The Parsi Story – A Learning Experience
Oorvazi Irani’s debut feature The Path of Zarathustra is a pleasant surprise especially for those who are intrigued by the changes and the differences that are constantly taking place between the two sections of this fast-dwindling community – the traditionalists and the modernists.
The Path of Zarathustra Review
A film that is focussed on the history and evolution of a particular religion and on the people who belong to it is expected to be dull and boring because it is not likely to have much entertainment value. It becomes a serious film where spiritualism that defines the underlying belief of any faith cannot have what we normally understand by the term ‘entertainment’ in the cinematic language.
In this ambience, Oorvazi Irani’s debut feature The Path of Zarathustra is a pleasant surprise especially for those who are intrigued by the changes and the differences that are constantly taking place between the two sections of this fast-dwindling community – the traditionalists and the modernists. The film opens a bit depressingly with the dying grandfather (Tom Alter) of Oorvazi (Oorvazi Irani) who hands over to her the manuscript on the entire history and myths that surround Zarathrustra, the Parsi religion and the origin and migration of the Parsis from Persia to India. He had been writing the manuscript for years and asks her to hold it in her custody till she finds the scholar who is entitled to read it and interpret it.
After the grandfather passes away, Oorvazi tugs his body and leaves it covered in the open in the beautiful little town where they lived. She then returns to Mumbai after many years, trying to pick up the threads from where she left off to take care of her grandfather in his ageing years.
For Oorvazi, the ‘coming home’ is a blend of unease, speculation and uncertainty. Her fears are laid to rest when her aunt and Percy (Rushad Rana), her adoptive cousin who once proposed to her and she refused, warmly accepts her into their fold but her uncle does not seem pleased to see her. From this point on begins Oorvazi’s journey to seek the person who is entitled to read the manuscript. This brings her to several significant characters. The director Oorvazi has vested two of her characters with two different faces, one the ancient one and the other the contemporary person she meets. One actor (Darius Shroff) portrays the two characters of an intellectual and Mazdak, while another actor (Firdausi Jusawalla) plays a beggar and Mani. Mazdak is a Zoroastrian Priest representing Mazdakism, which demanded a social revolution. Mani is the one who founded the religion of Manichaeism propounding a dualistic cosmology. While this seems confusing to begin with, it is partly rationalized by the director’s need to root her film in contemporary India and also to make the protagonist’s interaction untainted by feelings of being intimidated. But these dualities are confusing for the lay viewer who is ignorant about the roots of this faith.
The sub-plot reveals her renewed interest in Percy who she understands can become her life partner in days to come because he understands and empathises with her need to get to the bottom of what the manuscript contains. The love is as quiet and low-key and subtle as the rest of the film is which is so slow that it gives the viewer enough space to ponder and reflect. The most remarkable feature of the film is the debate between the two schools of the Parsi community that is divided between the traditionalists and the liberals. While the traditionalists still strongly adhere to the practice of not allowing mixed marriages between Parsis and non-Parsis, the modernists feel that the windows should be opened wider to allow such marriages to happen.
The modernists are perhaps right in view of the fact that as the film underscores, as per the 1991 Census of India, the number of Parsis in India has dwindled down to 69,601 of which around 40,000 are in Mumbai alone. The total population of Parsis in India was 1,40,000 in 1941. So, the liberals believe that mixed marriages particularly between Parsi men and non-Parsi women would at least stop the threat of extinction. Another feature of this debate is that while the traditionalists believe that the surrender of the dead to vultures in the Towers of Silence across the country should remain, the liberals are completely against this view. They opine that the situation and the climate have changed and the practice of keeping bodies for prey for vultures should discontinue. According to the film, the debate goes on without any harmonious solution in sight.
The director has taken great pains to situate her film in locations that lend themselves not only to the visual quality of the film but also jells into the soft, gentle and peaceful content. The opening scenes ending with the death of the grandfather was shot at an ashram in Vasai near Mumbai owned by a Parsi who goes there from time to time to meditate and study religious texts pertaining to the Parsi faith. Some shots of Oorvazi and Percy are shot against the backdrop of the sea, capturing the rise and fall of the waves kissing the blue of the skies as the two figures stand out in relief and converse.
The indoor locations too, have been chosen with great care such as the bench outside the Fire Temple where the Beggar comes all the time to sit and read so he does not know whose body it is inside, the place of the meetings, Oorvazi’s meeting with the intellectual in a cosy tea shop, the interiors of her aunt’s spacious apartment decorated with ancient sofas and knick-knacks familiar in any Parsi home enhanced and enriched by rich cinematography with magic lighting by Subhadeep Dey make the film a watchable one.
Tushar Ghogale’s editing keeps pace with the slow and silent rhythm of the film, moving from the outdoors to indoors without jerks or hits while Pooja Shetty’s art direction captures the beauty of the locations without dominating the characters of the drama at any point. The music direction and composition by Vasudha Sharma is entirely mood-based and restrained.
The frosting on the cake however, comes from the performances of the actors led by Tom Alter as the grandfather held in death throes – wanting to die yet looking forward to a better future for Oorvazi who has spent a major part of her youth taking care of him. The others, drawn from Parsi actors from the stage and the screen and non-Parsi actors have done extremely well by internalizing the characters they have fleshed out with Shishir Sharma outdoing himself in a brief cameo. Oorvazi is good as the protagonist in a maiden performance.
The three things that make a dent in this otherwise good film are –
(a) the dual identities given to two characters,
(b) too much of pontificating on the finer points of the history and origins of the Parsi faith that is lost on the audience after a point of time and
(c) Oorvazi Irani taking on the role of the protagonist and also naming the character after her real name.
This is extremely confusing for one thing because one feels one is watching an autobiographical feature which the film is most certainly not. The other reason is that her character, protagonist or not, gets so much footage in the entire film that the incidents, events and other characters tend to get marginalised in effect. One comes out of the film with the feeling that perhaps, it would have served the film’s purpose better had she chosen another actor to play the lead.
The Path of Zarathustra however is a film that deserves place in the archives of Indian cinema as no similar film on the Parsi faith has been achieved ever before.
More to read
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