Laughter in the House: 20th Century Parsi Theatre

Have you ever laughed so hard in a play that tears rolled down your cheeks and your stomach hurt so much that you wanted the actors to stop, if just for a few seconds, so that you could recover? It happened to me when my parents took me to see Behram Ni Sasu.

Now along comes the delightful new addition to Parsi literature: “Laughter in the House: 20th-Century Parsi Theatre”, that will bring those childhood memories back to life. Written by Meher Marfatia, the book is gorgeously illustrated by the famous award-winning Sooni Taraporevala. This “unabashed journey of joy dedicated to the community that knows how to laugh at itself” will delight you.

The author, Meher Marfatia, is former assistant editor of The Illustrated Weekly of Indiaand is now a free-lance writer who also writes a column for the Jam-e-Jamshed newspaper. Long in the making, this volume allows her to blend both her passions: reporting on the performing arts, as well as the culture of the Zoroastrian community.

Right in the beginning, the book sets the stage beautifully with a spread of advertisements used for the different plays, followed by several full-page photographs of various scenes from the plays with the names of the performers, the name of the play, and the year in which it was shown.

The book is neatly divided into vignettes of playwrights and directors, male and female comedians like Ruby Patel and Dinyar Contractor, supporting artistes who designed the sets and provided the music that brought these plays to life.

The interesting history of serious Parsi theatre is traced from 1850 till the turning point production of Adi Marzban’s Piroja Bhavan in 1954 which started the production of social comedies handling universal themes like love and marriage.

In perhaps the most fascinating chapters of the book, the author paints portraits of four of the most heralded writers of the era — Adi Marzban, Pheroze Antia, Dorab Mehta, and Homi Tavadia. Amazingly versatile, broadly educated, and steeped in Western arts and culture, these authors were gifted with a natural sense of humor. But they were strict disciplinarians, and demanded nothing short of perfection from their cast and crew. Padma Shri Adi Marzban, for example, who was a prolific writer, producer, director, actor, radio personality and newspaper editor, had studied theatre arts in Pasadena, California, and was incredibly well-read with sweeping interests. Credited with close to 100 Parsi Gujarati plays and author of close to 5,000 radio scripts, the genius had some eccentricities of his own, He slept in a stiff, straight line on one narrow side of the bed; the rest of the space was entirely devoted to books laid out in piles across the mattress. Playwright Dorab Mehta wrote 300 plays and authored the award-winning weekly column Jamaas ni Jiloo in Jam-e-Jamshed for 54 years! But Adi Marzban looms large over everything and everybody else in the book, just like he did in real life.

The Parsi Gujarati Theatre’s role as a vital strand of the Indian National Theatre is often not recognized. In fact, the Parsi wing of INT produced many memorable plays like Tirangi Tehmul and Taru Maru Bakalyu with an ensemble of Parsi and Gujarati actors and directors working together and delighting mixed audiences.

To complete the chronicle of the Parsi Theatre in the 20th century, the book devotes a few pages to the fledgling efforts in Calcutta and Surat to keep the Parsi theatre going, as well as those outside of India — in Australia, America and Canada. But these efforts have been sporadic and have not been able to consistently bring back the golden age of 60s and 70s.

Mumbai was the fountainhead of “koyla naataks”, but there were home-grown troupers from Ahmedabad to Hyderabad. A little corny, a little slapstick, and often bordering on the absurd and outrageous, the naataks nevertheless provided fun and laughter in more innocent times. The very names that the plays were given set the expectations for slapstick humor: Mua Luchaao, Kataryu Gap, Gustadji Ghore Charya, Pakar Maru Puchhru, Tirangi Tehmul, Taru Maru Bakalyu, Hamlet no Omelette.

Unfortunately, from the heydays of the 60s and 70s to the 1990s, the Parsi theatre has been on a steady downhill dip with lazy plots and worn-out themes. Poor audience attendance, desertion of the Gujarati language by younger members of our community, and inferior productions have almost extinguished the Parsi theatre as we knew it before. The brilliant way the scripts were written, directed and acted is nowhere to be found. There are no comedians like Jimmy Pocha, who would be greeted by deafening whistles and whoops when they made their entry on the stage. There are no performers like the ones of yesteryear who had to wait for minutes before the thunderous applause would die down and they could utter a single line. John Steinbeck said: “Theatre is the only institution in the world which has been dying for four thousand years and never succumbed”. Will this hold good for the Parsi theatre, or will we just regretfully resign ourselves to accepting that the age of the Parsi nataak has passed, never to return?

Laughter in the House makes for a great coffee table book that you will want to pick up again and again to lift your spirits. It is an over-sized book (9-1/2” by 12”), printed on glossy paper with excellent photographs that will bring a smile to your face every time you see them. The book comes with an audio CD of 4 original soundtracks, including the 1960 revue Hasa Has, Adi Marzban’s Parsi Qawwali, and songs by Dinshaw Daji.

The theatre, of course, is its people. What the book succeeds in doing so well is bringing back to life those incredibly talented writers and performers, their memories, their struggles, and their successes. They brought a touching simplicity to a generation that derived pleasure from simple things.

Meher Marfatia set out to write a book “that presents the best and brightest theatrics from a forgotten era”. In that she has succeeded brilliantly. This is not a book that you sit down and read from cover to cover in one sitting. It is a narration in words and pictures that you pick up from time to time and enjoy in little doses. It is awareness, fun, and nostalgia all wrapped up in an attractive package. Milton Berle once said: “Laughter is an instant vacation”. Take a vacation with Laughter in the House. You’ll be glad you did.

Reviewed by Jangoo Mistry

Publisher: 49/50 Books
Year of Publication: 2011
Number of pages: 285
Cost: Rs. 2,500

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