Over the years, Parsi theatre has staged tales through dance and drama – and its productions have had an impact on Indian cinema

Think ‘theatre’, and the first name that comes to mind is Shakespeare; think of the Indian stage and you can’t ignore Parsi nataks. For whether it is the plays of Adi Marzban or the madcap comedies of Dinyar Tirandaz, each one has entertained audiences for years. Though theatre in India can be traced back to the times of Sanskrit dramatist Kalidasa’s plays, it’s with Parsi theatre mandalis that drama developed in colonial times. The British had a great influence on the small community that adapted Shakespearean plays in India — complete with songs and dances — for the first time in the 1850s. Soon, the theatre groups started performing in Gujarati, Urdu and Hindi, and these became precursors of the masala movies that Bollywood churns out year after year.

Lights, camera, story
Many families’ Parsi New Year celebrations are incomplete without an evening of watching a natak. The stories the plays tell are often light-hearted, sometimes crazy, and most of all, entertaining — but many come with a social message too. And what more does one want from films? For the cinemagoer, having a good time is paramount and like the natak, a Bollywood production promises hours of it. Hindi films are known for their larger-than-life depictions of the world, almost unbelievable stories (everyone knows Aamir Khan can’t race trains), and their song-and-dance routines. These qualities have come from Parsi theatre, the sometimes zany stories of which are being revived in current times.

The Buckingham Secret has members of the British royal family converse in Parsi-Gujarati when not in the public eye, as they are supposedly of Parsi blood. Pappa Mane Pannavo (Dad, Please Get Me Married) has couples breaking into song and dance during a crucial dramatic scene. Mad? Yes. Entertaining? Yes. Stage artistes continue to weave stories that, more often than not, are met with applause. And you’ve probably seen something similar on the big screen.

Theatrical tales
A little Hollywood, a bit of the Indian epics, and a little folk drama — Hindi movies have a mix of influences — and Parsi theatre is a major ingredient of the recipe too. FromRaja Harishchandra that ran for over 4,000 shows to tales like Shirin Farhad and Arabian Nights, their plays were on a massive scale. These stories soon seeped into 35mm — India’s first full-length silent feature was Raja Harishchandra, and was said to be an adaptation of its theatrical namesake. Though movies in the early 1900s were silent, musical pieces, costumes, sets and even gestures were adapted from the stage.

So whether it is the music and dances or the melodramatic acting, we love our Bollywood movies for their uniqueness — and Parsi theatre could take some credit for that!

by Huzan Tata


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