, I believe. And Akshaye and Rahul Khanna are half parsi too. Their mother is one. As is Hrithik Roshan's mother-in-law, Zarine Khan.
I thought Rakesh Roshan in Khatta Meetha was such a ham, I'd pay him to not play pretend bawa!
Haven't figured out the Irani sisters' connection, but don't think they are. Just like TV queen Smriti "Tulsi" Irani isn't one. She's married to one. Fun stuff, Dipta... I'm going to honk about you on my page! :0)
Oh, and happy father's day! What did Joy give his Baba?
Anonymous said…
Came through OJ, and am pleasantly surprised.
May I add my two-penny-bit?
My parents' generation (am 53) used to swear by that doyen of their times: Sohrab Modi.
the mad momma said…
waah.. writing on demand now.. how abt a post on mixed up backgrounds like mine and my babies?!
Anonymous said…
Gud reading all stuff here.Parsis continue to fascinate me.There is a sort mystery around them,hard to find them too,im in blore and have jes come across one parsi gal.hey,tell me,is there some way of entering a parsi temple or any place associated with the parsi religion?
Anonymous said…
why has every body forgotten dishaw darji great comedian died about 3 years ago lived in mumbai cannot remeber the films he acted in but there were quiet a few.

Anonymous said…
You could have also mentioned the Bawas in television- Cyrus Broacha, MTV VJ

Delnaz Paul

Jahangir Vakil- he is the guy who came in Balika VAdhu as "pratap' suguna's first husband...apparently the guy converted to ISLAM a few yrs back after getting influenced by watching a local Islamic cable channel. He seems to have retained his name