Zoroastrianism in the limelight

Published November 6, 2009

Taraporevala, 52, grew up surrounded by Parsis in Bombay - as she still calls her hometown - where Parsi families from the shipbuilding Wadias to the giant industrialist Tatas have helped grow India's economic capital. —AFP/File Photo

PARIS Men in PLO T-shirts march through noisy, chaotic streets; their leader, all in white, stands before the wrought iron gate of a Zoroastrian fire temple urging followers to pledge purity and denounce outsiders.

Welcome to the fictitious world of the Parsi Liberation Organisation led by a buffoon character in a zany movie that looks at India's Parsis - both their excesses and endearments - as a minuscule minority of some 70,000 in a country of more than one billion people.

Veteran screenwriter-turned-director Sooni Taraporevala has put the spotlight on the Parsis, an ethnic-religious group whose name derives from their Persian origins, in a film and in a book of photography because, for starters, she's one of them.

'When you're a Parsi you're just used to nobody knowing who you are - and always having to explain yourself,' she said before a screening of her film at the Quai Branly museum in Paris, where her Parsi photographs also are part of an international exhibition.

'I think I got tired of that and I just wanted people to know who Parsis were,' added Taraporevala, whose screen writing credits include such hits as 'Mississippi Masala', 'The Namesake' and 'Salaam Bombay!'

The Parsis arrived in India more than a 1,000 years ago, fleeing the Arab invasion of Persia to preserve their religion, Zoroastrianism. Today Taraporevala says they still seem to be living at once in many centuries, 'from our religious rituals which are so many thousands of years old to being so modern and at the same time being so conservative and exclusive.'

This 'amalgam of contradictions' in the Parsi community is what she tackles in her comedy 'Little Zizou', narrated by a Parsi boy in contemporary Mumbai, who is mad about soccer and French football star Zinedine 'Zizou' Zidane.

The boy is also the younger son of a Parsi fundamentalist leader who is pitted against his arch rival, a reformist newspaper editor.

'In my film there are two warring families, one is a fundamentalist lunatic and one is a reforming journalist, a very particular subject but it also can be seen universally. That's the battle being fought in the world today; in every religion you find the same thing,' says Taraporevala.

But rather than take a heavy-handed approach to extremism, she said she chose to treat the Parsi ultra-conservatives in an exaggerated, mocking way in a light-hearted comedy.

India's Parsis, mainly living in Mumbai, have been known down the centuries for maintaining their ethnic identity, marrying among themselves, and keeping to their ancient religion based on the teachings of one of the oldest monotheistic prophets, Zarathustra.

Even as their numbers dwindle, some Parsis still insist on exclusivity, making outcasts of those who take a non-Parsi spouse.

These 'ridiculous policies' in Taraporevala's view include religious membership, 'that if a Parsi woman marries a non-Parsi their kids cannot be Zoroastrians,' but she adds that other movements are now forming to make the religion more inclusive.

'Fundamentalist Parsis want to make laws that nobody can be Zoroastrian, but I think Zarathustra was a universal prophet, I don't think we can lay such exclusive claims to him.'

Taraporevala, 52, grew up surrounded by Parsis in Bombay - as she still calls her hometown - where Parsi families from the shipbuilding Wadias to the giant industrialist Tatas have helped grow India's economic capital, right back from British colonial times.

And many a Parsi home, like those in her film, have on the wall a photograph of a favourite son - world-renowned symphony conductor Zubin Mehta.

Parsis with other musical tastes can point to Freddie Mercury of Queen.

After studying film at Harvard and New York University and spending 20 years adapting other people's work for the screen, she said she sat down and wrote 'Little Zizou' in 10 days, her first spec script and her directorial debut.

'I think that when you make your first film sometimes you choose a subject that is very personal and close to you,' she said of the movie, which has won awards at Indian film fests in Los Angeles and New York and the Asian-Pacific First Film festival in Singapore.

The film was also well-received by the Parsis back home, she says, adding that 'those Parsis who didn't like it, just didn't say anything.'

Her happy-ending comedy lets the forces of tolerance and tender-heartedness win the day in the Parsi community, although the fundamentalist charlatan goes on to prosper with new followers on a cruise ship gig.

The film production does not stray far from the fold - most of the cast are Parsis and the leading child roles are played by brother and sister Jahan and Iyanah Bativala, who are literally family.

'They're my kids,' Taraporevala says with a big grin and laughs. 'But I promised my husband (a Parsi dentist) only one film until they grow up.' —AFP

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