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Documenting India's Parsi Community: An Interview with Sooni Taraporevala

Sooni Taraporevala is an acclaimed photographer whose first book, Parsis: The Zoroastrians of India-- A Photographic Journey, documents Bombay’s small but vibrant Zoroastrian community. Taraporevala first came to the U.S. as an undergraduate student at Harvard University and later received an M.A. from New York University in Film Theory and Criticism. Best known as the screenplay writer for the films Salaam Bombay!, Mississippi Masala, and My Own Country, Taraporevala is the recipient of both the Lillian Gish Award from Women in Film and the Osella Award for Best Screenplay at the Venice Film Festival. Throughout this illustrious film career, photography remained an important outlet for Taraporevala, who turned her obsession with family photographs into a twenty-year odyssey to chronicle Bombay's Parsi community. The resulting ethnographic portrait is Parsis: The Zoroastrians of India-- A Photographic Journey.

Followers of the ancient Zoroastrian religion, Parsis migrated to India from what is now Iran over a millennium ago. Based on the teachings of the sage Zarathustra, Zoroastrianism asserts that Ahura Mazda is the one God, and advocates a three-fold path of good thoughts, good words and good deeds. While small Zoroastrian communities are scattered throughout Central Asia, Bombay’s Parsi community is the largest practicing group of Zoroastrians in the world today, numbering 76,000. As one of India’s smallest but most influential minorities, the Parsi community has spawned several prominent artists and entrepreneurs, including the authors Bapsi Sidhwa and Rohinton Mistry, businessman Ratan Tata, conductor Zubin Mehta, and the late rock star Freddie Mercury.

Asia Society spoke with Sooni Taraporevala while she was in New York promoting the book.

 

From what I understand, your book is self-published and almost sold-out. Do you have plans to reprint the book or look for a publisher?

I would like to reprint, but it is uncertain right now. I wouldn’t mind finding another publisher because it was a lot of work to self-publish. It’s also very expensive to self-publish, and I don’t know if I can get together the funds again so soon after the first run. But I must say it surprised even me that it sold out in four months. It was a very large print run. I am both pleased and a bit sad because I only have 60 copies left and once those are gone there are none left unless I reprint.

Why did you decide to self-publish? Did you have a hard time selling the book to publishers?

I did try to find publishers but I was told it was too "niche" a market. After a while, I got fed up and I just wanted to publish it. It suddenly became possible when I met someone who was the CEO of Hong Kong Bank in India who bought the first 200 copies and I managed to sell in advance half of my print run to various corporations that give the books out as gifts. That made it all very possible. And now with computers you don’t really need a publisher like you did in the old days when you needed an art department to design the book. Now you can do it on a computer if you have a designer. I have an excellent designer so essentially it was a two-person job.

The book contains rare photos of Parsi worship. Given restrictions against outsiders viewing Parsi rituals, did you encounter any opposition to taking or publishing the photos as an insider?

Not really, a lot of these pictures were taken in the 1980’s and at that time I really didn’t encounter any opposition. I don’t know if it would be different now. A couple of times when I went into the fire temple, Parsis would look at me hesitantly and say this is only for Parsis. But I would answer them in Gujarati and they would be very embarrassed. One thing I couldn’t photograph in the fire temple is the actual fire, so there are no pictures of it. But I had no problem photographing the ceremonies in the other places.

What role does fear of extinction play in driving you to document the Parsi community?

It plays a large role. I would say that’s my primary motivation. Before this, there was no photography book on Parsis. This project didn’t start as that. It started as a very personal thing where I was documenting my family, particularly the older generation. But I’ve also felt that photographs survive death. They are a perfect way to remember. So it started as a personal project that grew into a larger project to remember the entire community.

Switching gears, I would like to talk a little about your screenwriting career. Mississippi Masala received some criticism from members of the Indian American community, some of whom said the film portrayed Indians as racists and in a negative light. How do you respond to this criticism?

Mississippi Masala was a very honest portrayal. We didn’t make up anything to sensationalize it. Most Indians, if they are honest with themselves, will agree that we are one of the most color-conscious communities in the world. There are still matrimonial advertisements in newspapers in India that advertise fair husbands and fair wives. It’s color and it’s caste. I recently wrote a script on Dr. Ambedkar who was the leader of what were then called the Untouchables, now they’re called Dalits. I was deeply immersed in the problem of caste in India. It’s very easy to come to the U.S. and look down on other communities. It’s a perception that some Indians don’t like, but I think it’s the truth. When I wrote Dr. Ambedkar I realized that while we were fighting for independence against the British, we were simultaneously oppressing the lower castes in our own country. But if anyone said that, it was taken the same way Mississippi Masala was taken. It was thought to shame the community. I think it’s a form of hypocrisy we have to deal with. We have to look at ourselves before we point any fingers at other people.

Among South Asians there’s a common stereotype that Parsis are educated, wealthy and elite, and all prospered under British rule in India. How do you feel about this characterization and what images of Parsis do you hope your book will put forth?

I didn’t set out with an agenda to show diversity in the Parsi community, but I did want the book to be as comprehensive as possible. Living in Bombay I know that it is a diverse community. The stereotype exists but it doesn't represent everybody.

You’re currently working on a script for Taj Mahal, India’s first IMAX movie. Can you tell us a little bit about this project?

It’s a very exciting project and it’s going to look great. I just finished writing it. It’s a one hour script and it’s basically the story behind why the Taj Mahal was built. It’s a love story but set in the context of that time. There’s a lot of action, a lot of spectacle, a lot of big scenes. It’s true to history. There was more than enough drama in the truth. But I did have to invent dialogue between the characters because that’s not documented. The situations and the chronology are very true to history.

Well I look forward to seeing it.

Interview conducted by Michelle Caswell, Asia Soceity.