Parsis once dominated English theatre
To talk theatre with them is to breathe a living legacy. Actor-producers Ruby and Burjor Patel have handed down to their daughter Shernaz an abiding passion for the stage. Together, the three are the first family of Parsi theatre.
Parsis have led the way in English and Gujarati theatre since the 1940s, the decades between 1944 and 2000 being the most illustrious. Using laughter as its driving force, Parsi theatre combined commerce with engaging storytelling.
Ruby and Burjor, now 82 and 85 respectively, starred in writer-director Adi Marzban’s rollicking Gujarati comedies till the mid-1960s. They then joined the Parsi wing of the Indian National Theatre (INT), wowing audiences with hilarious hits such as Tirangi Tehmul, Gher Ghungro Ne Ghotalo, Oogi Dahpun Ni Dadh and Hello Inspector. INT was conceived from prison a few years before 1947 by jailed freedom fighters and scholars Damu Jhaveri, Rohit Dave, Chandrakant Dalal and Mansukh Joshi. Confident that the country was on the verge of liberation, the patriots were keen to script its cultural policy.
After the vibrant INT years (1968-78), the Patels delivered a string of successful plays under the banner of Burjor Patel Productions, delighting Gujarati and English theatre buffs alike. The couple left for Dubai in 1988, where Burjor headed Khaleej Times’ marketing operation. They returned to Mumbai in 2009.
Shernaz, 51, their middle child, is to the theatre born. Cutting her teeth on backstage bustle while most children spent Sundays at the movies, she was happiest playing hide-and-seek with her siblings in the corridors and green rooms of Bombay’s premier stage halls. “We ran through men sticking on moustaches and women draping chiffon saris,” she recalls. “There was always laughter, chai, batata wadas and this wonderful close spirit of family only those in theatre understand.”
The actor, who studied drama in Glasgow on a Charles Wallace scholarship, is known for imbuing her stage and screen roles with sincerity and spark. As co-founder of Rage Productions with Rajit Kapur and Rahul da Cunha, she orchestrates the theatre festival Writers’ Bloc.
On a drizzly morning, the Patels talk about shared memories of family, fraternity and theatre. Edited excerpts:
When did you realize Shernaz would also make a life in theatre?
Ruby: It came to me early in her Fort Convent (school) performances.
Shernaz: Actually my younger sister was fantastic and won Best Actress prizes.
Ruby: Though Shernaz was the shyer girl, I sensed she had it in her. Without ever saying teach me or mentor me, she absorbed everything we did. Seeing her in Diary Of Anne Frank (1984), I told Burjor she’s going to be a fine actress.
Burjor: We felt she really had the talent and encouraged her, watching whatever she did.
Shernaz, which defining moment told you it was to be acting to the exclusion of all else?
Shernaz: At Elphinstone College I was active with theatre. One knows it’s not a paying profession, so with a feeling of “Theatre’s there, but what to do with my life, my career”, I studied German in Pune, started on my master’s in psychology and worked in television.
Burjor: In 1980, as a Rotary exchange student in Pennsylvania, US, she played the lead in a play by James Kirkwood, the famous writer of A Chorus Line.
Shernaz: It was called There Must Be A Pony.
You come from different parts of the same world—you both on the Parsi Gujarati stage before English theatre, Shernaz solely in English theatre. Was it a conscious choice?
Shernaz: Parsi Gujarati never came into the picture for me. I’m independent-minded. If at all, I’d have purposely not done their theatre to find my own path, following an individual journey.
Burjor: I kept telling all three children to pursue their education even if theatre is a passion.
Shernaz: Aha, I did have a one-line role right at the end of Lagan Khel, the only Parsi play I was pulled on stage for. The scene had a reluctant bride’s father knocking on her room door. I had to say, “Papa, aveh hoon taiyar chhev (Father, I’m ready).” It was a bit role, with me standing in for someone a few nights. Quite a kick to be paid pocket money for this.
Which qualities of your parents have you made yours, as actor and producer (with Rage)?
Shernaz: As an actor, obviously watching mum especially, I took in things. As producers at Rage we’ve learnt from dad and actor Hosi Vasunia. Rahul directed for dad, Rajit acted in his plays. I saw basic things: my father always paying actors their dues and never letting production quality slip, whether in an experimental or commercial play. Making sure everyone is well and comfortable because nobody’s doing this for big bucks, treating people as equals—backstage, make-up man or lead actor. In our system, we pay the same and there’s no discriminating by letting some travel by train and others by air. Dad even gave people booze, which we don’t!
Ruby: We toured Gujarat by bus with plays for a month every year.
Shernaz: It was devastating. The three of us kids would cry, draw “Come home soon” cards and throw them into their luggage as they waved goodbye.
Would you describe a funny memory about a home production?
Shernaz: It would have to be when mum got drunk during a show of My Darling Daughter.
Burjor: Normally, we gave her Coca-Cola as wine in a bottle. But it was our wedding anniversary. As producer, I thought, come on Ruby, let’s give you proper Bosca wine. Believe me, that scene was the best among all the shows we had of that play. She was natural.
Ruby: Drinking away, I didn’t realize. Bowing for the curtain call I sensed something wrong.
Shernaz: We were going to have dinner together at The Oberoi to celebrate. Not used to seeing mum this way, we helped with her sari and all. Till Papa said, I think Mummy needs to go home; you all continue with the meal.
Would you say Shernaz’s generation has access to more sophisticated technology, which reflects in production values such as set design and lighting?
Burjor: I think our sets were fabulous. Consider Cactus Flower’s three different revolving sets, executed by Gautam Joshi. Taru Maru Bakalyu in 1972 had a lift on the set come up at the touch of a button, also his handiwork.
Shernaz: Hello Inspector had a main set and a riser behind a gauze curtain to show a cop station. Watching the play you had no idea this was there. Suddenly the lights came on and you saw that space. Today people don’t give importance to sets. You have matinees and later performances, 4-hour slots per show with a maximum of 3-4 hours to set up.
How does contemporary Parsi theatre compare with the genre in its last-century heyday?
Burjor: Oh, a far cry from what it used to be, except for Silly Point Productions trying to take shows beyond just the one staged at New Year. Parsis once dominated English theatre. Our Draame-Bawaas play competition, launching in this birth centenary year of Adi Marzban, isn’t restricted to Gujarati. It’s an attempt to unearth fresh Parsi talent, be it in English or Gujarati. We hope for many entries. Parsis are performing music and dance, not theatre. Thanks to sponsorships today there’s the advantage of travelling out of town with shows. Our English plays by Adi Marzban were confined to Bombay.
Ruby: Burjor Patel Productions’ plays did go to Africa and the US with Dinyar Contractor.
Burjor: You could say Nairobi and Mombasa are almost Gujju towns.
Shernaz: Audiences everywhere want plays. Small-town India has opened up wide to theatre.
Your parents’ comeback in the ‘Laughter In The House’ ensemble cast must make you proud.
Shernaz: To get to know them again as actors at this age is amazing. Working on Laughter or viewing it, you can’t miss these old actors’ joy of performing. On stage after so long, 30-40 years for some, there’s heightened nervousness. But they still get a huge response from people having such a good time. And they’re doing this professionally, managing several costume changes, finding their mark.
Meher Marfatia is the author of Laughter In The House: 20th-Century Parsi Theatre (2011), 49/50 Books.