Tribute To Burjor & Ruby Patel

Meherzad Patel

The surname Patel is synonymous in the Gujarati market with diamonds. Funnily enough, one such Patel found himself with a Ruby instead. He wasn't Gujarati, he was a prim and proper Parsee, and the Ruby he found was the name of his wife. His name - Burjor Patel.

One wouldn't blame you for mistaking him for a Gujarati, given that he spent a major portion of his professional career being involved with the INT - Indian National Theatre - where he put together numerous plays in Gujarati, for a community much larger than the dwindling Parsees. He'd cracked that code early on. While both communities spoke the same language, the Parsees were but a drop in the vast ocean of a Gujju community that thronged the auditoriums hundred fold. What could be 10 or 20 shows for a Parsee audience, became 200 to 500 shows for the Gujju community. Burjor, and his wife Ruby, did this so effortlessly, that nobody was affected by the fact that just a while ago, he was acting alongside Adi Marzban and his troupe.

Decades later when the Patels returned from a successful stint in the Middle East, where Burjor ran Khaleej Times, he sat down with me, at the NCPA, and shared a few tricks of the trade with me. Something you value and cherish. He said, 'You've got great content, but don't restrict it just to our community, expand your script to appeal to the Non-Parsee audiences who understand our language.' That's sound advice from the person who had nothing to gain from us.

Mind you, by this time, Burjor was an octogenarian, sitting with me, a vegetarian, in his late twenties, blissfully unaware of the politics that comes along with the stage.

We were around six years into the business, he was around six decades into it ... and - returning to it nonetheless. He spoke about hitting rock bottom, and then coming back with a super hit show called BOTTOMS UP. We spoke about my plays and how I need to improve them and not once did he show a streak of anger, irritation, or anything associated with us Parsees - the usual eccentricities, the whimsical moods, the swearing punctuation ... nothing. Burjor was a diplomat returning from Dubai, drinking his tea at the holy grail of performing arts - NCPA. 'No', he corrected me, 'don't think of NCPA as a Holy Grail, expand your horizon, perform at other venues, don't get stuck in one place.' I still love the NCPA, but there was a lot of weight in what the man said. Take into consideration a very eerie fact - that - when Burjor was in his theatrical prime, NCPA wasn't even born. Today's iconic landmark didn't even exist back then and they still had shows ... lots of them.

So unwavering was this man that I wondered, does he have a weak spot? What would provoke him? Mind you, at the table with us are the evergreen Sam Kerawala, the grand old man of Parsi Theatre, along with Danesh Irani, the current man of Parsi Theatre, and English theatre, at least for us. Both of them are vibrant personalities.

He was that diamond from Dubai who came back with his Ruby. Ruby, his wife, was someone who was still adored by every Parsee. Danesh Khambata, a partner with me at Silly Point, had a huge crush on her.

The humble pie I ate was when I saw them both perform at 80 plus, on the Tata Theatre stage, in LAUGHTER IN THE HOUSE. I was thinking, there is no way on God's good earth that they can pull this off. I was wrong. The punchlines, the dialogue delivery, the stage presence, the adulation of the audience, it motivated me to make my shows better, tighter, stronger and funnier.

The last memory I have of both of them is one where they approached me to write a sketch for just the two of them. Feels good to know I wrote their last 'script' where they performed as a couple. Vistara Airlines had just launched, which means, the Tatas, had returned to aviation after decades. The piece was that of Burjor and Ruby playing an old Parsee couple who were recording a video for Ratan Tata, complaining about how the airline was disappointing, because? - it wasn't Parsee enough. How cute they looked on stage performing the piece. They called me while rehearsing, ''Can we make a few edits?' I said, 'Go ahead, it's yours to make your own.' They brought out a cuteness to my script. Something I didn't see when I wrote it. That's something one needs to learn from that generation. Generosity, humility and an ability to balance.

Balance, that's the word that defines this power couple. Vivacious Ruby Patel and chubby Burjor Patel. That's how the grandparents of today remember them. I know them as grandparents myself.

Meher Marfatia, who wrote the LAUGHTER IN THE HOUSE book, asked me for a quote on Burjor, the day he passed away, and I mentioned, he's that grandfather giving you theatrical advice on how to be a better producer. She clarified - 'Do you mean grandfather or godfather?' i chuckled and then replied - 'It could go either way.'

You see, Burjor, for me, wasn't an actor, he was a producer. To have that much power at 80 plus, is something one only aspires towards.

Funnily enough, during the lockdown, I didn't even get a chance to meet Burjor or Ruby, yet somehow managed to work with their children. First with Shernaz Patel, where we collaborated on a project filming a reading online, and just last month, met their son, Marzban for the first time, in his Mumbai office. I'd like to believe that's the young Ruby and Burjor Patel.

When I glance through the LAUGHTER IN THE HOUSE, book, I see photographs of young Ruby, and it is a carbon copy of Shernaz.

Feels nice to share the same surname with them. Even though we're not related, it is nice to still be connected with them through our work.

That moment when they finished their performance of my script, is probably the last time I saw them together, and that's a happy memory to sign off on.

As Burjor the producer said - no matter what happens... the show must go on...

*Meherzad Patel is a playwright, director, actor and co-founder of SillyPoint Productions.

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