HT Brunch Cover Story: Some good-natured bawi banter!
“Such a bawa he looks like!” says celebrity stylist Anaita Shroff Adajania, with a chuckle, scrolling down the Instagram handle of “an artist” that she’s discreetly showing photographer and screenwriter-turned-director Sooni Taraporevala on her phone. The ladies have rollers in their hair and are lounging in the broad balcony of Anaita’s breezy sea-view apartment in Mumbai’s Breach Candy.
As we set up the photography equipment in one of the gigantic rooms and aromas of Russian Pattice and Dar Ni Pori (organised by HT Brunch for this shoot to set the mood to pleasantly Parsi) mingle with the sea breeze, I notice a life size photo of a lanky dude standing with his back tao an iconic Mumbai BEST bus. Anaita tells me this is the “mystic piano tuner, Mr Ratnagar” who Sooni shot and gave filmmaker Homi Adajania, Anaita’s husband.
Padma Shri-awardee Sooni Taraporevala, 63, was born and raised in Mumbai where she lives with her husband and two kids. Sooni began her career as a freelance still photographer in Mumbai after completing her masters in film theory and criticism in New York University and then wrote the screenplays for filmmaker Mira Nair’s movies, starting with the Oscar-nominated Salaam Bombay (1988) that won her the Lillian Gish Award from Women in Film, 1988, and continuing to Mississippi Masala (1991) and The Namesake (2006). In 2008, Sooni made her directorial debut with Little Zizou (2008), which bagged the National Award for Best Film on Family Values apart from many other international awards. Besides, photos from her book Parsis: The Zoroastrians of India; A Photographic Journey have been displayed at galleries and museums around the world and her latest outing is a movie called Yeh Ballet on Netflix.
Anaita Shroff Adajania has carved a niche for herself as one of the most credible voices in Indian fashion today. She became a stylist to the stars, designing costumes for movies like Cocktail (2012), Dhoom 1 (2002), Dhoom 2 (2006), Dhoom 3 (2013), Everybody Says I’m Fine! (2001), Love Aaj Kal (2009), Finding Fanny (2014), Andhadhun (2018) and War (2019). She was Vogue India’s fashion director and now runs a styling company of her own called Style Cell with four to five stylists under her, who style Bollywood’s bigwigs. Anaita’s married to the director of Being Cyrus (2005), Cocktail (2012) and Finding Fanny (2014), Homi Adajania.
At the shoot, Sooni looks lush in a burnt brick red suit. “I’ve never worn anything like this before! I’m mostly in skirts and jeans and tops,” she says. “My only connect to Bollywood is through Homi!”
Anaita adds, “Sooni’s husband is our dentist, the ‘world famous’ Firdaus Bativala in South Bombay, and she and Homi are very close. And we live with a pic of her’s of the piano tuner that she’s clicked so she’s very much a part of our lives!”
As the camera rolls, Anaita art directs Sooni, while Sooni discusses angles with photographer Prabhat Shetty.
“I’m a very sloppy dresser. My biggest takeaway from this shoot is that I should dress better and get her help while shopping!” laughs Sooni, looking affectionately at Anaita who is styling her for the first time. Then the fashion director of Vogue confesses that she too is a sloppy dresser. “For this shoot I felt we could up the style for both of us,” says Anaita.
Behind the scenes
Both Sooni and Anaita faced personal and professional challenges in their careers. Anaita, for instance, created a career that didn’t exist. “The challenge was not having anyone’s path to follow, but that made it exciting. I carved my own niche and created an industry and today every second person is a stylist or wants to be one!” Anaita says.
Anaita’s other challenge is geographical. “I’m a South Bombay girl, whereas the entire film industry is concentrated in the north of the city. So I have my suburb-ian days when I try to wrap up all I can. Today too I have to go to Bandra and I’m already thinking how long it’ll take!”
For Sooni, it’s strange to be living in India while working for people in America. “The challenge was writing scripts for which I was paid quite well but that never got made – that was frustrating. And then of course there is the challenge of making films in India that don’t have stars!” says Sooni. Her second directorial outing, Yeh Ballet on Netflix, shows how two boys from an underprivileged background overcome all obstacles and dance the elitist ballet.
“Kids start ballet at age four or six, but these boys started very late and they had not heard classical music till they started. The film showcases how talent can be found anywhere. You just have to spot it and nurture it,” she says.
Sooni grew up surrounded by working women. Her mother was a teacher while her granny made bags and embroidered saris at home and her aunt had a tailoring business. “There was never anything unusual about being a working mom, but my biggest fear was the dilemma of being responsible for your job when your kids fall sick,” says Sooni, mother of Iyanah, 22, and Jahan, 24.
Anaita is not the kind of person who cannot work, she says. She also feels that it is crucial for her sons Zane, 7, and Zreh, 11, to see a working mother and father. “We don’t have a conventional family life in the sense that my husband doesn’t have a day job,” she explains. “He works very hard for a year and chills out for two years. We have a kind of rule that when I’m travelling, he is free-ish. But the fear, like Sooni said, is always of your child falling sick.”
Sooni and Anaita share a very strong cultural connect – their Parsi roots. “We come from a tradition where I never felt, like a lot of my classmates did, that I had grown up unequal to boys, and that’s a very valuable thing. Parsi women were the first to become lawyers and educators,” Sooni says.
A good sense of humour is an integral part of the culture, the ladies agree. In fact, Sooni has compiled a book of crowd-sourced Parsi jokes called Parsi Bol.
“We don’t take offence easily. We are happy to be laughed at and to laugh at people. Parsis are very free with their thoughts and expressions!” says Anaita.
This is a cultural trait Sooni would like to pass on to her kids. Oh, and the food too! “Also, I grew up near a fire temple and I’ve been going there since I was a kid and taking my kids too,” says Sooni.
While Anaita has never really examined her Parsi upbringing, she knows it was liberal. There weren’t many rules except for always being kind to people, being a good person yourself and having a good time. “I feel a very strong camaraderie with people in my community. I love their quirks and I can spot them a mile away!” Anaita laughs. “For me it’s about the way they dress. If you go to a Parsi colony, you will see women dressed in frocks with deep necks. It’s almost like the more grown up they are, the more little girl they dress and I love that. There’s also a brazenness to the way Parsi women dress. At a Parsi wedding you’ll see the tiniest of blouses worn regardless of age, shape and size, which is quite liberating. For me sleeves are a burden because I’ve grown up never wearing them!” Anaita giggles. She was never offended by being called a bawi in school and college, Anaita says, to which Sooni adds: “Usually it’s preceded by crazy!” and they break into laughter.
Now they discuss food, an integral part of the culture. “It’s a superior cuisine which has been untapped,” says Anaita. “I grew up in a middle class family where Parsi food was the mainstay and I miss it terribly. Homi doesn’t like it, so only Zane and I eat it.”
She adds: “We ate all the regular stuff: dhansak, palau dal, patra ni macchi, prawn patia, and we consider English baked dishes as Parsi!” Anaita winks at Sooni who says, “And custard, which we call ‘custar’ without the d and our vegetarian dishes are always with meat. We have bhindi with meat!”
Sooni eats pretty much the food she’d grown up eating, because her cook was taught by her granny. But since the cook is Goan, they also eat a lot of Goan fish curries with rice!
“We have an amazing dish called rainbow rice – it has layers of cooked rice: prawn that’s green, keema that’s red, saffron that’s yellow, etc.,” says Anaita. “It takes a whole day to make and you serve it in glass bowl to show the layers. It’s decadent. You have to sleep after you eat it.”
“We also have bheja cutlet and kahriya – that’s paya the bawa way. The gravy is thicker and we do it with black eyed peas,” Sooni adds. Now she notices her make-up as she looks at her phone. “I am not taking this make-up off,” Sooni says. “I have to show it to my dad and Firdaus.”
Follow @lubnasalim1234 on Twitter
From HT Brunch, March 29, 2020
Follow us on twitter.com/HTBrunch
Connect with us on facebook.com/hindustantimesbrunch