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Tuesday, January 18, 2022

Salaam Sooni!


Filmmaker and screenwriter Sooni Taraporewala’s photographs, on show at NGMA in New Delhi, showcases the myriad faces of the dwindling and barely visible Parsi community
KS NARAYANAN | Issue Dated: October 6, 2013, New Delhi
Tags : Sooni Taraporewala | National Gallery of Modern Art | Parsi community | Oscar | Mississippi Masala |

Sooni Taraporewala is now showcasing no less than 125 photographs from her immense collection titled Through a Lens by a Mirror at the National Gallery of Modern Art in the Capital. The exhibition has attracted the who’s who of Delhi and commoners alike – all keen to know about the Parsis.

In a moving introduction to her exhibit, Sooni says, “Whenever I hear the catchphrase, ‘Hindu, Muslim, Sikh, Isai,’ I want to shout out, ‘What about Parsis?’ I often think we are India’s best-kept secret. Outside Maharashtra and Gujarat, very few people seem to know about our existence. It didn’t strike me while growing up in Bombay - a Parsi bastion - but only after a classmate from Delhi in Harvard once asked me, ‘Aren’t Parsis some sort of Christians?’”


Today there are less than 65,000 Parsis in India. Sooni is right in her assessment that her community is minuscule and anonymous too.

Dwindling numbers of the Parsi community has agitated many. Reflecting on  this, Sooni says by 2020 India will have achieved the dubious distinction of the most populated country on earth with 1200 million people and Parsis will number 23000 - 0.0002 per cent of the population.


No wonder to reverse the declining trend of Parsi population Ministry of Minority Affairs launched  Jiyo parsi scheme  on 23 September this year.   The four year scheme involves free infertility treatment for eligible members of the community.

According to the scheme, for which Rs 10 crore has been sanctioned under the 12th FiveYear Plan, Parsi organisations will also be roped in to reach out to the community on the need to marry, refrain from family planning etc. No income bar has been set for availing of the free infertility treatment, and couples who already have a child will also be eligible.

Well aware of the Parsis’ lesser known presence, Sooni has been photo documenting the community for very long. How does she view the large collection of her work on the community? “Photographs are a remembrance, a celebration and an elegy to the diminishing Parsi community,” she notes.

For Sooni, 56, the award-winning screenwriter of Salaam Bombay fame, who pursued the Parsi community for over three decades to capture them in frames, it was a journey close to “her own roots” and “expansion of her cultural vocabulary”.

Salaam Bombay was nominated for an Oscar, won more than twenty-five awards worldwide, and earned Sooni the Lillian Gish Award from Women in Film in 1988.

Her second screenplay, Mississippi Masala, also for Mira Nair, was made into a film starring Denzel Washington for which Taraporevala won the Osella award for Best Screenplay at the Venice Film Festival, 1990.

“For me, photography has always been a form of magic. Photographs freeze time and survive death. My grandmother died, so did my grandfather and granduncle and a host of aunts and uncles who took with them an entire world. But not before I had captured them on celluloid. Their photographs still give me some measure of, perhaps, childish comfort,” Taraporevala added.

It was in 1982, during a break from college, that she met ace photographer Raghubir Singh, who after looking at her work, which included photographs of her extended Parsi family, suggested she work on a book on Parsi community. This in turn started her extensive work of photo documentation of the Parsi community. Her photographs have been exhibited in India, the US, France and Britain, including London’s Tate Modern gallery.

Parsis, who were refugees during the medieval period from Persia, owned half Bombay by 1800 and were even renting out their magnificent houses to the British. They excelled and continue to excel in every realm of life, be it education, business, science, art, philanthropy or India’s popular sport and favourite pastime-cricket.

Sooni, who wrote Jabbar Patel’s National Award-winning biopic on Ambedkar and recently penned and directed a Parsi-themed movie Little Zizou, explores the myriad perspectives of her own family and the community, well known for their “progressive outlook and contribution to society”.

No wonder with a measure of pride, Sooni has put up pictures of ‘Parsi achievers and their contributions in nation building.’ So there is a shot of the Gateway of India through Ratan Tata’s Taj Mahal hotel and Zubin Mehta’s Grand Marshal at the India Day parade.

Evocatively labelled ‘Gone but not forgotten,’ a section lists pictures of Field Marshal Sam Manekshaw, Chairman of Atomic Energy Commission Dr Homi Sethna, constitutional lawyer Nani Palkhiwala, artist Jehangir Sabavala, India’s women photographer Homi Vyarawala, Business tycoon J R D Tata, cricketers Polly Umrigar, Nari Contractor and various others.   

Taraporevala’s photographs are a vivid window into Parsi life in all its vibrancy and diversity. Equally she has photographed people as they go about their daily lives, successfully narrating emotions of her subjects as they make conversation, attend family functions, at home or in the streets of Mumbai, a city which is considered a Parsi bastion.

Also Parsi festivals and traditions also figure in Sooni’s exhibition with the community celebrating Navjot, a father helping his son tie the pugdi, a Fareshta ceremony in progress as well as the last journey – to the towers of silence.
Other images on display include a Parsi gentleman identifiable by his red velvet topi) offering prayers at Marine Drive, three elderly Parsis out for an evening drive and a 1985 image of “a Parsi and Nepali in a BEST bus, rubbing shoulders in cosmopolitan Bombay”.

However, most of the photographs are portraits of her own family and people she knew well. Take for instance the opening picture of the exhibition is that of grandmother lets out a carefree laugh covering her face with her hand at the same time. This picture is quite heart-warming. If one contrasts this picture with one of Homi Vyarawala, the latter fails to move the viewer. It is just a picture.

Her grandfather stoops to speak to a shopkeeper at a stationery store making for a remarkable photograph. There are pictures of her extended family – children frolicking at home and in public space.

The exhibits also include an impressive cross-section of Parsis across decades with a changing Bombay in the background. There is the iconic picture of the busy Godrej Typewriter Factory. An aged Parsi couple crosses the Princess Street with beautiful Persepolis pillars behind them and naughty young with Mickey Mouse T-shirts is equally delightful.

Highlighting the dynamism of photography as a significant facet of fine arts Prof Rajeev Lochan, Director National Gallery of Modern Art summed up the work of Sooni’s work. “Her works beautifully narrate the vivacity of the Parsi Community in all its glory.”

No doubt as one walk through the NGMA gallery and observe Sooni’s work, a realisation dawns on how these photographs are an absolute visual treat replete with human emotions of laughter, mirth, anguish, concern, all accentuating the warmth of relations of the subject toward one another. On the hand Sooni has effortlessly captured the true emotions of her Parsi subjects and photographs give us insights into the subtle nuances of the lives of this much shielded community.

Commenting on Sooni’s collection, India’s celebrated photographer Ragu Rai observed: “Sooni’s work is reflective of documentary photography since she has done documentaries and films. Salaam Bombay was almost like a documentary. If you look at the sequence of the photographs together you can almost see a documentary in photographs. But the energy and expression she carries is so special that it warms up your heart. Though it’s her own community, it touches everyone’s heart”. Salaam Sooni! 

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Issue Dated: Feb 5, 2017