Film Syrup Founder, Colleen Rowe, interviewed directors, Shilpi Gulati and Divya Cowasji (currently based in India) on their documentary film project: Qissa-e Parsi: The Parsi Story. This film “is an attempt to understand a community which has always been numerically small, yet culturally and socially formidable.” Produced by: Public Service Broadcasting Trust & Ministry of External Affairs.
1. Film Syrup: What attracted you to this particular community? Do you have a specific tie to the Parsi culture?
Divya: When I first moved to Mumbai from Delhi in 2008, I felt an inexplicable sense that I was coming home. I not only belong to the Parsi community, but have been in love with the idea of being a Parsi all my life. My research on the community at TISS (Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai) during my Masters dissertation led me to a nuanced understanding of our history and an admiration for the formidable feat of holding our own as a minority community and yet influencing the world around us in nothing short of a significant manner. As the community is plagued with anxieties over its dwindling numbers, it is important to focus on all that is good and admirable, and to note that the community has always been numerically small, yet culturally and socially formidable.
2. Film Syrup: Do you think you took a subjective stance as the creator of this film or did you remain wholly objective to the content presented in it?
Shilpi: A documentary film can never be objective. The very process of a 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. Additionally, we also look 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. In such a scenario having two directors, a Parsi and a non-Parsi, therefore proved to be rather helpful.
3. Film Syrup: How is the history (between the 8th and 10th century) of the Parsis relevant to the community that lives in Gujarat, India today?
Divya: When the Parsis arrived at the shores of Gujarat between the 8th and the 10th Century (the exact time of arrival is widely disputed), they did not land here by accident or mere chance. Having previously fostered trade relations with India, they knew they would be coming to a friendly people, who would understand their plight and help them in whatever way possible. According to the Qissa-e Sanjan, which is the first written account of the Parsi arrival and settlement in India, the local King Jadhav Rana asked them for an explanation of their religion and customs. He granted their request for asylum and freedom to carry on their religious practices as they saw fit, provided they adopt the local language of Gujarati; that their women adopt the local dress or sari; and that they henceforth cease to bear arms. Having accepted these conditions, the Parsis formed a settlement at Sanjan and subsequently spread around several parts of Gujarat, incorporating local customs and ways of life that bear their mark on Parsi identity until today. It is only centuries later, with the advent of the British in India, that the Parsis ventured beyond Gujarat to cities like Bombay and Calcutta. Several still remain in the state that gave them much needed asylum all those centuries ago.
4. Film Syrup: How is Mumbai different from the areas that surround it? Why is it particularly intriguing?
Divya: In tracing the rich history and lives of the Parsis in India, one must inevitably end up in the city of Mumbai. This influential, albeit small community, has helped shape the city of Mumbai, or more appropriately erstwhile Bombay, into the metropolis it is today, and in turn the city itself has come to leave its mark on the Parsi identity, with over two-thirds of the world’s Parsi population calling this place home. One has only to walk down the streets of South Bombay to encounter the everlasting impression of the Parsis on the history and ethos of the place, be it architecturally, in the numerous statues that unassumingly dot the leafy lanes, in centres of cultural significance, in quaint Irani eateries, in schools, museums, hospitals, charities, and the endearing eccentric bawas (an affectionate colloquialism for Parsis) who run these establishments or offer their faithful patronage.
5. Film Syrup: Are you/did you film from a feminist viewpoint when reviewing the issues of inter-faith marriage? If not, what was your viewpoint?
Shilpi: 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. So far we have dedicated a section of our film examining this debate and hope to explore it more extensively in future.
Film Syrup: Do you think this culture/community will die out if their numbers continue to decrease?
Divya: It is estimated that under 70,000 Parsis remain in India today, and the threat of extinction seems to be 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 we can overcome, as have so many things in our past.
All photos that are included in this interview posting have been provided by Shilpi Gulati and Divya Cowasji.