Laughter in the House! 20th Century Theatre

Piroj Wadia

Adi with Rustom Marzban & (right) Adi as a young man
Adi with Rustom Marzban & (right) Adi as a young man
(Photo Courtesy: Scheherazade & Rohinton Mody)

'Nothing in the world was ever more joyful than Parsi Theatre in Bombay 50 years ago.... Parsi Theatre had a language and dynamic worth more than all Adi Bawa's flamboyant lines.... What a time it was!' - MF Hussain.

No one could have summed up Parsi Theatre and Adi Marzban better than the legendary painter, who spent his early days in Pila House in the Grant Road area. For those of us who grew up between the 1950s and the 1970s, it was mandatory to go see a natak (play) every Jameshdji Navroze, Navroze and Khordad Sal - and not just any natak. An Adi Marzban play or variety revue was standard fare for those festive evenings. We invariably went for the variety revue. Dhong Songh, Hasaa Haas.... as these variety revues were called, showcased a medley of gags, skits, musical interludes; and post interval would feature a short play or excerpts from a longer play. The most memorable being the Parsi Qawali.

Riotous laughter rocked the auditorium as soon as Jimmy Pocha, with a Chaplin moustache stormed down the aisle, sometimes on a cycle! He would wear a slightly battered pagri (headgear), tacky dagla (coat), khaki pants, red socks with brown canvas shoes, and carry a Rexene bag in hand. His job was to interrupt proceedings, banter with Marzban, who stood at one side of the stage to compere the evening and target his humoured barbs (adlib) at a patron in the front row not sparing even his own wife Uma and Marzban himself.

Pocha would soon be joined by Homi Tavadia and Marzban's co-producer Pesi Khandalawalla. These actors brought their own gags and mirth quake. The music interludes would be popular songs with adapted lyrics. In his own way, Adi Marzban wove current issues into skits and songs. The Sami Sisters - Indira, Uma (Pocha) and Usha (Uthup) were a standard act. Snatches of songs and memories of scenes enacted by Marzban's eclectic group of actors remain.

The full length plays boasted of A-list actors of the time. Adi Marzban had two very popular and fine actresses in Pilloo Wadia and Dinoo Nicholson - both were crowd pullers. Whilst, the latter left the stage for familial reasons; Pilloo Wadia gravitated to films, thanks to Raj Kapoor's Bobby. But she continued doing the odd play. It was a treat when, decades later Dinoo Nicholson played the wife of an aging opera singer in LEND ME A TENOR, a comedy directed by her son Bomsie.

As I leafed through Meher Marfatia's book 'Laughter in the House! 20th Century Theatre', I was struck with nostalgia, as page upon page opened a visually arresting set of stills, each chapter unfolding the history of Parsi Gujarati theatre. At the end of the book, in a pocket are handbills of a few plays and a priceless memento - a CD of snatches of gags and well remembered songs. The book spotlights Parsi theatre from 1940 to 2000, and showcases the author's meticulous research which throws up priceless nuggets of information.

The first chapter, Raising the Curtain, chronicles the birth of Parsi Gujarati theatre as we know it today. The Parsi Natak Mandali, the first Parsi theatre company, was started in 1853, by a group of students from Elphinstone College -- Dr Bhau Daji Lad, Dadabhai Naoroji and K.R. Cama. A century later another Elphinstonian was to indelibly imprint his presence on theatre in Mumbai - Adi Marzban. Such was the interest in the genre that within 16 years, 20 drama companies were formed! The plays reflected a pan Indian identity- Sanskrit plays such as RAJA HARISHCHANDRA, SHAKUNTALA, NALA DAMYANTI, etc. were adapted by Muslims like Murad Ali and were directed and enacted by Parsis. Interestingly, Sir Sorabji Pochkhanawalla, the founder of the Central Bank of India wrote plays like KHUSRAV SHIREEN.

Adi Marzban with wife Silla
Adi Marzban with wife Silla
(Photo Courtesy: Dolly & Bomi Dotiwala)

Parsi theatre's singular contribution was its eclectic confluence of genres: mythological, historical, sociological and political; and language: Gujarati, Urdu, Hindi and English. Along with run-of-the-mill matrimonial farces and English plays which were translated and performed as parodies, even Shakespeare wasn't spared. Songs were integral to the play and were not meant to be entertaining breaks, but enhanced the plot. Nationalist fervor led to plays such as RAJA HARISHCHANDRA, LAILA MAJNU, SIKANDER AUR PORUS, RAZIA SULTAN and TIPU SULTAN in Hindustani and Urdu, apart from plays in Parsi Gujarati.

Parsi women were forbidden from visiting the theatre, let alone act. Hence, European ladies with fluency in Gujarati or Urdu played the female roles. It was a woman called Munnibai, the wife of Khurshedji Baliwalla who broke the taboo. To encourage women to see plays, women only shows were promoted, with a value add-on of a creche service!

The popularity of Parsi theatre was astonishing. RAJA HARISCHANDRA played for over 4,000 shows in three decades from 1892-1922; it's most distinguished audience being none other than Queen Victoria and Edward VII. Another incredulity is that Bomanji Kabraji's tear jerker, BAAP NA SHRAAP (Father's Curse) ran for 500 nights with front row seats of Rs 4 going for Rs 22 in the black market! So widespread was the popularity of Bombay's growing enchantment with theatre that patrons from other cities were offered the facility of booking their tickets via money order.

The early twentieth century witnessed Bombay's Grant Road area mushrooming with theatres which hosted local Parsi troupes, performing original plays and the hotbed of such activity in central Bombay came to be known as Pila House (a colloquial distortion of Play House). Soon Ahmedabad, Surat and Calcutta launched their resident troupes and playwrights.

In such a fertile atmosphere emerged Adi Marzban, arguably the most talented and prolific theatre person of the 20th century. A student of Elphinstone College, he joined hands with students from St Xavier's College and formed the Co-operative Players, a banner which was to continue producing entertaining theatre even later. Adi Marzban steered Parsi theatre into its golden era, first as a student in the 1930s and later as a writer, director and producer. The 1950s and 1960s saw Parsi and Gujarati theatre move from sheer popular entertainment to plays that explored relationships, social and political issues, all with lashings of humor, sometimes risque and ribald.

With PIROJA BHAVAN in 1954, Adi Marzban turned not just Parsi Theatre but modern theatre on its head. Production design was never the same again. He used multiple revolving sets on levels, technically skillful rain and fog effects and even brought on stage goats and a horse! Where the average Parsi Gujarati natak ran for five to six shows, PIROJA BHAVAN continued for 30 shows.

Besides innovating genres, Marzban moved theatre out of Pila House and Bhangwadi into auditoriums - Bhartiya Vidya Bhavan, Tejpal, Bhulabhai Desai, Birla Matushri Sabhaghar, etc. became the hubs of theatre. These plays were patronized not just by the Parsis, but Gujaratis and other Gujarati speaking communities like the Bohras and Khojas.

All though the golden years, Parsi Theatre ran parallel to the richness of regional language theatre i.e. Hindi, Marathi, Gujarati, and Urdu, but the Parsi Gujarati capers scored an edge. Adi Marzban's A list cast members were household names even among the non-Parsi Gujarati speaking audiences. Meher Marfatia's skill for historic narrative is superlative in the chapter Encore To An Era.

Dinshah Daji and Piloo Wadia in Hasta Gher Vasta
Dinshah Daji and Piloo Wadia in Hasta Gher Vasta
(Photo Courtesy: Indian National Theatre)

One can't deny that Marzban was indeed the maestro, but it would be unfair to equate Parsi theatre only with Adi Marzban. The latter was complemented by the likes of Pheroze Antia, who wrote and acted -- he played a recurring character called Behram. Dorab Mehta and Homi Tavadia too made an invaluable contribution to the Parsi nataks as actors, but foremost as playwrights and directors. They have been given their spotlight in a comprehensive chapter titled Author, Author.

In the chapter, Legacy of Laughter, Adi Marzban's stalwarts like Ruby and Burjor Patel, Dolly and Bomi Dotiwala, Scherezade and Rohinton Mody have offered invaluable insights into working with the quintessential theatre man. All three couples were Adi Marzban's leading pairs, picked and groomed by him. Subsequent chapters profile other actors who walked the floorboards of the Parsi Gujarati Nataks. The chapter, Kings of Comedy profiles Jimmy Pocha, Dinsha Daji , Jangoo Irani and even Jean Bhownagary better known as a documentary filmmaker. Masters of the Game profiles Marzban's lead actors Pilloo Wadia, Dinoo Nicholson, Dadi Sarkari, Hilla and Nadar Nariman, amongst others. Scene Stealers features those actors whose popularity made them stars; heading the roster are Dinyar Contractor and Pervez Mehta along with Villoo Panthaky, Jerry Kumana and others. While the actors are the face of theatre, the backstage is sanctum sanctorum and that's where the chapter, Beyond Histrionics comes up with profiles of virtuosos like Sam Kerawalla, Sarosh Mody, Sarosh Bhabha, Gautam Joshi, Jeannie Naoroji, Uma Pocha, and others.

What mustn't be overlooked is the prodigious contribution of the Indian National Theatre (INT) for keeping the spirit of the Parsi Theatre alive, as we discover in the chapter, The Spirit of Freedom: INT and Parsi Theatre. The combined talents of Gujarati and Parsi Gujarati theatre resulted in some memorable hits like ASHA NIRASHA and SAGAN KE VAGHAN and they catapulted Dolly and Bomi Dotiwala to recognition in Gujarati theatre circles. The creme of Gujarati writing and artistic talent played a stellar role in this collaboration - Tarak Mehta, Arvind Thakkar, Sharad Smart, Gautam Joshi, and others gave audiences a heady experience. Gautam Joshi newly returned from the UK, startled the audiences in LAFRA SADAN with tennis balls jumping up a staircase. Soon people wouldn't blink an eyelid before travelling between Ahmedabad, Surat and Bombay for plays. The railways obliged with special trains for audiences to catch performances of INT's JAISAL TORAL. RANGILO RAJA which totaled 101 shows in a year, added another first as the players from Bombay travelled to Ahmedabad, Surat, and to other places.

Serious theatre too now had a widespread audience acceptance among the Parsis and other Gujarati speaking audiences. Tarak Mehta who adapted SOLMI JANUARY NI MADHURAATE from Ayn Rand's NIGHT OF JANUARY 16TH shares that he was initially doubtful if the Parsi Gujarati audiences would accept a serious play, as earlier Adi Marzban's and Pheroze Antia's attempts had met with critical approval, but not that of the audience. When Burjor Patel joined INT, Tarak Mehta's concerns were put to rest as his script was directed by Arvind Thakker and enacted by a handpicked cast led by Ruby and Burjor Patel and Dinyar Contractor. Today, many of the plays from those years are considered classics.

In the chapter Operation Theatre, Meher Marfatia has given due credit to the Parsi Medical Amateurs formed by Parsi doctors who each year staged a play to raise funds for the Parsi General Hospital. This initiative was pioneered by Dr Jehangir Wadia who wrote parodies of classic plays such as HAMLET and MACBETH, and also of Indian classics such as RAJA HARISHCHANDRA; he also played the lead role. This activity was revived in the late 1960s; and one saw the city's top medical practitioners letting their hair down in the audience and on stage.

Adi Marzban with wife Silla
Dolly Dotiwala, Piloo Wadia, Dadi Sarkari & Homi Tavadia in Maatidao ne Udha Paaro (Photo Courtesy: Dolly and Bomi Dotiwala)

Attempts have been made to stage the odd Adi Marzban play, but they remain futile; barring one staged soon after Adi Marzban's death with Piloo Wadia leading other Marzban stalwarts. April 17, 2012 marked the 98th birth anniversary of Adi Marzban. Stalwarts like Ruby and Burjor Patel, Dolly and Bomi Dotiwala, Scherezade and Rohinton Mody, Moti Antia amongst others paid tribute to their mentor with a laugh riot variety revue in Adi Marzban style. Like his plays, audiences are clamoring for repeat shows of LAUGHTER IN THE HOUSE: A TRIBUTE TO ADI MARZBAN.

The author has justly laid the blame of the extinction of the natak on the growing disinterest in the Gujarati language among the GenNext. She says, 'There are no new writers of any calibre, who can use the language with the dexterity and aplomb of earlier Parsi-Gujarati dramatists. Nor, with some exceptions, are there talented enough actors. The men and women whose voices you hear across the pages of Laughter In The House! were so genuinely outrageously funny that they had to simply step on to the stage and the audience went hysterical with applause in anticipation of their antics.'

Meher Marfatia's Laughter in the House! 20th-century Parsi Theatre isn't just a coffee table book; it is a well researched documentation of an era which has impacted theatre in Bombay like no other. The book is a historical depiction of the Parsi Gujarati stage from 1930 to 2000 through interviews with veterans and their families, posters of rib-tickling comedies, and a lavish spread of mirth and nostalgia evoking photographs. The CD with the original recording of legendary theatre person Adi Marzban's hit revue Hasa Hasa and tracks like Parsi Qawwali is an uproarious value-add-on.

This classic coffee table book must find shelf space in a Parsi home. Despite the profusion of black and white photographs the archival exhibits do not overshadow the miniscule number of colour photos by Sooni Taraporevala, which are well interspersed.

Meher Marfatia's book fills the lacuna of much required documentation of a theatre that was once alive and well but is now dead. The Parsi community and theatre aficionados must give her due credit for preserving, passing on and making the experience of Parsi theatre available to those who never had and will never have the good fortune to see an Adi Marzban or a classic Gujarati natak.

Laughter in the House! 20th Century Theatre, Meher Marfatia, 49/50 Books 2011, pages 285, Rs 2250. Available at: Kitab Khana and Strand Bookstall.

Forthcoming show of LAUGHTER IN THE HOUSE: A TRIBUTE TO ADI MARZBAN on Sunday, November 11 at Tata Theatre at 7 pm. Click here to find out more

Piroj Wadia is a film critic, journalist and copy consultant of long standing. She has been reviewing Hindi films for the Free Press Journal and international films for Screen. She has written extensively on television and films for Screen, Indian Express & Deccan Chronicle. Other papers she writes for are Midday, Afternoon Despatch & Courier, Jame-Jamshed Weekly. She has served on the jury for the ITA awards; and IDPA awards.

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