"Have we met before?” Sooni Taraporevala asks me just as we settle down to lunch at Kemps Corner restaurant 36 Oak & Barley. It’s our first meeting, but as we chat, it turns out we may well have crossed paths. Taraporevala, a documentary photographer since 1977, remembers shooting little
ballerinas at Firoza Lalli’s dance class in the late 1980s. As the lone Goan girl in a class full of powder-pink Parsis, I doubtless would have stuck out, which probably accounts for why I stuck in Taraporevala’s memory.
There will be Parsis aplenty, and lots of déjà vu at Taraporevala’s first-ever show in Mumbai. Parsis, which opens this week at Chemould Prescott Road gallery, features 108 photographs, a few of which were part of her seminal 2000 book, but the majority of which have never been seen before. Taraporevala’s camera captures the Zoroastrian community over 36 years, and at times, it’s hard to tell the old from new.
Over papaya salad, falafel and cheese tartlets, Taraporevala talked about her other avatar as filmmaker (she was the screenwriter on Mira Nair’s acclaimed Salaam Bombay and The Namesake and is planning a new project with her “partner in crime”). But she also gets vocal about her involvement with WIFT, the Indian arm of the international non-profit for women in film and TV. Excerpts from the interview.
What made you wait this long to show in your home city?
Just practical things. I was more of a screenwriter than a photographer and it takes effort and money to put together a show like this, so really, it was just laziness. My book was very much a representation of the Parsi community. It was the first of its kind and I felt I could not be indulgent. It’s not to say that the photographs that made it to the book were not the best ones, but the driving force was responsibility.
The show, on the other hand, is a visual experience. The images span from 1977 to 2013. The most recent picture is of a young athlete Ayesha Billimoria at Oval Maidan. She’s hoping to be in the next Olympics and it’s very telling of the new generation – she has wonderful red hair and great style and she’s very independent. But she’s also a mad bawi and won’t mind me calling her that.
You’ve gone from black and whites to 500 images on Instagram. What’s changed in 36 years?
I take the pictures the same way I always have – I try to be invisible or it changes the dynamic of the photograph. And for me, a great picture is when everything comes together: the form, the content, the moment. You cannot predict it and, with film at least, you don’t know you’ve got it until much later. As a documentary photographer, I don’t plan my shoots, but there are instances when you realise “Oh, I’m so glad I got this”. I got a lot of access to places like the Towers of Silence [the site where Parsis place their dead] that I wouldn’t get now. So I’m happy to have got the pictures when I did, before people became paranoid about cameras.
Has Mumbai changed as well?
For me it is a different city now, but only in terms of the increased traffic. In those days we’d complain about how many cars there were on the street when there were just Ambassadors and Fiats. Traffic is a much more defining feature now. The people however are still the same. I used to wonder if there would still be old Parsis that looked like that in the future. But every generation seems to adopt the same kind of look when they get old. It’s strange, I see people today that look exactly like the old people I photographed in the ’80s.
Lots of things stay the same in the Parsi community – people stay the same, houses stay the same. On one hand we’ve have adapted very well to India. On the other hand, we’re so resistant to any kind of change – like Parsi women and their children not being accepted if they marry non-Parsis – even as the community is dwindling.
Do you worry for the future of your people?
I do. I really do. They’re taking a stand now and I hope that there will be a difference.
Dates to watch
March 4 - April 4: Catch Parsis at Chemould Prescott Road.
March 8: Taraporevala holds a walkthough of her show for members of WIFT. So if you’re a female filmmaker, you’d best join up now.
March 16: Taraporevala and Mira Nair re-release their 1988 masterpiece Salaam Bombay! in a new digital format with PVR Cinemas. Screenings will be in aid of the Salaam Baalak Trust, which provides shelter to street kids.
From HT Brunch, March 3
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