In 2010, Divya Cowasji and Shilpi Gulati, then students at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS), Mumbai, conceived two ideas that sprouted from the same seed. Both wanted to do something to bring attention to their often-neglected communities — Parsis
During their Masters in cultural studies in media, Cowasji and Gulati decided to work together, and turn their respective dissertation topics into documentary films. The first one, Der Tun Dilli, released in 2013, revolves around narratives and oral histories of Dera Ismail Khan in Pakistan where the Derawals hail from. The second film, whose trailer is being shared widely on social media, is Qissa-e Parsi: The Parsi Story, which will premiere at the Open Frame Film Festival at India International Centre, Delhi, on August 30.
Qissa-e Parsi focuses on the community from their arrival in India to understanding the relationship they shared with the British and the city of Mumbai. “While the community is troubled about inter-faith marriages, we took an overarching theme, and focus on the good the Parsis have done for society and country,” says Cowasji.
It helped that Public Service Broadcasting Trust (PSBT), the co-producers, were looking for a similar film to showcase to a foreign audience. “We wanted a film that celebrates the diversity of India. This worked, because it is about a small community that has come from a different background and not only thrived in India, but has also managed to retain their cultural identity,” says Rajiv Merhotra, Managing Trustee and Commissioning Editor, PSBT.
The film, for the most part, adopts a traditional style of documentary filmmaking. It encapsulates the history of the community, interspersed with interviews, images and texts. It shows their eccentricities, love for good food, philanthropy, and sharp business acumen.
Considering the constraints of a State-commissioned film, the filmmakers were careful of not making it information-heavy and dry. “We decided to make the narrative more evocative and experiential, allowing the audience to get to know the Parsis almost through a first-hand experience,” says Delhi-based Gulati. It comes across in the film’s moody photography that intimately captures the domestic interiors of Parsi homes, colonies, and famous Irani cafes. We also see visuals of sacred religious spaces normally kept guarded from people outside the community.
In its limited scope, the film does address the inter-faith marriage issue, but the filmmakers see this documentary as a starting point to explore more complex subjects in their future projects about Parsis. Parsi theatre is one of them. They are especially keen on the idea of women in the community, the subjugation of their rights in what Cowasji deems a patriarchal society. Besides raising critical questions, the filmmakers intend to offer perspectives like how the inclusion of excommunicated Parsi women can solve the community’s most current crisis: its dwindling numbers that presently stand at around 75,000.