Interview: Shilpi Gulati and Divya Cowasji

A stay in Mumbai wouldn’t be complete without bumping into an eccentric Parsi. An integral part of the city, they also have and are still playing a huge role in making Mumbai what it is today. An endearing group of mavericks, the Parsis are one of the few communities who can take jokes made on their expense quite well. Their only concern is, however, heir dwindling numbers, thanks to inter-faith marriages among the members of the community. Qissa-e-Parsi, a 30-minute documentary by Divya Cowasji and Shilpi Gulati, captures all this and much more. It explores the history of the community, portrays its true spirit and dwells over the many threats they face. From tracking their journey from Iran to India, explaining the importance of their religious figure Fravishi and discussing the flavours that go into their akuris (scrambled eggs), Qissa-e-Parsi is a brief, yet comprehensive introduction to the community. Including the voices of famous Parsis like Sooni Taraporewala and Cyrus Broacha, the documentary, which is co-produced by the Public Service Broadcasting Trust, premiered at the Open Frame Film Festival last month. THE WEEK caught up with the filmmakers Divya Cowasji and Shilpi Gulati, who spoke about the challenges they faced while making the film, their plans for it and how being women shape their vision as filmmakers.

A still from the film
A still from the film

Excerpts:

How did the idea of Qissa-e-Parsi come about?

Divya: Ever since I first moved to Mumbai in 2008, the abstract love affair I had had with the idea of being a Parsi all my life, took on a more obsessed and concerned form. It is during our Masters at TISS (Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai) that Shilpi and I decided that both our dissertations – hers on the Derawal community which came from Dera Ismail Khan, Pakistan, and mine on the Parsis, titled, ‘The Parsi community and the politics of gendered exclusion: Implications for the 21st century’ – would translate well into documentary films. That is how our partnership and foray into the world of documentary filmmaking began. While looking for funding to make a film on issues concerning gender within the Parsi community, we came upon an opportunity for a more generic look at the Parsis. As the community today is plagued with anxieties over its dwindling numbers, we thought it important and necessary to document all that is good and admirable, and to note that the community has always been numerically small, yet culturally and socially formidable. We decided that our first film on this remarkable community would be an overarching one, covering their history, their lives, contributions, issues, and most importantly their ethos. And that is how ‘Qissa-e Parsi: The Parsi Story’ came about.

Do you think the mix of one Parsi and a non-Parsi ensured the objectivity the documentary warranted?

Shilpi: A documentary film can never be objective. The very process of documentary production, which involves research, scripting and editing, makes it a subjective process for there is always an argument that the filmmakers are trying to construct for the audiences. The narrative flow of Qissa-e Parsi historically locates the Parsi community in India, delves into basic ideals of the Zoroastrian faith and tries to understand their relationship with the British and with the city of Mumbai. It also looks at contemporary debates gripping the community, especially regarding issues of women and inter-faith marriages. We have made these choices keeping in mind that this is the first film in our larger project of documenting the community. At every critical juncture of the production process both of us made sure that we brought in our respective subject positions into our work. This was true of our previous film ‘Dere tun Dilli’ which was based on the community that I came from. Similarly for this project, having two directors, a Parsi and a non-Parsi, proved to be helpful.

Divya Cowasji and Shilpi Gulati
Divya Cowasji and Shilpi Gulati

One of the biggest challenges faced while shooting the film was to get entry into religious spaces of worship. Since the access to most Agiaries (Fire Temples) is restricted to Parsis and Iranis only, we had to make sure that we had at least two crew members who were Parsis. We also had to go through the process of taking permission from several Parsi Trusts and high priests of the community for this project. But the problem was not just with taking permissions. We were more worried about the ethics of entering someone’s religious place of worship with a camera which is rarely allowed inside. Therefore, we decided to restrict our shoot to only certain areas within the outer boundaries of the fire temple and tried our best to be as unobtrusive as possible.

What were the challenges you faced while making Qissa-e-Parsi?

Shilpi: It was a big challenge to negotiate the content of the film with officials at the Ministry of External Affairs. We knew from the beginning that working with the government would have its own set of constraints. It was evident through our interactions that they had a clear agenda while commissioning a film on the smallest ethnic community in India and had a clear target audience in mind. These elements brought in their own share of demands and also some turbulence to the process. Divya: Qissa-e Parsi was commissioned as a half hour film. It was definitely challenging to pack over 10 centuries of history and contemporary issues into thirty minutes without making it seem like one was being bombarded with information.

A still from the film
A still from the film

Were you apprehensive that your documentary would be the basis on which at least a small group of youngsters would build an image of the community with?

Divya: A documentary is often looked at as an all encompassing account or depiction of the truth. However, since a filmmaker will always bring his or her subjectivity to a film, all it can really be is a version of the truth, a part of reality – not necessarily all of it. We see Qissa-e Parsi as a first step in a much larger project of documenting the community. With each subsequent film we hope to add to and complicate the idea of this reality. As far as the responsibility that a generation to come might build their image of the Parsi community based on our work goes, I think it may be a bit presumptuous to believe that that would be the case. The community is widely documented, albeit not though the audio-visual format, and one cannot negate the role of oral histories and stories that are passed through generations and keep history a real living breathing thing. Furthermore, what audiences take away from the film is also largely dependent on the audience themselves. Some may be discerning enough to read between the lines and understand that what is being spoken out isn’t necessarily what’s being said, while others may take things at face value. So a filmmaker can never fully anticipate how their work will be received. Once you have put it out there, it takes on a reality entirely of its own. That is exciting and scary in equal measure.

How does being women shape your visions as filmmakers?

Divya: Being a woman affects everything we do, the way we see the world and the way the world sees us, so our films are bound to be made through a gendered lens. The community today is faced with the stark reality of its dwindling numbers and the near and very real possibility of extinction. This has given rise to anxieties over issues of conversion, intermarriage, and purity of race; the burden of which seems to be falling increasingly on the Parsi woman. In what seems a strange confluence of religion, race, law and custom, the Parsis have constructed for themselves an extremely exclusive identity, where any form of plurality appears non-negotiable. According to us the implications of justifying the discrimination faced by women in the 21st century on the grounds that something has been a certain way for centuries and should therefore unabashedly continue to be so, will prove to be extremely detrimental for the community. We see this as a concern not just for the Parsis but for women in other Indian communities as well.

Shilpi: Since the beginning of this project, we have been clear about our position that Parsi women who marry outside the community under the Special Marriage Act of 1954 and are practicing Zoroastrians should not be barred from the faith or the community. This is closely, and very politically, related to the issue of women’s rights within the community. In the past, we have seen cases where women who marry out are not allowed to even attend their parents’ funerals or are barred from their places of worship. As women filmmakers we cannot help but interrogate such unfair practices. In fact it is a pressing concern not just for the Parsis but for many other communities in India who propagate the idea of marrying within one’s faith or caste.

A still from the film
A still from the film

After having researched about the community, do you think that the threat of extinction is a real possibility? Divya: It is estimated that under 70,000 Parsis remain in India today, and the threat of extinction seems a very real possibility for the community. However, it is worth noting that the worldwide Parsi population, at its peak, has never exceeded 1,50,000. We have always been a numerically small people, capable of great things. The situation today is however accelerated by increasing incidences of inter-marriage, late marriage, not marrying at all, decline in fertility and rampant emigration, to name a few. But I believe that if the community puts their heads together, and allows the panic to bring us closer together instead of tearing us further apart, this too can be overcome, as have so many things in our past.

What are the things both of you learned and had to unlearn about the Parsis while making this film?

Shilpi: My understanding of the community has largely been informed by a close personal and professional relationship with Divya in the last six years where I learnt to identify and reject the various stereotypes projected by mainstream films based on the Parsis. Working on Qissa-e Parsi, in particular, was a great learning experience as it made me aware of the problems associated with representing a community which is almost romanticized in India. In fact it pushed me to re-look at the Parsis through a more critical historical lens where it became important to understand why the community enjoys its current status and reputation in Indian society and why certain orthodox voices continue to fight over issues of inter-faith marriage.

Divya: When I first moved to Mumbai from Delhi in 2008, I felt an inexplicable sense that I was coming home. I plunged into community life with a vengeance. My research on the community started at this point, and there have been several learnings and unlearnings since then. While I was warmed by the glow of belonging that I felt here, I soon had to shed my rose tinted glasses and take heed of the great angst that was taking hold of the community. I realised that the worlds conception of Parsis being an extremely peaceful people as they have maintained perfect relations with all other communities in India, was somewhat misguided. It became more and more apparent that we seem to get our fill by fighting amongst ourselves – a trait the community quite seem to enjoy in all honesty! Mumbai has strengthened my love for the Parsi community, but has also made me concerned and critical about it in equal measure, for which, I am thankful.

What are your future plans for the film? Screenings etc?

We have been trying to take our film to as many locations in India as possible. So far we have covered Delhi, Mumbai, Mhow and Baroda and have lined up Kolkatta, Pune, Ludhiana and Patna in the coming months. On the international platform Qissa-e Parsi has most recently been selected for the 9th Seattle South Asian Film Festival, and we are looking for funding to be able to schedule screenings in London, New York and Toronto.

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